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    Friday, September 29, 2023

    Mohegan Tribe emerges as St. Bernard bidder

    At least two entities ― one of them the Mohegan Tribe ― have bid on the purchase of the St. Bernard School property in Montville, likely setting up an auction Friday in the Hartford offices of the law firm representing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich in the diocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.

    Both the tribe, previously only identified as Thames River Acquisitions, and St. Bernard alumni Diederick van der Velde and Bill Buscetto confirmed this week that they have filed qualifying $6.5 million bids with attorneys for the diocese and other parties.

    The bids had to be accompanied by $650,000 deposits.

    Buscetto, of Old Lyme, said Wednesday he had been informed that what he called the “van der Velde-Buscetto proposal” has been deemed a qualified bid. The tribe’s offer also is expected to meet the necessary requirements.

    It could not be determined whether other bids ― including one a group of about a dozen St. Bernard alumni was expected to submit ― had been filed by last Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline. Jeffrey Londregan, a New London attorney who has been a spokesman for the alumni group, Saints Country LLC, did not respond Wednesday to messages seeking comment.

    Assuming at least two bids are deemed qualified, an auction will take place Friday at the offices of Robinson & Cole, the firm representing the diocese. At that time, qualified bidders will be able to increase their bids by increments of at least $50,000 until a winning bid is determined.

    The diocese is seeking to sell St. Bernard, which has about 400 students in grades 6 through 12, to help fund settlements the diocese must pay to alleged victims of sexual assaults committed by priests and other diocesan employees. The diocese-owned school and the 113 acres on which it sits are part of the sale.

    The Mohegans’ emergence as the previously unidentified suitor confirmed what some observers had long suspected.

    In an interview this week in the tribe’s offices, James Gessner Jr., the Mohegan chairman, said the tribe had identified itself in filing its bid last week, as was required by sale procedures approved by a U.S. bankruptcy judge. He said the tribe has long coveted the 113 acres, which are located near its reservation, and has no intention of developing the land if it succeeds in acquiring it.

    Another condition of the sale was that bidders agree to lease the school for a nominal fee to “St. Bernard’s School of Montville Inc.” for up to 20 years. The school currently leases the property from the diocese in accordance with a month-to-month arrangement.

    “It’s a win-win for everybody ― the community and the school and for the victims getting paid ― and the tribe getting its land back,” Gessner said of the Mohegans’ offer. “We’ve never not had an interest in that property.”

    Gessner said the site has tremendous cultural significance to the tribe. He said it’s contiguous to land occupied by the Mohegan Church, “which the tribe has owned since time immemorial,” and to Mohegan Hill.

    The tribe believes the property was originally purchased sometime in the 1800s. Town and diocesan records show the diocese bought the property in the 1950s and opened St. Bernard as an all-boys' school in 1967. In a consolidation of diocesan schools, it became co-educational in 1972.

    Gessner noted the tribe has long had a good relationship with the diocese and the school. His wife, Carol, is a St. Bernard graduate. Many tribal children have attended the school over the years and several currently are enrolled there.

    He said the tribe chose not to identify itself earlier because of the effect it could have had on negotiating a sale price. Often, people associate the tribe’s ownership of Mohegan Sun casino with “deep pockets” and expect the tribe to meet exorbitant demands, he said.

    Gessner said the tribe also hoped to avoid the likely assumption on the part of some that the tribe wants the St. Bernard property to accommodate gaming expansion plans, which, he said, couldn’t be further from the truth.

    According to diocesan filings in the bankruptcy case, an attorney representing “an unidentified private entity” urged the diocese in September 2022 to sell the property to his client for $6 million through a private sale. Three months later, the entity registered as Thames River Acquisitions LLC with the Secretary of the State’s office.

    From December 2022 to early February 2023, the diocese, Thames River Acquisitions and St. Bernard negotiated the terms of a private sale, including the terms of a lease for the school. The discussions reached an impasse over certain terms, including the lease.

    Saints Country LLC came forward with a $6 million bid in late January, and the diocese shortly thereafter recommended acceptance of a $6.2 million offer from the group. At that point, Thames River upped its offer to $6.5 million and indicated it was willing to participate in an auction.

    Buscetto, who said he doubted more than three bidders would qualify for an auction Friday, said his partner, van der Velde, has the wherewithal to fund a purchase of the St. Bernard property. He said van der Velde, who lives year round in Naples, Fla., has owned assisted living facilities in the Midwest for years.

    The two friends, Buscetto said, have been motivated by concern for the fate of their alma mater. Their intention, if they succeed in acquiring the school property, is to donate it back to the entity that owns it, St. Bernard’s School of Montville Inc.

    By coming forward, Buscetto said, the Saints Country group and he and van der Velde already have succeeded in ensuring that St. Bernard is secure for at least another 20 years.

    “The rallying cry is to save the school,” he said.

    In 2011, Buscetto was dismissed as baseball coach and athletic director at St. Bernard.

    “My issue was with the diocese, not St. Bernard,” he said. “They attempted to fire me, then wanted me to return. I had a lawsuit against them that went on for years before they settled with me out of court.”

    Buscetto subsequently was athletic director at Lyme-Old Lyme High School. He currently owns the Batter Up Baseball Camp in East Lyme.


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