North Adams Airport Dispute Brewing For Two Years

Jun 25, 2018

In recent weeks, WAMC News has reported about the controversy gripping the small Harriman-and-West airport community in North Adams, Massachusetts.

WAMC now has more on how the dispute began.

On June 19th, the North Adams airport commission granted tenancy at the city’s public airport to skydiving business owner Alex Kelly, a convicted rapist. The tense meeting ended in shouting at city hall.

Competing accounts have emerged over what first brought Kelly to northern Berkshire County.

All of the parties involved in this story agree that communication between Kelly and the North Adams airport began in 2016.

“I don’t know what I’ve done here," Alex Kelly said to WAMC. "I’m no angel, but I haven’t done anything here. I came in as a businessman, I came in quietly. I’ve worked with everybody. I’ve done everything I can do to things properly and legally, but somehow they have decided that I am against their interests somehow and frankly I have nothing to do with their interests. I just want to have a flight school and a skydiving business.”

Kelly spoke with WAMC in May but has declined to comment since.

“People tried to get us to come down there, and actually, initially Mr. Trevor Gilman and Bill Greenwald were instrumental in trying to get us to come down and open a location down there,” said Kelly.

“He approached us, and to be honest, quite honest with you, we, in our roles — in the different hats we were wearing — all wanted the same thing,” said Gilman.

Greenwald is the former manager of the airport, and Gilman served as an airport commission member.

Gilman told WAMC that the airport is run on a volunteer basis, with no fulltime employees — unlike nearby airports in Bennington, Vermont and Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

“We wanted growth at the airport, we thought this was something new and exciting that might bring activity to the airport,” said Gilman.

“A couple years ago, when a Mr. Trevor Gilman was on the airport commission, he and I were really the boots on the ground and the face of the North Adams airport," said Greenwald. "The other commissioners are less aeronautically involved. They were certainly good businesspeople, but they pretty much relied on us to manage the airport from the aircraft side of things, vs., let’s say, the land side.”

Greenwald is partial owner of a private hangar and business at the airport, and served as manager — a city position with a $6,000 annual stipend — for the last six years before stepping down in June.

“Alex Kelly showed up and we were not aware of who he was or his history, and he has a wonderful persona. Very polite guy when we met him. Good smile, handsome guy, and he tells us about this parachute jumping operation that he has in Bennington that we were aware of only because as both of us being pilots, you are warned of that happening at airports so you don’t run into falling bodies in the sky in your airplane,” said Greenwald.

Greenwald said he and Gilman were working to promote the airport, and were looking to attract businesses to invest there. According to Gilman, Kelly approached Greenwald about expanding his customer base from his Bennington business by opening a second, part-time operation in North Adams.

“He was asking to be able to provide skydiving out of North Adams," Gilman told WAMC, "and we just required him to provide us with whatever the requirements the FAA had for using the airport.”

Gilman says Kelly did, and was approved to use the airport for skydiving in the summer of 2016. He claims that Kelly’s initial plan did not involve setting up a brick and mortar base of operations.

“He was talking about setting up a tent on one or two weekends a month and doing some jumps out of there,” said Gilman.

A May 27th, 2016 communication appears to be the first evidence that Greenwald and Gilman knew about Kelly’s past. Kelly provided WAMC with an email, in which Greenwald told Kelly that he and Gilman were “aware of the ‘issue’ from your past, and we will need to think pragmatically about management of that if it comes up.” The letter refers to an unnamed sex scandal from the airport’s past, and Greenwald’s concern that an inquest into Kelly’s past would reveal that scandal as well. WAMC was unable to corroborate claims of an additional sex scandal before this broadcast.

“What I meant by manage that was, listen, the guy has a history," said Greenwald. "We need the facts. We need to be able to relay the facts to the public and why we feel that this is an appropriate thing to do.”

He says that Kelly’s history was brought to him by two airport users who now support Kelly’s presence at the airport.

“At one point, which I started to broach the subject with the other users of the field, I was approached by Mike Milazzo, a local airplane owner, and Brian Doyle, an airplane mechanic on the field, telling me how terrible a guy this guy was, about his terrible history, and had I looked into him at all,” Greenwald told WAMC.

Milazzo and Doyle did not respond to requests from WAMC for this story, but in May, Milazzo said of Kelly via email that “in my airport dealings with him, he appears to be a squared away aviation business owner that arrived here at the field with the intentions of creating a legitimate flight school business with assets in the form of three aircraft here now on the ground.”

Greenwald said the May 27th, 2016 email was sent after he investigated Kelly’s past.

“He told me that he had indeed been convicted of raping two women back a number of years ago, but that he had served his time and paid his dues to society and had no trouble since,” said Greenwald.

