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TOWN WAS SENT LETTER ON SNOW-CLOGGED SIDEWALKS

An Amherst resident warned town officials in December that sidewalks were snow-clogged and impassable -- weeks before the Jan. 14 accident on Niagara Falls Boulevard that killed three teenagers and injured their friend -- a town spokesman has confirmed.

Nevertheless, Town Building Commissioner Thomas C. Ketchum said Wednesday he is "mystified" because he has not turned up a copy of the resident's warning letter despite two searches of town records.

Reports of the sidewalk letter surfaced last week when Joseph M. LaTona, attorney for Jeffrey W. Kramer, driver of the car that struck the teens, handed a copy to Town Justice Mark G. Farrell in court. The judge said he was "troubled" by the letter.

That sent town officials scrambling through their files, looking for the complaint.

"How did the attorney get hold of a copy of this letter when we don't have it in our file?" Ketchum said. "As far as I'm concerned, we never got the original."

Town Attorney Phillip A. Thielman also complained that the letter has no bearing on the accident case because it dealt with sidewalks in Snyder -- miles from the accident site.

"I was disappointed with this being presented," Thielman said. "It has absolutely no bearing on the potential lawsuit in this case."

Under state law, Amherst could be liable for civil damages if officials were warned in writing and did nothing to enforce an Amherst ordinance requiring property owners to shovel their walks.

But, according to Thielman, the state law requires warnings to specify the exact spot where the hazard exists.

Meanwhile, LaTona, who is drafting his final argument in Kramer's traffic court trial, declined to add to the discussion. "In view of the pending litigation, I'm not able to comment . . . more than what I said in open court," he said.

Killed in the accident were two 16-year-olds from Amherst -- Christopher J. Rogalski and his girlfriend, Amy DiNatale -- and their friend Charlene Sewar, also 16, of Lockport. A fourth youth, James McCabe, 17, of Amherst, was seriously injured.

Kramer, 26, formerly of Glenhaven Drive, is charged with three noncriminal infractions: failing to use due care, imprudent speed and illegally tinted car windows. Farrell is expected to hand down his verdict after Oct. 30.

If convicted, Kramer could be sentenced to up to 45 days in jail and fined up to $200, court officials said.

According to witnesses, Kramer's 1996 white sports car spun out of control as it traveled north on the boulevard near Hennepin Road about 9:20 p.m. The four teens were walking south in the northbound lanes because sidewalks in the area were clogged with ice and snow, McCabe told police.

Town officials, who obtained a copy of the letter from the court, say it lists 12 residential addresses near Amherst Central High School where snow-clogged sidewalks were causing "a safety issue," according to a Snyder resident. The author also claimed that she couldn't walk the area without traveling in streets, describing it as "a chronic problem that gets worse."

LaTona told Farrell that, as an "officer of the court," he was turning over the letter because town officials had responded to a subpoena by contending that they had no such complaints.

LaTona said Wednesday that he stands by what he said in court.

That prompted an angry response from town officials. "As far as I'm concerned, the subpoena was complied with. I would never deceive the court on any matter. That's not the way I operate," Ketchum said.

He confirmed that a staff member recalls receiving a phone call from the complaining resident several days before the letter was dated, but he said two searches of the files failed to turn up a copy of the woman's letter.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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