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Harckham, Astorino Trade Barbs Over Parole For Killer Of Westchester Moms

A news clipping from Feb. 23 1978 Photo Credit:
The race between former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, left, and incumbent Democratic State Sen. Pete Harckham is heating up Photo Credit: File

State Sen. Peter Harckham and Republican challenger Rob Astorino traded barbs over the New York State Parole Board's recent decision to release Sam Ayala, convicted for murdering two Northern Westchester mothers in their homes in 1977 within earshot of their children. 

Harckham and Astorino are battling it out in the race for the 40th district, which includes parts of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess.

"The New York State Parole Board should resign in disgrace after voting to release from prison Samuel Ayala, a perpetrator of one of the most horrific crimes in Westchester County history," wrote Astorino said in a statement.

Found guilty of the rape and murder of Sheila Watson and Bonnie Minter while their children were within earshot at their Lewisboro home,  located in the hamlet of South Salem, in 1978, the now-68-year-old Sam Ayala was granted parole in mid-March and could be released as early as Thursday, Sept. 3.

Astorino attributed the parole board's decision to the Democratic state senate majority, which was achieved in 2018. 

“Under one-party rule, New York has become a state that takes the side of criminals over the rights of victims and law-abiding citizens and that cannot continue,” wrote Astorino, the former Westchester County Executive. “Cashless bail and other so-called criminal justice reforms are erasing years of public safety progress right before our eyes. 

"Parole decisions like this one are an abomination. Westchester weeps for Sheila Watson, Bonnie Minter, and their surviving family members today. We will never forget what they suffered at Mr. Ayala’s hand.”

Parole board members are appointed by governors, then voted on by the state senate. 

Chairwoman Tina Stanford was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013 and confirmed by the then-majority Republican State Senate. All but two of the 15 current parole board members were appointed between 2012 and 2019 by Cuomo. Republicans held a majority of the state senate since 1992, with the exception of 2008, until 2018. 

Harckham, originally from Lewisboro where the 1977 crime took place, sent a letter to Chairwoman Stanford on Wednesday, Aug. 18, urging her to reconsider Ayala's release.

"Many of the same residents, friends and family members of the victims still live in the region and are concerned not only for their welfare but the negative psychological impacts that the release of Mr. Ayala would cause," wrote Harckham. "It does not seem in the best interest of the community to grant parole to this individual. 

"Additionally, COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions on a courtroom presence for this hearing did not allow for these same family members and friends of the victims to present their concerns in person."

Jason Minter, both a son to one of the victims and a witness to her murder, also felt that COVID-19 played a role in Ayala's release.

"We can only speculate that COVID and the lack of in-person accessibility might have impacted our ability to resonate with the board as it had in previous years," wrote Minter in a Facebook post.

Harckham told Daily Voice that Astorino's accusation was unfounded.

“In a letter I sent to the chair of the New York State Parole Board, I unequivocally state that Samuel Ayala being granted parole is not in the best interest of our community," Harckham said. "Furthermore, Astorino does not care much for facts, so he avoids mention that the majority of the appointees were approved by Republicans.

"To use the memory of the victims as a convoluted attack on criminal justice reforms simply re-confirms that Astorino is not fit for elected office.” 

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