The Rebirth of Coudersport

Originally published on Nov. 10, 2017. 

COUDERSPORT, PA. – The car was running late by at least an hour, maybe longer, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind or even notice.

On this chilly February evening in 2016, more than 100 people dressed in warm winter coats and mittens had clustered near the historic Potter County Courthouse, a 19th-century Greek Revival landmark near the intersection of Second and Main. They were prepared to wait all night, if needed, for that red Toyota Sienna, no matter how low the temperature dropped.

But they didn’t have to wait much longer. Around 8 p.m., a mass commotion ensued on a scale rarely seen in this small north central Pennsylvania community. It was an eruption of joy. The car, apparently, had arrived. The driver carefully rounded the corner from Main Street, inching closer toward the courthouse parking lot, as though not to draw too much attention. Instantly, the crowd swarmed the lot, some sprinting straight across the lawn to make sure they did not miss this moment.

The horde of people, after hurrying over, surrounded the red Toyota and then collectively peered into the passenger’s seat window. That’s when they saw him.

For the first time in nearly a decade, John Rigas was home from prison.

Quietly, the crowd in Coudersport chanted: “God Bless John! God Bless John!” They stretched their WELCOME HOME signs high into the air, seemingly in awe of the man’s presence. The 91-year-old former Adelphia Cable CEO and onetime Buffalo Sabres owner was extremely frail, but that did not stop him from briefly stepping out of the passenger’s seat to share a few hugs with his admirers. Camera lights flashed as Rigas tiptoed his way through the mob of supporters. Thank you, thank you, he whispered, in a hushed and subdued tone.

It was his first public appearance since 2007, a triumphant return to the place the Rigas family has called home for more than a half-century. Coudersport was Adelphia’s hometown, too, before everything fell apart.

Although his corporate fraud conviction carried a prison sentence through Jan. 2018, a judge approved a “compassionate release” for Rigas because of his terminal cancer diagnosis. When he returned home on Feb. 22, 2016, it was feared he only had months to live. But Rigas has persisted. Living comfortably with his family, he has even been spotted at several sporting events and local concerts over the past 21 months.

The festive tone in Coudersport last February perfectly illustrated the complex legacy of John Rigas, who remains largely beloved in north central Pennsylvania but reviled by others in Buffalo and Western New York. To the outside world, Rigas is known as the former Sabres owner who promised financial prosperity for both the team and the City of Buffalo but delivered on neither. When the federal investigation brought Rigas and Adelphia down, countless jobs were lost. Entire retirement savings were wiped out. The City of Buffalo, in desperate need of an economic victory at the time, missed out on a proposed Adelphia headquarters. Many in Western New York have not forgotten that.

In Coudersport, though, the legacy is more complicated. And the story’s not over for them yet.

THE FALL BEFORE THE COMEBACK

Although Rigas was born in Wellsville, N.Y., he is best known for creating Adelphia in Coudersport, a hillside town of about 2,500 not far from the New York border. It’s one of many stops along U.S. Route 6 — the second-longest East-West road in the entire country — only a day trip away from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York City. Rigas moved to Coudersport in the early 1950s, after he’d bought a movie theater on Main Street that still, to this day, shows a flick every night at 7:30 p.m. As a young man in his 20s, Rigas then began to pursue a new business venture: cable television. It would lead to the rise of Adelphia Communications Corporation.

The story of John Rigas and Adelphia will always sound improbable, no matter how many times you hear it. The company began as a small mom-and-pop operation, hidden away in the rolling Pennsylvania hills, before growing into the fifth-largest cable company in the United States. By 1997, Rigas had purchased the Buffalo Sabres. Seemingly overnight, Coudersport was now home to a Fortune 500 company and the owner of an NHL franchise. The word “Adelphia” was a household term nationwide, plastered across 30 states and even serving as the namesake for the Tennessee Titans’ football stadium in Nashville starting in 1999.

There was little precedent for this type of situation. Towns as small as Coudersport rarely, if ever, had served as headquarters for companies as big as Adelphia, which had more than five million cable subscribers at one point. Nor did towns as small as Coudersport usually have residents with the wealth and influence of the Rigas family. By the turn of the century, Coudersport was booming, with 2,000 Adelphia employees anchoring the Potter County economy and injecting life into local businesses and storefronts.

It all came crashing down starting in 2002, when the Securities and Exchange Commission accused Rigas of orchestrating “one of the most extensive financial frauds to ever take place at a public company.”

According to federal prosecutors, members of the Rigas family hid billions of dollars in company debt and raided Adelphia’s funds for their own personal benefit and business interests. Adelphia was their “personal piggy bank,” prosecutors said, helping to fund their golf course and international trips on a corporate jet, among other luxuries.

The leading U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a fresh 42-year-old named James Comey, said members of the Rigas family “exploited Adelphia’s byzantine corporate and financial structure.”

Comey said their scheme was intended “to create a towering façade of false success, even as Adelphia was collapsing under the weight of its staggering debt burden and the defendants’ failing mismanagement of the company, while the Rigas family lined their pockets with shareholder dollars.”

Although they adamantly proclaimed their innocence and pointed out that auditors had signed off on all their Adelphia activities, Rigas and his son, Tim, were ultimately convicted. Adelphia went bankrupt. Eventually, the Buffalo Sabres filed for bankruptcy protection, too. And John Rigas was never able to make good on his promise to bring 1,500 jobs to downtown Buffalo with a new Adelphia headquarters.

