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TEACHER CHARGED IN 1996 ROBBERY

A Niagara County high school teacher stood in a federal courtroom Wednesday, accused of participating in a Niagara Falls robbery four years ago.

James Ventry, 29, a Starpoint High School social studies teacher, was arrested by federal authorities Tuesday on robbery and gun charges related to a 1996 home invasion, investigators said.

Ventry, of Jagow Road in Wheatfield, has been a Starpoint teacher since September. Government prosecutors said he was one of three masked robbers who stormed and ransacked a St. John's Parkway home, where a woman was held at gunpoint. It was unclear Wednesday whether Ventry was teaching elsewhere at the time of the robbery.

Robert J. Vitagliano, 26, of Niagara Falls, also was charged after his arrest last week in connection with the robbery.

The U.S. attorney's office would not comment on how the two emerged as suspects after four years, but court papers indicate the arrests grew out of an FBI investigation into several Niagara Falls-area residents believed to have ties to organized crime.

"This case is a spinoff from a larger, ongoing investigation," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce, who is prosecuting the case.

Starpoint Superintendent C. Douglas Whelan released only a brief statement, noting he was told of the investigation Tuesday afternoon. Starpoint officials would not comment on whether Ventry had been suspended.

"I was made aware of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. attorney's office, and we are cooperating as fully as possible to the best of our ability," Whelan said in a prepared statment. "I have been advised by counsel not to make any further statements."

Ventry's attorney, Anthony J. Lana, declined to comment outside the courtroom Wednesday.

Three men wearing ski masks tried to rob the St. John's Parkway house on the night of Aug. 1, 1996, according to court documents.

The men demanded money from the woman in the house and held a gun to her head, court papers said. The robbers ransacked the house, looking for money. They left after 45 minutes without taking anything, court papers said.

Court papers allege detailed conversations about the crime between informants and the suspects. Prosecutors also say they have statements from witnesses who implicate Ventry and Vitagliano in the crime.

In addition, court papers include alleged excerpts of secretly recorded conversations between an informant and Vitagliano about how the robbery was supposed to help cover someone's gambling debt.

Ventry appeared Wednesday before Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott. He was released after his family posted $100,000 bail.

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