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April 11, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Re: ‘Cornell’s Strangest Tradition’

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To the Editor:

I was the principal Cayuga Heights Police Investigator of the tragic Cornell Residential Club fire that occurred in the Village of Cayuga Heights, on April 5, 1967, and I am one of the few living persons with direct knowledge of the original investigation.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of this tragic event, I believe it is important for me to make a statement relative to that investigation.

First, this was one of the most tragic events that I have experienced in my long law enforcement career. Although I have investigated many tragedies such as murders, fatal traffic accidents and other horrific events and crimes, the loss of nine people in this fire has often caused me to have a sleepless night.

I spent more than one year of my law enforcement career totally dedicated to the investigation of this fire. I was assisted in the investigation by numerous other competent law enforcement and fire officials including the New York State Police.

On April 19, 1967, then-Tompkins County Coroner Dr. Ralph Low issued a statement after an inquest that said:

“The evidence presented at this inquest is such as to minimize the possibility of mechanical accident and makes the fire more probably the result of human carelessness or malice. I conclude at this time that the fire is of undetermined origin. I recommend that the investigation be continued by the District Attorney’s office. Although there did exist a tragic combination of physical circumstances that could have contributed to these deaths, I did not find criminal negligence.”  

Unfortunately, a few weeks later two fires that occurred within the City of Ithaca were determined to be purposefully set fires and designated by the Ithaca City Police as arson. These fires were at locations where some of the former Cornell student survivors of the Cornell Residential Club fire were living. This resulted in media stories that led some to conclude that the Cornell Residential Club fire was also an arson.

Recent allegations (The Cornell Daily Sun, February 21, 2017) by Cornell graduate William Fogle, Jr. ’70 that the Cornell Residential Club fire was an arson and the deaths should be declared murders is not supported by the facts as currently known. The facts, as I personally know them, are that nine people tragically perished from asphyxia due to toxic smoke inhalation. The ruling of the former Coroner in April 1967 “that the fire was more probably the result of human carelessness or malice” is as accurate today as it was then.

Although I am retired from active law enforcement service, it is my understanding that the investigation, while not currently active due to a lack of new information, has never been closed.

In addition, allegations by Mr. Fogle that the investigation was hampered or covered up by interference from Cornell University are blatantly untrue, and his conclusions that the Cornell Daily Sun has not responsibly reported on the matter are without merit.

Harlin R. McEwen,
Chief of Police (Retired), Village of Cayuga Heights, NY
Chief of Police (Retired), City of Ithaca, NY
FBI Deputy Assistant Director (Retired), Washington, DC