Potter County and Coudersport, meanwhile, lost their largest and most important taxpayer when Adelphia went under. Still, despite the devastating economic consequences, many in this community still consider John Rigas a hero, an integral part of their north-central Pennsylvania family. To them, he is a good man who brought pride to their community.

Some say he was scapegoated by an overly aggressive federal government. Almost everybody in town has a story of Rigas’ personal generosity, and many continue to praise his character upon his return home from prison. The criminal case, the convictions, the collapse of Adelphia, the scathing assessments by federal prosecutors, the near-catastrophe for the Buffalo Sabres, none of that seems to overshadow the man they know John Rigas to be, regardless of the outside perception.

But there was a time, in the mid-2000s, when nobody really knew what would happen to this place. Buffalo could, and has, survived the fall of Adelphia. But Coudersport? Losing 2,000 jobs — equivalent to nearly the entire population of the town — just seemed almost too devastating to recover from.

Fifteen years after Rigas was led out into the streets of Manhattan in handcuffs, the lingering effects of Adelphia’s crash are undoubtedly a part of the fabric in Coudersport. But it is not the whole fabric. This community wants the world to know that it is not forever tied to Adelphia.

This town, after all, predates Adelphia by more than a century. It was first incorporated in 1848. In Coudersport, they commend John Rigas for his contributions and defend him as one of their own. That’s why they threw him a celebration. But Adelphia is not the sole purpose for their existence.

After enduring years of hardship, Coudersport is now experiencing a reinvention of sorts, moving forward – not backward – at a pace few could have predicted.

John Rigas has lived to see a town reborn. He will turn 93 years old next week.

THE COMEBACK

On a rainy day in late October of 2017, Bill Pekarski parked himself at a table near the front window at Cream ‘n Sugar, a new coffee and ice cream shop on Main Street in Coudersport.

Pekarski has lived here almost all his life, save for a few college years, but he’s not sure he’s ever liked a place as much as he likes Cream ‘n Sugar. It’s a true throwback, an old-fashioned community coffee shop with one small table, a half-dozen chairs and any flavor of ice cream you could imagine.

“Places like this,” he said, “they opened up really as a leap of faith.”

This store is one of more than a half-dozen new businesses that have sprouted up on Main Street in the past year or so, a clear sign that the post-Adelphia economy in Coudersport is alive and well.

When the company left town, an economic ripple effect caused heavy turnover in the downtown storefronts, but activity has really started to pick back up lately. Some of that can be attributed to an ambitious program that offered entrepreneurs a chance to move into empty stores at a discounted price, without having to sign a year-long lease.

“This is a great little small-town shop,” Pekarski said, marveling at the nostalgia he feels every time he walks into Cream ‘n Sugar. “You walk in here, and time can stop out there. You’re here in the moment.”

The owners of Cream ‘n Sugar are not originally from Coudersport. Patty Giannotti and Mary Jo Stuckey were brought to this town together by pure coincidence, each arriving with their families 20 years ago during the exact same summer. Giannotti came here because her husband had gotten a job at the hospital.

Stuckey came here because her husband had gotten a job with a sister company of Adelphia.

“And I remember when he was going to interview. And I looked on the map, and there’s a dot in the middle of this forest. I’m like, ‘Jay, there’s nothing there. Why would we go there?'” Stuckey said. “And it was a nice surprise when we came up and there’s this cute little town.”

Giannotti remembers it was nearly impossible to find a place to live back then. Adelphia was in full force. Stuckey remembers those days too, and she admits that after her husband’s company left town, they considered moving back to Pittsburgh or Ohio. But they stayed in Coudersport because they raised their kids here and they liked it.

“Adelphia, they were just an employer,” Stuckey said. “But the community’s the community — the people and everything. I don’t think that made or broke us.”

In the winter of 2016, Giannotti and Stuckey saw a vacant storefront on Main Street and decided it was the perfect time to act on a lifelong dream. As members of the Main Street Committee, they also had long craved a downtown shop that would sell treats and coffee.

Cream ‘n Sugar was born in July 2016, and the two friends and business partners have thrived for more than a year now. They’re committed to this job, too.

So committed that they drive 102 miles to State College, Pa., on a regular basis, just to bring back Penn State Creamery ice cream to serve to their customers in Coudersport.

“We tried to look at things we could do to add to Coudersport,” Giannotti said. “We’ve been very careful about picking out lines of products that don’t compete with other places in town.”

Giannotti and Stuckey can feel a bit of momentum here, and so can some of the officials in Potter County.

Community Development Director Jennifer Rossman, a Coudersport native, said the town’s newest strategy is to capitalize on tourism and the surrounding natural beauty. Cherry Springs State Park, for example, is one of the premier destinations for stargazing, bringing tourists from across the world to Potter County to see some of the darkest skies in the United States. Almost half of the land in the county consists of state-owned forests and open land.

“Tourism, I think, people are starting to grasp onto what’s available here. We live where other people vacation,” Rossman said. “The communities around the county look at Coudersport and really see it as something that is starting to make a comeback.”

Despite the obvious improvements in Coudersport, the post-recession recovery has still been slower across rural America, no matter the town or city. Potter County’s unemployment rate of five percent in September, according to data from the Federal Reserve, still hovered slightly above the national average.

Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel, a former corporate communications manager for Adelphia, said the economic comeback for Coudersport is probably still in the early stages. However, he’s encouraged by the growth of small businesses over the past few years, and he also points to tourism as the future moneymaker.