This was enough to convince Greenwald and Gilman.

“Even though this particular crime was the most heinous one that I had ever been involved with the committer of such a crime, I was willing to give him a shot because he did seem like a great guy,” Greenwald told WAMC.

After Kelly was initially cleared to perform parachute jumping at the airport in 2016, there was a long break.

“So everything proceed fine. For two years, nothing happened at all. He occasionally made contact, but there was no parachute jumping,” said Greenwald.

Planned construction at the headquarters of Kelly’s Green Mountain Skydiving operation in Vermont for the summer of 2018 changed Kelly’s plans.

“The airport in Bennington, where we operate, is closed down for reconstruction for three months," Kelly told WAMC, "so I said I needed a place to open, so it was kind of the impetus to start another location. If we went through the effort to come down for three months, we might as well open another location.”

The Bennington Airport is to be closed until at least late July. Gilman was also volunteering to manage Teamflys, a flight school at the airport. Kelly ended up acquiring the assets of the now-closed school in December of 2017. It was housed in the then-privately owned hangar space that the city has since bought, renovated, and now leased to Kelly for his Berkshire Skydiving business.

“So I bought the assets from Trevor Gilman from an existing flight school," said Kelly. "He’s quite the conman in the process, and he did some shady stuff that made it quite difficult.”

“We had very clear conversations about what was going to be entitled," said Gilman. He said at this point, he and Greenwald were supportive of Kelly’s efforts to lease the hangar.

“I personally emailed the commission chair asking him to put Alex Kelly on the agenda requesting to rent the space prior to the closing of the assets," Gilman told WAMC, "so that Kelly would be sure he was going to have the space prior to purchasing the assets. That was a request that Kelly made, and I forwarded it to the commission.”

Gilman was removed from the airport commission in late 2017 by then-Mayor Richard Alcombright over charges that he had stolen gas from the airport, charges that were investigated and then dropped by Massachusetts State Police in April of this year.

By January of 2018, signs that the men were feuding went public, including a long letter posted to social media by Kelly — and subsequently published by WAMC —   that accused Gilman and Greenwald of corruption and conspiring to prevent him from using the airport.

“Unfortunately, the following events is what changed everything,” said Gilman.

Gilman said after Teamflys sold its assets to Kelly and closed, Kelly’s demeanor changed.

“The next days following the closing, he completely turned into a different person," he  told WAMC. "The Alex Kelly, the nice guy, the smile, the ‘I want everything that you guys want, this is a great place, you’ve done all these wonderful things, I want to continue the events, I want to do this, I want to do that’, turned into — it was like a Jekyll and Hyde situation, he turned into a crazy person.”

Gilman alleges that Kelly entered the office illegally and removed items that he hadn’t purchased.

“Private accounting documents and drug and alcohol program records and just all this stuff that was in the office, a lot of it wasn’t even Teamflys materials, it was the UNICOM that the airport owned,” said Gilman.

A UNICOM is a communication device used by small airports without control towers to regulate air traffic. Sue Mead, who is an organizer along with Gilman of the Greylock Flying Club, a group of local pilots who unsuccessfully competed with Kelly for use of the office space, brought up these accusations to Kelly in the midst of the confrontation following last week’s meeting.

“I am a student pilot, I am afraid of not having a UNICOM,” Mead said to Kelly.

“I had nothing to do with that,” responded Kelly.

With Greenwald and Gilman no longer officially involved in the airport’s management and Kelly’s recent instatement as the new tenant of the public hangar and office space, resentment seems to linger on all sides.

“Now you have the manager of the airport who is founder of a competitor of me for the office, it's a total conflict of interest again and again with this guy,” said Kelly, from his May conversation with WAMC.

While Greenwald is not a founder of the Greylock Flying Club, he was an early donor to the group’s fundraising campaign. Kelly isn’t alone in his criticism of Gilman and Greenwald. Milazzo’s May statement to WAMC said that the airport’s “old guard” “feel angry about his letter exposing the kind of corrupt dealings that we have all witnessed for years now,” and praises Kelly for bringing “new young people” to the airport.

“It’s well known in the public that I really am very concerned about Alex being in our airport," said Greenwald. "I’ve done everything I can with the FAA, who has bailed on the whole topic, saying it’s not our problem, we simply say it’s an allowed use, and if you don’t allow an allowed use, the airport and the city risk the $30 million grants that we gave you, you have to pay them back like a demand note, if you ever do not allow an allowed use for your airport. So, We have a gun to our head from the FAA from their regulations.”

The next airport commission meeting is July 17th.

NOTE: The original broadcast of this report refered to Bill Greenwald as an organizer of the Greylock Flying Club. While he did not help organize it, he was an early donor to their fundraising efforts.