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Gov.’s clemency requests present tough choices

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A fateful meeting 24 years ago between two young women left one dead and one in prison.

Some say they’re both victims. Others think the family of the murdered woman is being victimized again.

What is undisputed is that Holly Coomber, 17 at the time, walked into a Seneca Falls Kwik Fill convenience store with her foster father, William Allen, who shot and killed Donna Guerriri, the 27-year-old clerk and mother of two young children.

Coomber, now 41, and Allen, 72, had been involved in a similar hold-up in Georgia just 18 days before that left another young women dead.

Coomber, whose life has been plagued by domestic violence, is seeking clemency from Gov. David A. Paterson who has 1,673 requests to consider before he leaves office Dec. 31.

Paterson is also receiving letters supporting and opposing Coomber’s request. One of the latter is from Sen. Michael F. Nozzolio, R-Fayette, whose district includes Seneca Falls and some areas where Guerriri’s family lives. He is adamantly opposed to granting clemency to Coomber, who is housed at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County.

She is serving 12.5 to 25 years after being convicted of first-degree robbery and first-degree assault. The term is consecutive to the 20 years she already served in a Georgia prison for that crime.

Stephanie Batcheller of the New York State Defenders Association, Coomber’s personal counsel, believes the outcome for her client would have been significantly different if her case had been fully investigated from the beginning, something she set out to do when it came to her in 1998.

“That’s when we learned about the years of abuse, mishandling of her cases that just played into what should have been a full-fledged investigation or trial,” Batcheller said. “Certainly, a more carefully negotiated plea — one that took these factors into account.”

Batcheller said Coomber, originally from Wayne County, was given up for adoption as an infant because she was ill and her parents couldn’t afford her care. She said her adoptive parents, who had lost a daughter, placed Coomber in foster care not long after Mrs. Coomber gave birth to another daughter.

“That’s when her childhood medical and school records show the beginning of psychological and emotional decline,” Batcheller said. “If we knew then what we know now, Holly probably wouldn’t have been involved with Allen.”

At 15, Coomber was placed by the Wayne County Department of Social Services into the foster care of William and Frances Allen who lived in Lyons at the time. Mrs. Allen has since died.

Batcheller said Coomber was sexually abused by Allen who divorced his wife and took the teen to Missouri. Batcheller said Allen impregnated Coomber, forced her to give the child up for adoption after physically trying to make her miscarry and then made her tell people the baby had died.

Batcheller said Allen, who was still Coomber’s foster father and legal guardian, ran out of money and took Coomber to Georgia.

“He pulled into a store,” Batcheller said. “He told her she had to go in and distract the cashier so he could go in and get money. When they did that, he told her to leave. It wasn’t until she was walking back to the car that she heard gunshots.”
Allen had killed Emily Moore.

Batcheller said he then made Coomber drive to New York where he had relatives in the Seneca County town of Romulus. Batcheller said Allen told Coomber not to tell anyone what had happened or he would kill her and his family members, which included several children.

“Holly went to a social worker and said you have to give me money or Allen will commit a crime to get money,” Batcheller said. “Then he took her in the middle of the night and they left there. She tried to pretend she was asleep, but realized he was driving around Waterloo.”

Allen and Coomber eventually pulled into the parking lot at the Kwik Fill, 2177 Routes 5 & 20, just west of the Seneca Falls village line. Batcheller said Allen pointed the gun at Coomber, whom she said always felt threatened.

“I think it was knowing that he would use the gun, that it became clear to her, and he was threatening to use the gun against her, that she had no choice and she went into the store and distracted the clerk,” Batcheller said.

Guerriri pleaded for her life to no avail. Allen shot her and left with $131.91.

Batcheller said they drove back to Georgia where Coomber convinced Allen to let her call her adoptive parents to see if they would wire them some money. She said Coomber told where she and Allen were and they were arrested the next day.

“Holly did what she could to facilitate their arrest to stop Allen,” Batcheller said. “She agreed to testify against him. She did what a child in a virtually enslaved situation could do. She was terrified for her life.”

To Nozzolio, it wasn’t enough or soon enough. He thinks instead about Guerriri, her children and how the brutal crime impacted the quiet Finger Lakes area where he grew up.

“I was serving in the Assembly,” he said, recalling the night of the murder. “It was a horrific crime that devastated the region. Each and every day when I travel Routes 5 & 20 and go past the Kwik Fill, I think of that fateful evening and how (Guerriri) was working to provide Christmas money for her children. She was trying to raise money for them to be a better Santa Claus.”

Nozzolio said another way to look at it is that Coomber got off with a light sentence. He said she should have been convicted of felony murder.

Coomber was convicted of murder and possession of a firearm in Georgia and sentenced to life in prison, but paroled after nearly 20 years and sent to New York in August 2006 to serve her consecutive sentence.

“Whatever Holly Coomber’s upbringing was, it did not give her a license to kill,” Nozzolio said. “It did not give her a license to engage in a crime spree. Whatever lack of judgment she had is no excuse for the loss of a mother, a daughter, a friend or a sister from this community.”

Nozzolio learned about the advocacy for Coomber, which he compared to a political campaign, and decided to step in and advocate for the Guerriri family.

“The family and I did not want this to go by silently with just one view of the matter,” Nozzolio said. “This is a matter that has two sides. It still hurts, particularly around the holiday time. This young woman was working the midnight shift to earn more money for her children’s Christmas. We wanted to make sure that Gov. Paterson had both sides to this story and understood that the victims should not be further victimized by the early release of Holly Coomber.”

Nozzolio said Guerriri’s mother, Mary Taft, and two of her sisters — Kathleen Passalaqua and Carol Ann Cosentino — live in Geneva, Ontario County.

Granting of clemency will not relieve Coomber of her sentence. It will make her immediately eligible for parole instead of waiting until March 2, 2018, which would be her earliest parole eligibility date.

Batcheller said Coomber, a dean’s list student, would be placed in a halfway house, get psychological treatment and continue her schooling, find a job and slowly re-enter society under the supervision of the state. Once she is released from New York, she would fall under the supervision of Georgia

Also on Coomber’s advocacy team are Catherine Cerulli, an attorney and director of the Laboratory for Interpersonal Violence and Victimization, University of Rochester School of Medicine; Christopher D. Thomas, an attorney with Nixon Peabody LLP’s Rochester office; and Suzanne E. Tomkins, director, Women, Children, and Social Justice Clinic, University at Buffalo Law School.

Batcheller sympathizes with the Guerriri family and said Coomber anguishes daily, wishing she could have done something differently.

“The person who committed these crimes isn’t going free,” Batcheller said, referring to Allen. “He’s going to be locked up for the rest of his life.”

She knows it is very difficult for the family of Guerriri, but said what they have believed happened just isn’t true.

“I can imagine that it’s very hard to be faced with the loss, the tragedy, the horrific nature of the crime and now try and learn the new facts about what happened then,” Batcheller said. “I think if Holly’s case had been properly investigated, everybody would have understood that Holly was a victim. We don’t want to drag the family back through all of this. But, at the same time, Holly’s paid for this for 24 years for the things that William did to Emily, to Donna and to her. He was just a monster. There are no words to describe how he brutalized and terrorized.”

The 72-year-old Allen, who has since changed his name to Lone Wolf Kwa-Tae T, was convicted of murder in Georgia and sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned. He was returned to New York in May 1996, is serving 37.5 years to life and currently housed at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Clinton County. Should he still be alive, Allen is eligible for a parole hearing in November 2032.