Younger consumers are more attracted to nature and outdoor activities than ever, Heimel said, which is something Coudersport can uniquely offer.

“We’re king of being reborn in a way that capitalizes on some of the strengths have always been here. Our natural resources, friendly townsfolk,” Heimel said. “We’re a half-day’s drive from about a fourth of the U.S. population – they can get here in half a day – so the idea is to get the businesses that are going to want to pull in those visitors.”

Heimel referred to himself as the typical case study of a former Adelphia employee. He left his longtime job as a local newspaper reporter and editor to serve in Adelphia’s corporate communications office, where he worked for 10 years. When the company was bought out, Heimel had an opportunity to move to a new position in Charlotte, N.C.

He declined.

“I wasn’t gonna do it. Everything is very near and dear to me, and many of us who have lived here all our lives, we wouldn’t leave it. It was all right here: Our family, our community, our comfort level, our sense of community. And we love it here,” Heimel said. “People who come here and get a taste of it— they kind of love it, too.”

When those tourists visit Coudersport, they’re certain to find hidden gems.

John and Olga Snyder, who own a downtown gallery and bistro, have been open for business for nearly eight years now across the street from the Potter County Courthouse. They bought their building from Adelphia and rehabbed it, both inside and out. They painted the walls. They fixed the plumbing system. Admittedly, the first few years of business were not easy.

But it got better.

Lately, the Snyders have started seeing a steady stream of tourists stop by their building. Once they get inside, these visitors are usually taken aback by the beautiful, dark woodwork and the impressive art collection.

“People are pretty surprised when they walk through the doors here. They don’t expect to find a place like this,” John Snyder said. “It’s not what you expect to see in north central Pennsylvania.”

Snyder has not lived in Coudersport his whole life, but his parents are both from the area.

So the Adelphia situation did not deter him at all from pursuing a downtown business operation.

“This was home,” he said. “We really wanted to be here.”

Coudersport residents are also enjoying a new streetscape in the heart of downtown. The repaving of Main Street was just completed this fall, a project that was long overdue.

And there’s a new media company in town: Zito Media. The Greek word “Zito” roughly translates to some form of the word “alive” in English.

Zito is run by James Rigas, the youngest son of John. It does not have the type of footprint Adelphia did – far from it – but it does provide cable, Internet and phone services to subscribers in more than a dozen states.

Zito leases space in a former Adelphia building on South Main Street, a building so grand it was once nicknamed the “Taj Mahal.” The original Adelphia headquarters is now a county building.

“We’re just on the cusp of something that I think has been coming for a long time,” Rossman said.

THE LEGACY OF JOHN RIGAS

The Rigas family declined an interview request for this story. His son, Mike, said they appreciated the offer but did not feel it was the right time to speak publicly. John’s health is stable at the moment, he said.

Based on more than a dozen conversations with business owners, local officials, friends of the Rigas family and Coudersport residents, it is clear that many people in this town do not harbor any resentment toward John Rigas or the downfall of Adelphia. That was evident as well on Feb. 22, 2016, when many members of the crowd shared their own stories of Rigas’ generosity and kindness upon his return from prison.

Of course, the people of Coudersport are very aware of the catastrophic effects of the bankruptcy. Many of the residents here experienced it themselves. Mary Jo Stuckey’s husband, for example, had to find another job after his Adelphia sister company left town. Stuckey’s husband now works for James Rigas at Zito Media, as do many other former Adelphia employees.

At the end of their interview inside Cream ‘n Sugar, Stuckey and Giannotti both agreed that many people in Coudersport have been able to separate the criminal case from their personal feelings about the Rigas family. Stuckey said Rigas deserves a second chance, no matter what happened.

“Really, just a good man,” she said. “I don’t know the ins and outs of the story, or what happened – I think there were some bad decisions made and whatever – but I think he was a very kind man. The community loves him, just him personally.”

Giannotti then chimed in, saying she also finds Rigas to be an engaging and caring person. But she, too, recognizes the irony and contrast.

“I understand where you’re coming from. Yeah, it’s interesting, sometimes, when I think about the amount of money people lost, their life savings and stuff. And it’s interesting that most of the people feel so strongly positive,” Giannotti said.

Paul Heimel, who has now been county commissioner for 10 years after his tenure at Adelphia, said he believes Rigas’ legacy has yet to be determined in Coudersport.

“He seeks vindication. I know the family very well. He’s not content that, OK, he’s been released from prison. He seeks vindication. They’re fighting through the courts, it’s a long slog,” Heimel said. “So that’s the goal. The history has not really been written, and it’s a work in progress, and I think people’s feelings about it… they’re mixed.”

Bill Pekarski, who worked in Heimel’s department at Adelphia, takes issue with the prosecution of Rigas.

“The government was in such a hurry to make an arrest, to make a case, and to have their ‘perp walk’ on TV. So many things got overlooked. It was just… It was tragic,” Pekarski said. “People who know the man know how sincere he is and what his dreams were and what his beliefs were. And you cannot find anything wrong with his character. His character defines the man and his character is exceptional.”

Pekarski admitted that the transition after Adelphia was rough for him personally, but after considering his options, he decided to go back to school to find a new career path. He wound up becoming a nurse and returned to Coudersport to work at Cole Memorial Hospital right after graduation.

