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Rensselaer Falls man sentenced to up to 15 years for hit-and-run death of Canton restaurant owner

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By W.T. ECKERT

CANTON — The Rensselaer Falls man who struck and killed a Canton restaurant owner in December was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison in St. Lawrence County Court Monday.

Daniel W. Lester, 28, of 8 Heuvelton St., originally pleaded guilty to felony first-degree vehicular manslaughter in the death of Richard F. Morrow, 68, of Ellis Road, Canton, on April 24 in a deal with District Attorney Mary E. Rain that satisfied multiple charges against him.

At 10:40 p.m. on Dec. 23, Mr. Lester was driving on County Route 27 in Canton when his Toyota Corolla struck and killed Mr. Morrow as he rode his bicycle. Mr. Lester fled the scene.

As a part of his plea deal, Mr. Lester would have faced four to 12 years in prison; however, on May 22, a warrant was issued for Mr. Lester’s arrest after he failed to abide by his presentence release agreement.

State police said he failed a drug test during a probation visit, testing positive for Suboxone.

As a result of his inability to comply with the court’s terms and conditions of his presentence release, County Judge Jerome J. Richards was not bound by his original commitment of a maximum of 12 years in prison and sentenced him to the maximum sentence of five to 15 years.

Mr. Lester originally was charged with second-degree vehicular manslaughter, second-degree vehicular assault, leaving the scene of a fatal motor vehicle accident, driving while ability impaired by drugs, driving while intoxicated with prior convictions and aggravated unlicensed operation. Mr. Lester’s attorney, Public Defender Stephen D. Button, said the plea deal also ruled out the possibility that his client would be charged with second-degree murder or first-degree assault.

Mr. Lester previously was convicted of a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge in Oswegatchie Town Court.

Investigations revealed that Mr. Lester was impaired by muscle relaxant and anti-anxiety drugs when he struck Mr. Morrow.

According to a presentence investigation, Mr. Lester was on the phone making an alleged drug deal with Thomas J. Hentz when he struck Mr. Morrow and knowingly fled the scene.

In a statement to police, Mr. Button said Mr. Hentz said Mr. Lester was in the process of “picking up or dropping off some other drugs” at the time.

“Dan suddenly said, ‘I just hit a guy on a bike. I gotta get out of here before the cops get here,’” Mr. Button quoted from Mr. Hentz’s March 13 statement.

At the time of his plea, Mr. Lester told Judge Richards that because he was so impaired during the incident, he didn’t recall it happening, yet undoubtedly he was responsible for Mr. Morrow’s death.

“I had no right to be driving and I had no right to be on the road at all,” Mr. Lester said in April.

According to Mr. Hentz’s statement, Mr. Button said “the amount and the kind of drugs Dan takes, he usually has to keep a certain level of high in order not to get sick. There’s no doubt in my mind that Dan was high when I was speaking to him on the phone.”

Mr. Button said his client was happy to resolve a 25-years-to-life sentence he would have faced if Ms. Rain had sought an indictment for second-degree murder, as was originally contemplated.

“However, in expectation of the four-to-12 sentence as part of the original plea commitment, the five to 15 was a bit of a disappointment for him,” Mr. Button said.

In addition to his prison sentence, Mr. Lester was ordered to pay $375 in court fines, fees and surcharges.

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