OBI — A community breathed a sigh of relief Thursday after a teenager wanted for questioning in connection with two deaths and a fire at his town of Clarksville home was picked up at sundown.
State Police Maj. Edward Kennedy, commander of Troop A, told reporters that he could not identify the names of the deceased at 8472 Courtney Road, but reported that William J. Larson Jr., 17, was detained by a patrol just before 5 p.m. without incident.
Missing for almost 17 hours, the teenager was wanted “to make sure (of) his own safety” and to answer questions to aid the investigation, Kennedy said.
Just before midnight Wednesday, West Clarksville firefighters were called to the home for a structure fire. Kennedy also said that the cause of the fire, which was contained to one room of the home and was relatively minor, is still under investigation.
At that time, firefighters met with Larson, who fled after two bodies were discovered in the Allegany County home.
K-9 units, Special Operations Response Team members, a helicopter, unmanned drone units, troopers from as far away as Batavia, Bath and Buffalo, state Department of Environmental Conservation Officers and Forest Rangers spent the daylight hours combing the forest and fields around the home, believing Larson to have left on foot despite early reports of utilizing a motor vehicle.
While a number of leads were reported and followed up on during the day, Kennedy added only one confirmed sighting was reported during the daylight hours.
A search warrant was executed by a tactical team to clear the residence, Kennedy said, as the homeowner could not give consent — resulting in few details being provided to the public as late as 11 a.m. Thursday. There were three residents of the house at the time of the fire, he added.
The property, according to Allegany County Real Property Service records, is owned by Lisa Larson. The house was constructed in 1999.
Fire investigators and Bureau of Criminal Investigations officers will likely work through the day today, Kennedy said, collecting evidence on the fire and deaths.
THE CASE RATTLED the town, with residents on edge and curious about the manhunt.
Debbie Walsh, owner of Debbie’s Little Deli in West Clarksville, said there was nothing else on the lips of customers and staff Thursday.
“It’s a hubbub — everybody’s talking about it,” she said.
All of Western New York was interested as well. Crews from four television stations set up camp at a police command center established at Obi Community Church.
Fear was a major factor, Walsh noted.
“Is everyone around here thinking twice about locking your doors? Sure,” she said.
But the bigger discussion is that of the “lookie-loos.”
“Everybody’s supposed to stay home, but the curiosity gets to them,” she said, adding the restaurant was packed for lunch. “We had everybody and their brother in here.”
“I didn’t know the family, but everybody knows everybody around here,” she added. “Everybody knows everybody else’s business.”
With Larson missing for about 15 hours at the time, and temperatures barely above freezing, “I’m sure he’s just as scared (as residents), even more so,” Walsh said, with helicopters, police dogs and officers in tactical gear with assault weapons searching for him.
That such an incident occurred, while not impossible, seems hard to understand, she added.
“To bring someone to that point at 17 — that’s still a child to me. I have a 17-year-old grandchild — I can’t imagine going through that,” she said.
“I’m not saying that excuses anything,” she added, but she wished for Larson to be brought in alive and safe.
The incident was the second involving suspicious deaths in the community in less than two years. On Jan. 31, 2017, troopers investigated the shooting death of Royce Chapman at his home on County Route 40. Two individuals — the victim’s ex-girlfriend and her son — were originally charged with murder in the case. Richard D. Mosher III pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter, while Lana M. Joseph, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served on a felony tampering with physical evidence charge.
Family members accused the district attorney’s office and troopers of poor work, leading to the plea deals.
“Oh, they’ve been talking about that, too,” Walsh said. “It doesn’t matter where you live, but when it happens in a small town it’s a bigger deal (to residents) than in Chicago or another big city.”
Most residents in the area would not answer their doors for a Times Herald reporter attempting to learn more about the Larson family during the daytime — such precautions were recommended by troopers.
One resident, however, answered the door with a double-barrel shotgun in his hands. He declined to be quoted, but said that he knew the Larson family — but had minimal contact with them and characterized the family as generally keeping to themselves.
He also expressed a desire for the search to end safely for both Larson and law enforcement officers combing the woods and fields.
A shelter in place warning was issued to the area, asking residents to stay in their homes and avoid unnecessary travel. Several businesses and nonprofits closed for the day. Hunters were also encouraged to stay home and out of the woods in the area.
The manhunt also affected operations at area schools. Superintendent Tom Simon at Portville Central School District — which includes the Courtney Hollow Road area — said the decision ”was out of an abundance of caution” and referred biographical questions about Larson to troopers. Nearby Bolivar-Richburg and Cuba-Rushford districts closed, as well. Districts as far away as Salamanca and Wellsville initialized lock-in protocols, limiting access during the school day but continuing instruction as scheduled.
Homeroom lists for the 2019-20 school year indicate that Larson was a senior at Portville High School, but it could not be confirmed if he was still enrolled at the school.
The Portville district website indicated that school would be back in session Friday. A message also stated: “Portville Central School would like to thank the Portville Central School community, our local police and fire departments, and the New York State Police for their cooperation and help during today’s tragic events.”
The message also indicated that counseling will be available for anyone seeking it.
(Contact City Editor Bob Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)