These days, Pekarski spends a lot of his time writing and reflecting on many life topics, including Coudersport. He’s looking forward to July 2018 and the upcoming Elliot Ness Fest, which will celebrate one of the most famous federal agents in American history who happens to have strong connections to Coudersport. It is a little-known fact, but Ness moved to Coudersport in the mid-1950s, not long after John Rigas moved to town. Ness spent the final days of his life here before he died in 1957.

Those are the stories Pekarski uses to reinforce Coudersport as a community with its own history and identity, free and untied from Adelphia.

“This is hometown,” Pekarski said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Certainly, though, it has been a long 15 years in Coudersport. But over the years, as the national media attention faded and the Adelphia scandal exited the public consciousness, something funny has happened. The town has gotten back to normal, operating as though the whole Adelphia thing had never happened in the first place.

That, by itself, may be a minor miracle. Back on May 28, 2002, in the early days of the Adelphia case, a writer from The New York Times visited the town and penned a story with a headline, “In Hometown of Adelphia, Pride, But Worry About the Future, Too.” The article detailed the community’s anxiety as 2,000 Adelphia jobs hung in the balance. It was the perfect example of the overriding narrative about Coudersport and Adelphia. The two seemed co-dependent on each other, as though one couldn’t exist without the other. Fair or not, that was the portrayal.

At the end of that article, a local attorney named George Stenhach was quoted as saying the following: “Coudersport existed before there was an Adelphia, and as great a tragedy as this is, Coudersport will survive this.”

Fifteen years later, Bill Pekarski can confirm that Coudersport is still here, indeed. It has survived.

“Adelphia doesn’t define this community,” Pekarski said. “The people here define our community.”

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The Face Of Disaster

In the fall of 2014, Timothy Borden disappeared. His family was caught in an excruciating position: hoping for the best, but preparing the worst. This is the face of the “nation’s silent mass disaster.”

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Timothy Borden cannot talk.

The brain aneurysm left him without the ability to speak, but it did not leave him silent. Thumbs-up means “yes.” Thumbs-down means “no.” He can still make hand signals, he can still dial a cell phone, and he can still listen. He can also still write, so he carries a pencil and a piece of paper almost everywhere he goes.

It’s important, his family says, for the public to understand that Timothy Borden can still communicate. “IF SEEN, CALL YOUR LOCAL POLICE DEPARTMENT.” The signs list Borden as six feet tall, 140 pounds, born March 29, 1963, last seen leaving his apartment behind St. Ann’s Church on the East Side of Buffalo, last seen wearing a black sweatshirt. Listed on the sign: the scar on his forehead. Not listed on the sign: father of four, grandfather of six, older brother to five siblings.

Borden’s siblings, children, grandchildren, cousins and other family members, dozens of them, have joined together for a prayer session at his East Side apartment complex. It’s late October of 2014, and they are begging for him to return. Timothy Borden has been gone for three days. “He has children, Lord, he has grandchildren, oh lord. Lord, he has sisters and brothers and loved ones, oh Lord, that love him all over this city.”

Without his medication, they fear he will not survive long, so they urge the public to look out for him— and to understand that if they spot him, he will not be able to talk.

But they want the public to also remember: the hand signals. The pencil and paper. If anyone sees him, they need to call 9-1-1, or any of the several cell phone numbers listed on the “MISSING PERSON” signs across the City of Buffalo.

“I feel helpless,” his youngest sister, Melissa Everette, says, “but not hopeless.”

—-

Melissa Everette is the youngest of the six in the family— the only girl. After her oldest brother spent 40 days in the hospital a few years ago and could no longer speak, she became his caretaker.

“I actually enjoyed it,” Everette said. “I kind of became a mother figure.”

When her brother needed something, he’d write it down and show her the paper. And Borden could still do pretty much everything he used to do. When he was fixing cars – which he became known for after attending Burgard High School all those years ago– he’d write, “transmission gone,” and his family would know what they needed to fix. He was once in the military, so he was resourceful. After leaving the hospital, Borden took speech therapy at Buffalo State College, and he was doing well.

Since she lived so close to his apartment complex behind St. Ann’s, Everette saw her brother every single day.

“I can literally look out that window,” Borden said, “and see him coming down the street.”

But in late October of 2014, at the age of 51, Borden did not come home.

Buffalo Police found his wallet and jacket near the Buffalo River in South Buffalo, miles away from his apartment. The department’s Underwater Recovery Team searched the water as far as they could. They found nothing.

A few months passed. December came, and Borden wasn’t home for Christmas. He missed New Year’s, and then he missed his birthday in March.

On Oct. 25, 2015, the one-year anniversary of his disappearance, his family returned to that location near the Buffalo River, the same spot where police found his belongings.

“I have buried a mother, and I have buried a father,” Melissa said, “And I think this is the worst I have ever had to endure in my life.”

His daughter, Latoya, found that the emotional toll seemed to skyrocket at the end of each month, with each calendar turn representing another cold reminder of her father’s disappearance.

“Every day was a struggle,” Latoya Borden said. “It sucks. It sucks. You try not to think about that day, as another month goes on, it makes it longer and longer and longer.”

On this one-year anniversary, Borden’s family hung a new sign on the fence overlooking the river: “MISSING SINCE 10/25/14. STATUS UNKNOWN.” Overlooking the river, holding balloons and candles, they listened carefully to another prayer: “Father God, our brother, our son, our father has been missing for over a year. Father God, we pray for some closure here this afternoon.”

