Groups seek to help veteran held as motel hostage for years

AP News
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Posted: Jul 25, 2016 10:00 PM
Groups seek to help veteran held as motel hostage for years

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Veterans' organizations have reached out to help a Korean War-era veteran who authorities say was held hostage in a motel room for four years by a man who stole his benefit checks.

Groups in New York, Ohio and Virginia have offered assistance to David McLellan, an 81-year-old Navy veteran and retired auto plant worker, said Highlands police Detective Joseph Cornetta.

Last week, police arrested 43-year-old Perry Coniglio at the motel where both men lived and charged him with grand larceny, menacing and endangering the welfare of an incompetent person.

Coniglio used "brute force and intimidation" to get McLellan to hand over monthly Ford Motor Co. pension and Social Security checks totaling several thousand dollars, police said. He also is accused of selling McLellan's vehicle and keeping the proceeds after telling the buyers that he was the older man's guardian.

Coniglio remained in the county jail on $15,000 bail Monday. Messages seeking comment on the accusations against him were left for his Legal Aid Society attorney.

Police said the thefts began soon after McLellan, who has no known relatives, moved out of his condemned house in nearby Fort Montgomery in 2012 and rented a room at the U.S. Academy Motel in Highlands, about 50 miles north of New York City. McLellan was already showing signs of dementia when he moved, the detective said, and Coniglio "immediately sized up the victim" upon renting a room next door to him.

When police raided the $200-a-week motel on July 19, they asked McLellan how long he had been living there. His response: "About four days."

"He said that to me over and over again," Cornetta said.

The detective said the initial investigation began earlier this month as a financial crimes probe after someone tipped him off that McLellan's monthly benefits checks were being stolen. When someone provided video showing the older man being threatened by a stick-wielding Coniglio outside his room, officers working out of the town police station located next door to the motel arrested him, Cornetta said.

McClellan's room was dirty and cluttered, and he likely hadn't bathed in months when police arrested Coniglio, Cornetta said. Initial reports said McLellan was a Marine Corps veteran, but Cornetta said he served in the Navy as a corpsman, or medic, in the early 1950s. As a corpsman McLellan would have served with Marine units.

McLellan remained hospitalized Monday and is now under the care of Orange County Veterans Services, Cornetta said. Veterans groups wishing to help McLellan are being referred to the agency.

A county spokesman said state law prevents him from commenting on what services McLellan is receiving. But he said typical services in such circumstances could include food, shelter and counseling.

Former Marine Augustino von Hassell of New York City said he was seeking to help McLellan and hopes eventually "to find him a place where he can live in dignity."

"All I'm trying to do is help a fellow veteran any way I can," von Hassel said.