MASSENA - State police investigators from Troop B spent four days last week combing through property owned by a Massena businessman on state Route 37C and his downtown computer store searching for clues that could explain the death of his wife.
State police have been tightlipped about their investigation beyond the standard line of all unexpected deaths are suspicious until proved otherwise.
But that silence from official sources hasn't been mirrored by James A. Farbotnik, 56, of 355 state Route 37C, the victim's husband.
Mr. Farbotnik spent last week talking about the family's activities in the hours before his wife's disappearance late Sunday night or early Monday morning, seeking to get word to his children when they were in foster care that he was okay and speculating on the possible causes of her death.
The state police issued a press release on the afternoon of May 30 saying only that they had responded to a 911 call at approximately 1:10 a.m. that morning to a report that Mr. Farbotnik had found his wife, Vinira Z., unresponsive in their family pond at their hobby farm near the intersection of state Route 37 and the Rooseveltown Road.
The release added Massena Rescue Squad and Helena Fire also responded to the scene and said life-saving measures were rendered but to no avail.
Troopers have refused to call the death suspicious, but the massive resources assigned to their investigation painted a difference picture as passersby saw a marked state police unit parked in front of Cyberworld on Main Street in Massena for most of the week and scores of investigators reviewing evidence at the Farbotnik's Route 37C property.
Mr. Farbotnik has said police removed several items from his property, including 10 laptops, seven computer towers and 23 hard drives. They also drained the pond, where his wife's body was found.
The only official clue suggesting Mr. Farbotnik might be a suspect in his wife's death came last Tuesday when the Department of Social Services filed a child neglect petition alleging the physical, mental or emotional condition of Mr. Farbotnik's five children had been impaired or was in danger of being impaired as a result of Mr. Farbotnik allegedly committing an act of a serious nature, stating he was a suspect and a person of interest in the investigation of his wife's death.
His five children had been placed in foster care several hours after their mother's death.
The document said the information included in the petition was based on a suspected child abuse report, interviews with the children and conversations with state police.
The petition noted Mrs. Farbotnik was found dead under suspicious circumstances on the property where the family home is located.
"(Mr. Farbotnik) directed the search toward a pond on the property, where the body was found, despite the fact that the children's mother did not like the pond and would never go near it," the petition stated.
But Mr. Farbotnik regained custody of his children after a brief hearing Wednesday afternoon in St. Lawrence County when Department of Social Services attorneys were unable to convince the court that the children were at imminent risk if they remained with their father.
He suggested that ruling was proof that he wasn't a suspect in the case - another fact state police were unwilling to confirm of deny with the addendum that they had never publicly identified a suspect or person of interest as part of their investigation into Mrs. Farbotnik's death.
St. Lawrence County Coroner James M. Sienkiewycz did not issue a cause of death for Mrs. Farbotnik following an autopsy Tuesday afternoon at Massena Memorial Hospital. He noted the investigation was continuing and awaiting results of toxicology tests, but he did confirm there were no signs of physical trauma on the victim.
It has been a rare case where the narrative of the death investigation has been written largely by the victim's spouse, not by the authorities.
Mr. Farbotnik has a long history talking to reporters about his various clashes with authority figures, whether it be his criticism of Massena Central school officials for their handling of the discovery of asbestos in school buildings and the illegal disposal of asbestos-contaminated materials, a controversy that came before the Massena Town Board when he complained about a neighbor spreading liquid manure on property bordering his own, disputes with his neighbors and clashes with the state police stemming from a traffic stop when he had his son on his tractor.
And when he was battling with public officials over those issues he was often accompanied by his children - suggesting he was providing them with a civics lesson. It has led his oldest child, an eighth grader, to believe she might be interested in a career in journalism.
His critics paint him as a man who sees conspiracies where none exist; he would argue that he simply is willing to speak out against what he views as a corrupt system, a policy that he suggests left him with many enemies, perhaps even one that is responsible for his wife's death.
His first battle came when local officials rejected his proposal to put a sign advertising free computers for kids on his building shortly after he arrived in Massena. He responded by painting the borders of his downtown building lime green.
"We have the weakest and most pathetic government I have ever seen," he said last week, noting he has focused his efforts on cleaning up that corruption during his time in Massena.
He also has a long history of complaints made to state and village police since he moved to his farm in the early part of the last decade. A few weeks ago he filed a complaint that a horse on his property had been mutilated, and he has reported that several of his animals have died under what he considers to be mysterious circumstances.
But when he talks about his interaction with the state police the conversation always returns to a summer day two years ago when he drove his tractor to his store. A short time after his son bought a cool treat he ended up being charged with a misdemeanor.
Massena-based state police charged Mr. Farbotnik in August 2009 with endangering the welfare of a child after he allegedly allowed his 12-year-old son to cling to the left fender of a moving tractor.
Mr. Farbotnik was also charged with third-degree aggravated unlicensed operation, an unregistered motor vehicle, operating without insurance, failure to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of a change of address and permitting clinging to a motor vehicle. That case is still pending before Massena Town Justice Gerald P. Sharlow.
Troopers said that at about 2:15 p.m. Aug. 4, 2009 Mr. Farbotnik was operating a 2005 Kubota tractor as a motor vehicle on state Highway 37C with his 12-year-old son riding unsecured and clinging to the left fender.
Court documents say they responded that afternoon to an anonymous complaint that a child was clinging to a tractor traveling on state Route 37C.
Tpr. Brian Coakley responded to the scene, according to court documents, and observed the tractor on Route 37C near the North Raquette Road intersection. The trooper's report indicated a young, white male was sitting on the left fender and clinging to the handgrip.
The trooper said after he made the traffic stop Mr. Farbotnik said he had simply gone to the corner store to get Popsicles for his children. The trooper said Mr. Farbotnik later claimed he was headed to Tractor Supply to pick up chicken feed.
Tpr. Coakley noted he determined Mr. Farbotnik was operating the tractor as a motor vehicle, not for its exempt agricultural purpose. The court's documents indicate police determined Mr. Farbotnik's operating privileges were suspended in New York state at the time, another fact disputed by Mr. Farbotnik.
The trooper's report noted Mr. Farbotnik was brought to the state police station for booking on the endangering the welfare of a child charge, but he refused to answer any questions, including providing police with any basic biographical information. He also demanded to see the sergeant in charge.
The state police indicated they notified Child Protective Services of the arrest and filed a report of a suspended child abuse or maltreatment with the Department of Social Services.
Mr. Farbotnik has railed about that arrest and charged troopers had left his son alone on the side of the road when they took him into custody, an allegation that was disputed by state police.
He noted he knew the state police captain, Michael Girard, who led the initial hours of the state police investigation into his wife's death since he dealt with the personnel complaint Mr. Farbotnik filed against the troopers involved in charging him with endangering the welfare of a child.
The endangering the welfare of a child charge is awaiting a trial date before Justice Sharlow.
The Massena man also made unsuccessful runs for the Massena Central School Board of Education in 2008 and 2009. His wife was also a school board candidate in one of those years.
Throughout all of that history Mr. Farbotnik has always been very interested in using the media to argue his case, to tell his story.
And so while it might be highly unusual for most families experiencing a tragic loss, it wasn't shocking that Mr. Farbotnik felt comfortable last week talking to the media about the mysterious death of his wife.