“THE NATION’S SILENT MASS DISASTER”

It’s rare for an adult to remain missing for a long period of time, said Lt. David Mann, who leads the unit in charge of investigating missing persons for the Buffalo Police Department. The majority of his squad’s cases involve children, many of which ran away from home. Police need to locate them, but fortunately, these children are not usually in immediate danger.

Across Western New York’s eight counties, the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services recorded 392 active missing persons cases at the end of 2014, most of which involved runaways. In Erie County, roughly 60 percent of the active cases at the end of 2014 involved children.

Most missing persons cases – adult or child – reach a resolution, not only in Buffalo but in all local jurisdictions.

“In other cases though,” Mann said, “when we’re unable to determine the circumstances, we always have to proceed as though the person is in danger.”

Timothy Borden fell into this category.

“We don’t know the resolution of that case yet, but it’s still definitely an active case,” Mann said. “These cases stick with detectives, and they’re always looking for another avenue to investigate.”

After waiting for an entire year, his family has now turned to an unfortunate option. They hope to match Borden’s DNA with unidentified human remains.

His sister has worked the phones diligently, calling agencies in multiple counties and states to pin down whether any of their unidentified remains could match her brother’s characteristics.

“It’s time for peace now,” Everette said.

So far, she hasn’t found a match.

“I give them all of this information, and all of the sudden, they come and tell me, ‘no, it’s not him,’” Everette said. “You don’t want to be happy, you don’t want to be sad. You don’t even know how to feel at that point.”

The process of matching a missing person with a deceased unidentified body can be utterly devastating.

“Even if we find closure today or tomorrow with the body they found at La Salle, we might find closure, but we still lost something that we care for deeply,” Everette said.

To help families like Timothy Borden’s, the National Institute of Justice (under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Justice) launched the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System about a decade ago. In 2007, Nancy Ritter of the National Institute of Justice reported that 40,000 unidentified remains existed in the United States, which she considered the “nation’s silent mass disaster.” Each set of unidentified remains represents another person missing from their family.

So the goal of the system, known as “NamUs” for short, is to help match missing persons cases with unidentified remains from across the country. Although other databases like the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) already allow law enforcement to enter cases and look for matches, NamUs is the very first government database that allows the public total access to the information.

Dr. Jennifer Prutsman-Pfeiffer, a forensic anthropologist, often consults on cases of unidentified remains in Western New York. In 2012, the New York State Police handed her a cold case from 1983.

Almost immediately, she uploaded the case to NamUs.

A few months later, the phone rang.

“I received a call, out of the blue, from a woman in Virginia,” Prutsman-Pfeiffer said, “who thought this unidentified woman entered into NamUs might be her half-sister.”

Working diligently with law enforcement, Prutsman-Pfeiffer stayed in constant contact with the woman. Ultimately, her persistence convinced the Orleans County District Attorney to dig up the unidentified remains, which were buried in a cemetery in Albion, and collect DNA samples in an attempt to confirm a match with her half-sister.

“And when the results came back, it wasn’t this woman’s sister,” Prutsman-Pfeiffer said. “but it was somebody’s daughter.”

Thanks to the public tip originating from NamUs, the DNA from the unidentified remains matched Shari Lynne Ball, a Florida woman reported missing in 1983 after telling her parents she was leaving for New York to start a modeling career. As the years passed, her family had all but given up looking for her.

“So one family had closure. But this [other] woman, who was really part of the team, and persisted with this case… it wasn’t good news for her,” Prutsman-Pfieffer said. “I called her and said, ‘this probably wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been the driving force behind it.’”

In January, another tip from NamUs helped identify a body found in Livingston County in 1979. The remains belonged to Tammy Jo Alexander.

“The forensic side of things, law enforcement… [they] really need to get on board with this,” Prutsman-Pfeiffer said. “Because it helps. It does work.”

Todd Matthews, the director of communications and case management for NamUs, said his system has more unidentified remains included in the database than the FBI’s NCIC database because medical examiners and coroners are allowed to make submissions. Law enforcement can also enter missing persons cases. The general public can add missing persons cases, too, although NamUs first verifies their submissions with police agencies before uploading it to the online database.

“If you enter a case into NamUs, it’s not an admission that this person is dead,” Matthews said. “It’s… do what you can to prepare, and hope for the best.”

So far, NamUs has helped solve more than 1,000 cases nationwide, providing closure for grieving families and helping to assist homicide investigations.

HOW WESTERN NEW YORK IDENTIFIES THE UNIDENTIFED

In September, police canvassed La Salle Park on the West Side of Buffalo after human remains washed up from the Niagara River. They ordered an autopsy and sent the remains to the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Timothy Borden’s family, desperate for answers after a year-long search, now awaits the results of a DNA test.

“You’re waiting and you’re waiting, and you don’t build your hopes up that it’s him,” Everette said. “But if it is, you can be OK.”

The La Salle Park case is a real-life, recent example of how local agencies work to identify remains in their possession— and an example of how families of missing loved ones sometimes actively participate in these investigations.

But that La Salle Park case will never find its way into NamUs. The medical examiner in possession of the remains refuses to use the system.

A spokesperson for Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office said cases such as the La Salle Park remains would be tested for DNA and kept in the medical examiner’s office until the end of the investigation. The county would work closely with law enforcement to make an identification, but if the body is never identified, it heads to Erie County’s burial unit.

