Amherst shelter director out in dispute over hit-and-run case

  • Peter Sheremeta, 20, of Belchertown, is led in to Hampshire Superior Court June 16, 2017 to be arraigned as the alleged driver who struck and killed a Northampton man waiting at an Amherst bus shelter in November.

  • Rebekah Wilder, then acting executive director of Craig’s Doors, and Marcus McGrigg, a shelter volunteer, move cots into Craig’s Place shelter in Amherst in October 2014. After three years at the helm of the homeless shelter, Wilder was asked to resign recently. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 05, 2017

AMHERST — The executive director of the town’s homeless shelter is out of a job after failing to tell her board of directors that an alleged hit-and-run driver stopped by the shelter moments after he struck and killed a Northampton man last November.

Rebekah Wilder, who had led Craig’s Doors: A Home Association Inc. since 2014, said Sept. 27 that she was asked to resign by board president Jerry Gates as a result of a dispute over whether details collected at the homeless shelter about guests, and staff interactions with them, should be shared with members of the board of directors.

“When the thing came up, I didn’t feel that it was important, or relevant, to tell the board about it, because I did feel it would break our confidentiality,” Wilder said, noting that there have been other times when she kept the board in the dark about matters that occur at the Craig’s Place shelter. “I made the best decision I could based on the knowledge I had for each of those situations.”

Board member Gerry Weiss confirmed that Wilder was asked to leave the position, though the board has a policy to keep comments about personnel to a minimum.

“Rebekah resigned due to ongoing disagreements about managing the agency that she and the board have had,” Weiss said. “It seemed this was the best route forward for the agency.”

Gates could not be reached for comment.

The specific incident Wilder believes led to her ouster centers on Peter Sheremeta, 20, of Belchertown, who is being held at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction on $100,000 cash bail on charges that he caused the death of William Wanczyk, 55, of Northampton.

Wanczyk was waiting at a bus shelter in front of 141 North Pleasant St. in Amherst shortly after 9:30 p.m. Nov. 6 when a speeding green 2008 Ford F550 truck left the road, struck Wanczyk and continued a short way before being abandoned, according to court records.

A police report written by Amherst Police Detective Jamie Reardon states that when police first tried to interview Sheremeta on Nov. 10, he told police he didn’t know anything about the crash that had occurred four days earlier.

In an interview with police almost two weeks after the incident, Sheremeta said on that Sunday night he was with another man and that he was intoxicated “due to the consumption of alcoholic beverages and use of narcotics,” Reardon wrote.

Sheremeta told police he remembered leaving a woman’s apartment and then being at the homeless shelter. Reardon wrote that an employee at the shelter recalled Sheremeta showing up at the shelter sometime after 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 6, and being asked to leave prior to 10:30 p.m.

Wilder said best practices are designed to ensure trust between those who work at the shelter and their clients, some of whom have mental health issues or drug and alcohol addictions. Because it is a behavior-based shelter, people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol can be allowed to stay, so long as there are no disturbances or use of illegal substances on site.

Though she was uncomfortable providing information to the board, Wilder said she and her staff gave police their full cooperation and didn’t hinder the investigation.

“When it came to the case in question, we did get a subpoena for the records. That’s what we legally needed to get them that information,” Wilder said.

Weiss acknowledged that the board is not aware that the investigation into Sheremeta was affected by Wilder’s actions, but he said her actions frayed the relationship with the board.

Wilder confirmed this.

“They were focused on being very angry with me for what happened, that I had not told them. They felt that they had a right to information that I did not think they needed to know,” she said.

Weiss said confidentiality rules for those who stay at shelters are set by the state.

“The attorney general provided us a document that is one interpretation of the law, and it’s a guide for board members of charitable organizations,” Weiss said.

But the board intends to provide better direction for staff. “We’re going to be making a more clearly defined policy around this for the future,” Weiss said.

With Wilder leaving, the board has named Jade Lovett, the shelter director, and Rachel Weiss, the director of its housing programs, as interim co-executive directors. Rachel Weiss is not related to Gerry Weiss.

“They’re stepping up their hours, and the board is stepping up its hours,” Gerry Weiss said.

This, he said, will ensure a smooth opening Nov. 1 at the First Baptist Church, 434 North Pleasant St.

“We have confidence in their abilities and our ability to guide them,” Weiss said.

The shelter will open on time for the cold weather months and have a full complement of staff, and will continue its policy of being open to anyone, including those who are not sober. Gerry Weiss said Lovett and Rachel Weiss will add to their responsibilities handling fundraising events like Shelter Sunday and file any legal documents. Grant writing will also continue.

After working at the homeless shelter in Amherst for seven years, Wilder said she will miss it.

“I’m sad and disappointed, but I still care so much about the agency and the guests,” Wilder said.

Wilder said that while Lovett and Weiss are both highly intelligent, she worries that the transition won’t be as smooth as the board expects.

“The organization is in trouble,” Wilder said. “I would say it’s not in enough hands who know what they’re doing.”

Gerry Weiss, though, said the board will reorganize the management chart and lay the groundwork for keeping the shelter functioning.

As for her future, Wilder said she may pursue a part-time job in the nonprofit sector, work on a novel and be an “auntie mom” to her sister’s children.​​​​​​

Gazette contributing writer David McLellan contributed to this story. Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.