Deadly déjà vu

A memorial to Derek Wood. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

A memorial to Derek Wood. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

On Nov. 30, 1994, Paul DeGraff Jr., then 23, spent a Wednesday evening drinking beer, doing shots and shooting darts with his league buddies at a bar on Broadway. His girlfriend, Debra Scism, drove him home, he told police later. Around 11:30 p.m. at his residence in Boice’s Trailer Park in the Town of Ulster, there was a scuffle. Then a shot. Scism was dead with a gunshot wound behind her right ear. DeGraff spent two years of a six-year sentence following a conviction for manslaughter.

Nineteen years later on March 28, sources say, DeGraff was, as he was on that fateful night in 1994, drinking and shooting darts with his league buddies at a bar down by the Rondout Creek. Police say he got behind the wheel of 2009 black GMC Sierra pickup truck and headed for his home on Broadway in Port Ewen. At 11:25 p.m., cops say, he failed to negotiate a turn on Salem Street. This time, 18-year-old Derek J. Wood was the victim — killed by massive injuries sustained when the out-of-control truck slammed into him as he walked along the shoulder of the road.

DeGraff, a 44-year-old roofer, is in the Ulster County Jail facing vehicular manslaughter charges. Ulster County Sheriff’s Investigators are still seeking information about DeGraff’s movements on the night of the accident while family and friends of Wood are mourning the popular, athletic teen.

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Police say they are still investigating DeGraff’s activities on the night of the fatal crash. But one source familiar with the investigation said that DeGraff spent at least part of the evening playing darts at a bar in Eddyville during a league competition. From there, police believe he drove up New Salem Road and onto Salem Street in Port Ewen. Wood, meanwhile, was walking westbound, facing traffic, along the shoulder of the road. Friends say Wood, who lived with his family on Ulster Avenue in Ulster Park was going to a friend’s house to play video games. According to one police source, he was just a few houses away from his destination when he was killed.

Police say the accident occurred when DeGraff failed to negotiate a curve and struck the guardrail. Cops say the truck mounted and slid along the guardrail, slamming into Wood before hitting a tree and rolling over, trapping DeGraff inside. Emergency crews transported Wood to Kingston Hospital where he died of his injuries. DeGraff was extricated from the vehicle and taken to Kingston Hospital. He was later transported to Albany Medical Center for treatment of a neck injury. A court-ordered blood test administered a short time after the accident recorded a blood-alcohol content greater than 0.18, over twice the legal limit. Authorities have declined to release the exact results of the blood test.

DeGraff was charged with first-degree vehicular manslaughter and misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief and drunken driving. He remained under guard at Albany Medical Center undergoing treatment, until March 31 when he was returned to Ulster County, arraigned in Esopus Town Court and sent to the Ulster County Jail on $100,000 bail.

If convicted of first-degree vehicular manslaughter, DeGraff faces up to 15 years in state prison. It would be his second prison stint for manslaughter. In October 1995, DeGraff was sentenced to six years in state prison for manslaughter — he served just two — in a case with eerie similarities to his present legal entanglement.

On Nov. 30, 1994 — one month almost to the day before Derek Wood’s birth — DeGraff was playing with a dart league at the now-defunct Broadway tavern Suzie’s Fountain. DeGraff’s account of what happened next is contained in handwritten notes from an interview with police conducted two days after Scism’s death at AlbanyMedicalCenter where he was recovering from a gunshot wound through his left forearm. After drinking “beer and a couple of shots” at the bar, DeGraff claimed that Scism drove him home. After that, he told cops he remembered little, except Scism sitting on the bed threatening suicide with his Glock Model 23 .40-caliber pistol.

Paul DeGraff.

Paul DeGraff.

DeGraff told police the gun went off after he threw the weapon across the room in an attempt to get it away from her. According to police, a single gunshot pierced DeGraff’s left forearm, went through Scism’s head and a wall of the trailer.

Police told a different story — one that DeGraff later admitted was the truth — that he’d fired the gun during an “argument and physical confrontation” with his girlfriend. A grand jury indicted DeGraff on a charge second-degree murder, but District Attorney Mike Kavanagh and County Court Judge J. Michael Bruhn accepted a plea deal which allowed DeGraff to plead guilty to manslaughter. Town of Ulster Police Chief Anthony Cruise, then a patrolman, said that he recalled working on the case.

“It was a domestic dispute with alcohol involved,” said Cruise. “I don’t think it was mishandled. The reality is that I don’t think the intent was there to prove a murder charge, there was reckless indifference and intoxication.”

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