However, although NamUs currently lists a handful of unidentified cases in Erie County, the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office does not use NamUs anymore. In fact, Public Information Officer Mary St. Mary said the office does not submit cases into any national database. St. Mary sent a statement to 2 On Your Side on behalf of the medical examiner’s office.

“We barely see one of these cases per year,” the statement read. “We no longer maintain a profile on NamUs because it generated a lot of fruitless work for an overworked staff.”

Buffalo Police also haven’t entered Borden’s missing persons case into the NamUs database (although the family could theoretically enter the case themselves, pending verification from the police department). The department has actively used the system in the past – a dozen cases are listed under their jurisdiction in the system – and it has given no indication it opposes it. Buffalo Police add all cases to the state and federal (NCIC) database.

Other agencies in Western New York have taken a more aggressive stance with NamUs. The Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and Niagara County coroners all confirmed they use the system actively and constantly update it with new missing persons and unidentified remains cases. The most recent local case in the system is the missing persons file for Heather Coburn, a 43-year-old who was believed to have gone over Niagara Falls. NamUs lists New York State Park Police as the investigating agency.

In Western New York’s eight counties, only 46 missing persons cases and 35 unidentified persons cases have been entered into the NamUs system so far.

Dr. Prutsman-Pfeiffer called this a “wonderful” advancement for her profession.

“Prior to NamUS, there was really no way for everyone to communicate together. There may be a case from Pennsylvania, where the family is missing their loved one, and maybe they turn up in Cattaraugus County,” Prutsman-Pfeiffer said. “Nobody would necessarily know they were a match– before this system.”

BILLY’S LAW

A bill under consideration in Congress would strengthen the NamUs database. The “Help Find the Missing Act,” also nicknamed “Billy’s Law” in honor of a missing man from Connecticut, would appropriate more funding for NamUs through 2021, and it would facilitate better coordination between the FBI’s NCIC database and NamUs. Finally, the legislation would offer grants to agencies to help them upload cases faster.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) co-sponsors the bill, which has failed several times since 2009.

“There are so many different lists, that it’s hard to find someone. If there were one comprehensive list for the whole country, it would be much, much better, and that’s what Billy’s Law pushes us to do,” Schumer said. “And law enforcement wants that.”

The bill is still in committee.

“The heartbreak of a family when someone goes missing… is terrible. So we’re trying to push this through the Judiciary Committee. It has a bunch of co-sponsors, bi-partisan. So far it hasn’t moved. Congress is sort of bolloxed up right now,” Schumer said, “but we’re going to push it as hard as we can because it is so important.”

But “Billy’s Law” would undeniably add more work for law enforcement. The paperwork for the FBI database, for example, can already take up a considerable amount of time. One Western New York detective told 2 On Your Side that sometimes, that paperwork takes so long that his department has practically solved the case by the time it’s entered into the database.

Matthews said the FBI’s NCIC database and NamUs are designed to work differently. NCIC can focus more on short-term cases, like runaways, and NamUs can provide a strong opportunity for loved ones to find closure after several years.

NamUs analyzes dental records and radiographs, DNA and fingerprints— and they provide this service for free.

“Based on chronology, geography and physical characteristics, the system itself can flag cases as possible matches so that we can go through the review process sooner than later,” Matthews said. “If the case is not in NamUs, there’s not much we can do about it, especially with a missing person.”

Dr. Prutsman-Pfeiffer, who often submits cases to NamUs, said uploading a case with full information may take only up to an hour.

“This is a wonderful development for people who have lost people who are missing people,” Prutsman-Pfeiffer said, as well as for us.”

WHEN CASES GO COLD

Western New York’s cases in NamUs span all ages, races, genders and locations. About a quarter of the region’s cases – both missing and unidentified – date back before the year 1990.

On May 5, 1982, 2-year-old Russell Mort disappeared from his home in Wheatfield. More than 300 investigators searched his backyard in the Lynch Park development, located on the edge of the Niagara River, within sight of the skyline of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Mort’s mother, Ruth, had left him alone for just a moment; when she returned, she could not find him.

“I just have a feeling that he’s somewhere,” his mother told television cameras in 1982.

Law enforcement searched the river far and wide, but they did not find anything back then. In fact, they would never find anything. More than 30 years later, Mort’s case remains one of the oldest missing persons cases in Western New York. In 2002, during an anniversary special with 2 On Your Side’s Rich Kellman, Mort said she never wanted any family to ever go through what she’d been through.

“As years have gone by, and there’s been absolutely no evidence, we have to start treating it as though we’ll never see him again,” Mort said.

Mort was the first child in upstate New York to be placed on a milk carton. In 2010, his case was uploaded to NamUs.

But this cold case has now been reignited— by the FBI’s Cold Case Working Group. Six months ago, the FBI announced it would collaborate with local and state agencies to re-investigate the Mort case, one of five cases the group has tackled so far.

Special Agent In Charge Adam Cohen of the FBI Buffalo Field Office said investigators are recanvassing the neighborhood, looking for clues that never surfaced three decades ago.

“We recognize the fact that this is important,” Cohen said. “[These cases] are very important to the people that we’re supposed to be serving, so we’re going to dedicate the resources that we can.”

The FBI has attempted to re-create what that neighborhood looked like in 1982, and investigators have re-interviewed witnesses. One person who still lives in the Lynch Park neighborhood told 2 On Your Side he was interviewed again this summer, but his memory was fuzzy all these years later. This neighbor said law enforcement once again searched under their homes, just as they did back then.

