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Rensselaer Falls man pleads guilty to vehicular manslaughter in December hit-and-run death

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CANTON — A Rensselaer Falls man pleaded guilty in St. Lawrence County Court in the December hit-and-run death of a Canton restaurant owner in a deal that satisfied multiple charges against him.

Daniel W. Lester, 28, of 8 Heuvelton St., waived his right to have his case brought before a grand jury and pleaded guilty Thursday to Superior Court information charging him with felony first-degree vehicular manslaughter in the death of Richard F. Morrow, 68, of Ellis Road, Canton.

The guilty plea comes as part of a deal with St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain. Mr. Lester faces four to 12 years in prison.

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, St. Lawrence County 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.

At about 10:40 p.m. 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.

In a press release following Mr. Lester’s plea, Ms. Rain said investigations revealed that he was impaired by the use of the muscle relaxant carisoprodol (Soma) and the anxiolytic meprobamate (an anti-anxiety drug that carries multiple brand names) when he struck Mr. Morrow.

Mr. Lester told St. Lawrence County Judge Jerome J. Richards that because he was so impaired during the incident that 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.

Following his guilty plea, Mr. Lester tested positive for buprenorphine and naloxone (Suboxone), a drug used to alleviate heroin withdrawal, in a drug test by probation officials.

“Mr. Morrow’s tragic death was the direct result of driving while impaired by drugs, and therefore avoidable,” Ms. Rain said in a news release. “This office sought a plea to the highest count with a sentence of 12 years in state prison, nearing the maximum. I am pleased that Judge Richards agreed to impose the sentence.”

Mr. Morrow was well known in the community and was a St. Lawrence University graduate, former mathematics teacher at Norwood-Norfolk Central School, activist, Unitarian Universalist Church member, night auditor at the Best Western University Inn and owner of The Meadows restaurant.

Mr. Morrow’s ex-wife, Diane C. Colbert, said the plea brought some closure in Mr. Morrow’s death.

“I think it takes time,” Ms. Colbert said. “I think it is a gradual process. I think losing Dick Morrow was a great loss to a lot of people, and a lot of them were here to show their support.”

Sitting across from Ms. Colbert, Bruce Lester watched as his son admitted causing Mr. Morrow’s death.

“I told the family that my heart is with them through this,” the elder Mr. Lester said following his son’s guilty plea. “They have been very forgiving and have expressed their sympathies to me and my wife for what we have been going through.”

County Judge Jerome J. Richards released Mr. Lester under probation supervision as part of the plea agreement. Sentencing is scheduled for 8:15 a.m. on July 7.

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