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Lockport principal was drunk at daughter's party, officer testifies at child endangerment trial

NORTH TONAWANDA - The principal of Lockport's North Park Junior High School was drunk and showed "suicidal tendencies" at his daughter's birthday party last summer, a police officer testified Monday at the principal's child endangerment trial.

James A. Snyder "had some suicidal tendencies, made some threats," Lockport Police Officer Aaron Belling testified he was told when he was called to the party for the second time on the night of July 16.

Belling said he found Snyder on the couch "in a slumped position."

"I established that I was going to assist him getting a mental health evaluation," Belling said.

Belling said the first time he was called to the party at Snyder's Irving Street home was at about 11:30 p.m.

"I could smell an odor of alcohol on his breath. I could see the glassy eyes. Lethargic," the 16-year-veteran officer said. "He was intoxicated."

That's not illegal in a person's home, and finding no other signs of trouble, Belling left. He was called back an hour later, when he found Snyder slumped on the couch.

Niagara County Assistant District Attorney Joel M. Grundy told the six jurors during his opening statement that Snyder threw a plastic bottle at his 12-year-old daughter and yelled, "Go to hell! Go back and live with your mother!'"

Snyder also made inappropriate comments to a then-11-year-old girl during the party, Grundy said. Snyder picked the girl up by her hips, placed her on his lap and brushed her long hair, Grundy said.

"She will explain how the defendant was kissing at her back and calling her sexy," Grundy said.

Defense attorney Michele G. Bergevin told the jury the whole matter has been "completely blown out of proportion by a group of 12-year-olds."

Snyder is "a father of another 12-year-old girl with long hair, who brushes her hair every day, who sought to help (the girl)," Bergevin said in her opening statement. "There's nothing sinister about it, nothing sexual about it."

The mother of the girl whose hair Snyder allegedly brushed had commented at a soccer game, where the girl played with Snyder's daughter, that her daughter's hair was a mess, Bergevin told the jury.

Two 12-year-old girls took the stand Monday, and both said the long-haired girl had been swimming at the party but did not shower, and her hair was "all snarly." One of the witnesses said Snyder was brushing it, while the other girl said she saw Snyder stroking the hair, not using a brush.

The two girls said they saw Snyder throw a plastic water bottle at his daughter, but it missed. One said the bottle was full; the other said it was empty. Both said they heard Snyder say "Go live with your mother," but neither said anything about him saying "Go to hell."

Grundy told the jury that Snyder was seen drinking at the party.

One of the girls who testified said she saw Snyder fall down chasing his dog, which was "running crazy," and he spilled a plastic cup he was carrying. The witness said she picked up the cup later and it smelled of beer.

Bergevin requested a mistrial because of the officer's disclosure of Snyder's mental health evaluation.

"There was no need to bring that into court. It was an attempt to prejudice Mr. Snyder," she said.

North Tonawanda City Judge Shawn P. Nickerson denied the motion, noting that he had ordered the testimony about the evaluation stricken from the record.

During questioning by Bergevin, Belling testified that other reasons besides alcohol could have caused Snyder's symptoms, including, as the lawyer put it, "medication (Snyder) was taking."

Snyder, 45, faces two misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a child, one each pertaining to his daughter and the long-haired girl. Each count carries a maximum one-year jail term if he is found guilty.

Snyder, a divorced father who shares custody of his children with his ex-wife, was placed on administrative leave by the Lockport City School District after he was charged in August.

Both City of Lockport judges recused themselves from the case because their wives work in the Lockport school system, so the trial, which continues Tuesday, was moved to North Tonawanda.

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