Of the five cold cases under investigation by the FBI’s working group, Cohen said two involve missing persons. Besides the Mort case, the FBI cannot disclose the other missing persons case it is currently pursuing.

“The purpose of that is to re-invigorate investigations that have perhaps stagnated, or time has degraded our ability to look at the current facts,” Cohen said.

A few years after Russell Mort went missing, a 21-year-old named Leichia Reilly went missing from West Seneca. She was last spotted at the former Pierce Arrow Restaurant on Jan. 31, 1985. The case, still considered active by the New York State Police, has remained unsolved for more than 31 years now.

Tom McDonnell, Reilly’s first cousin, was 16 when she disappeared.

At first, the family received tips from people who claimed they’d seen Reilly.

“Here and there, at a McDonald’s, and so it’d be looked into,” McDonnell remembered. “So that phone call, for my aunt and uncle, every time the phone rang… it was probably torturous.”

McDonnell said police had their eye on a suspect, but without a body, they did not have the evidence to pursue charges.

Reilly’s case was added to NamUs in 2009.

“The fact remains still, no body, no crime. So I’m guessing there’s probably that tiny, tiny less than one percent in the back of my aunt and uncle’s brain that maybe, [she’s alive] out there somewhere,” Reilly said. “But it’s been 31 years. And you hope that now, all they want is closure.”

HOPING FOR THE BEST

On the afternoon of Oct. 25, 2015, a sunny, chilly Sunday, Melissa Everette stood off in the distance, overlooking her tight-knit family as they gathered near the Buffalo River with candles, balloons and a picture of Timothy Borden, missing since Oct. 25, 2014, “STATUS UNKNOWN.”

Everette suddenly recalled how she felt when her mother and father died.

“At least you find closure. You have a funeral and you shut things… you shut things down. This hasn’t been shut down,” Borden said. “And you ride, and you go places, and it’s always something on a constant basis to remind you of him. The littlest thing will remind you of him. And it can set you back sometimes.”

The one-year anniversary took on a different mood. When Timothy Borden first disappeared, there was panic. This time, there was a different kind of devastation, a slow kind of devastation that had culminated over 365 days and counting.

“Sometimes I call off from work because I’m just having a bad day,” Everette said. “And I can’t deal with it that day.”

Everette’s optimism has not wavered throughout the year-long search. Maybe today, somebody will see the sign on the fences and the trees near St. Ann’s, and then spot a 140-pound man, six feet tall, wearing a black sweatshirt with a scar on his forehead.

Melissa Everette wants to believe her brother is alive, but she also must accept there is a possibility he is not, which is why she sometimes finds herself on the phone in the middle of the night with an agency from another county or state, looking for a DNA match to an unidentified.

But she still wakes up each day, undeniably in a state of limbo, and she tries to go to work. When she gets home, she heads straight to her favorite chair, where she could see her brother walk down the street, and she waits.

“Everybody has taken a loss from this,” Everette said. “Nobody’s gonna be a winner at the end of the day.”

Shortly after this story was published on WGRZ.com and aired on Channel 2 in Buffalo, it was confirmed that Timothy Borden’s identity matched the remains found at La Salle Park. He was laid to rest in the fall of 2015. 

In Rural Western New York, An Eye Toward Suicide Prevention

Isolated, rural communities in Western New York face higher rates of suicide, a trend seen across America. Two families, forever devastated by the effects, are now determined not to let it happen to anyone else.    

For more information on national and local suicide hotlines, please see the bottom of this article.

MATTHEW

WYOMING COUNTY, N.Y. – Matthew Mayle was heading north. Not too far north – just 45 miles north, to Rochester – but away from home nonetheless.

“Thirty days until I get to move in,” he reminded his mother, Saundra, as he continued his enthusiastic countdown to college life during the summer of 2011. In four weeks and two days, Matthew would no longer live in a small village in eastern Wyoming County. He would be on his own, in Rochester, having already enrolled in classes for the fall semester at Monroe Community College.

Matthew practically grew up with a ball in his hand. It started with baseball at the age of three. Then he joined the soccer team in high school, then the basketball team, then the football team, where Matthew played wide receiver and defensive back under the lights on Friday nights. During the second semester of his senior year, Matthew joined the golf team, because why not, and then he earned 28 medals.

“No matter what he tried,” his mother said, “he was like the top player.”

Saundra rearranged her schedule to make every single one of her son’s games, although admittedly, she sometimes missed the golf outings. In a way, she deserved some of the credit for his athletic success. Before Matthew got his driver’s license, it was Saundra’s responsibility each morning to give him a ride to the weight room at 6 a.m. Saundra recalled getting a phone call from Matthew’s teacher during his high school years, informing her that her son was 10 minutes late to first period every single day. He was spending too much time in the weight room, the teacher said. Saundra told her she’d take care of it.

When Matthew first visited Monroe Community College with his mother, the lacrosse team caught his eye. Finally– a sport he hadn’t tried yet. But community college was only the beginning. Ultimately, Matthew planned to transfer to St. John Fisher College, another school in Rochester, where he thought he might be able to play on the football team.

Before he could embark on a career in college athletics, however, and before he could move to the third-largest city in the state of New York, Matthew still had a few relaxing weeks left at home in quiet, scenic Wyoming County, which is famously home to more cows (53,000) than human beings (42,000) and proudly touts itself as the highest producer of milk in the entire state. Silver Springs, the village where Matthew grew up, has a population of fewer than 900 people.

On July 19, 2011, Matthew celebrated his 18th birthday.

But the transition period between high school and college was a major adjustment for Matthew. Suddenly, the teenager who woke up before sunrise every day to lift weights had no more structure. No more practices, no more games. Not even golf.

Matthew’s mother noticed that her son’s bedroom was a little messy, which was unusual, because Matthew was a very particular person. Neatness was one of his virtues.

“He just seemed like he didn’t know what to do with himself,” Saundra Mayle said. “I’d get home from work and he’d be laying on the couch, or lying in bed, which wasn’t like Matthew.”

It lasted a few weeks.

LEE

ORLEANS COUNTY, N.Y. – Lee Minier, a classic Baby Boomer, grew up in the small village of Albion, N.Y., during the 1950s. Baseball was always his game, and the St. Louis Cardinals were always his team.

Lee could listen to the Cardinals on their powerful radio signal, even all the way from Orleans County in Western New York. As a kid, Lee was a right-handed batter, gripping his wooden bat tightly, as you can see from his pose in an old black-and-white photo. Around the time that picture was taken — give or take a few years — he met his wife, Meredith. They were in third grade.

Their first official date came years later: junior prom. Meredith claims she decided to marry Lee that night.

“You don’t think that really happens in real life, but it does,” Meredith said. “And I had really fallen in love with him at that point.”

Lee and Meredith got married in July of 1974. Lee earned his PhD in anatomy, and then they traveled across the country for his work. Their daughter, Marissa, was born in Denver. The family lived in Texas at one point, too. In a colored photo, taken in the thick of an especially cold winter season, in Austin, Texas, you can see Lee holding little Marissa next to a giant snowman. The snowman is wearing a Cardinals hat.

In 1985, Lee got a promotion, so the whole family moved to St. Louis, home of the Cardinals, who played in the World Series that year.

In St. Louis, Lee worked for a private-duty nursing service.

All the while, his father was battling cancer. He’d been diagnosed during the summer. By November of 1985, he did not have much time left. Before succumbing to cancer, Lee’s father prematurely ended his own life and died by suicide.

Lee had a nervous breakdown.

“I can’t go to work,” he told his wife that year. “I’m done.”

So, in the spring of 1986, the family moved back to their hometown of Albion, the village of 6,000 people in Orleans County, nestled between Buffalo and Rochester. Lee could heal here.

“We ended up right back where we started, never thinking when we got married that we were going to end up back in Albion,” Meredith said. “We realized that was the place we could have Marissa grow up in a small town, and be around her grandparents and her family.”

In Albion, Lee didn’t find any work related to his PhD in anatomy. He began working at the funeral home in the village, and at the same time, he started writing a book about his family history. These activities helped him deal with his father’s suicide.

But his father’s death was still painful, particularly the manner in which he died. To make matters worse, Lee would eventually learn that his grandmother also died of suicide. The family had kept it a secret from him his whole life.

Marissa grew up with fond memories of her father: horseback riding lessons, camping trips, hot chocolate, watching their favorite movie, “The Princess Bride.” Lee taught his daughter about the world. He loved astronomy and fossil collecting. He was an avid writer, and he enjoyed his quiet time on the lake with his canoe.

These were happy moments for Lee, but internally, he fought crippling depression and anxiety.

Meredith noticed that her husband struggled tremendously with his self-esteem. Small talk was hard for Lee, too, especially in social settings like dinner parties with friends. At one point, Lee flew to Chicago to seek help for his conditions and resolve some of the issues related to his father’s death.

“He felt he wasn’t worthy, wasn’t good enough, that he never lived up to what he thought his parents wanted him to be,” Meredith said. “He had very high standards for himself. He felt he could never live up to it, and those were hard things for him to deal with. They got worse as he got older.”

But Lee was not always defined by his mental illness. He was a dedicated father and husband, as well as a well-respected member of the Orleans County community.

In 2004, Lee walked his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. At the reception, Marissa wanted to surprise her father with a dance, so she told the DJ to play the song from “The Princess Bride.” The song would be a perfect. Sentimental and nostalgic, in honor of their favorite movie.

Meanwhile, Lee was secretly plotting his own tribute.

“Well, the time comes, and I don’t realize what’s happening. The DJ has me sit down, in a chair in the middle of the floor, and my dad comes out dancing to the song I thought I chose,” Marissa said. “He had chosen the same song. So we had a really fun dance together. We’ll never forget.”

Lee Minier died of suicide in 2007, three years after his daughter’s wedding. He was 57. Shortly before his death, Lee and his wife were scheduling a trip to Germany, their first trip overseas.

“We had planned our future together,” Meredith said. “And all of the sudden, that was gone.”

Matthew Mayle died of suicide on July 24, 2011, five days after his eighteenth birthday. On the day of his death, his mother recalled that they were planning a trip to Jamaica with Matthew’s best friend.

“I mean, he always had a smile on his face. He was looking forward to going to college,” his mother, Saundra, said. “I’ll never get over it.”

Suicide is not a uniquely rural or urban problem – it affects people of all backgrounds, races and genders – but people tend to die by suicide more frequently in rural areas compared to their populations, according to both state and federal data. Across the entire United States, for example, the states of Montana, Alaska and New Mexico had the highest suicide rates in 2014.

Statistics from the state of New York mirror the nationwide trends. Across the state, nearly 5,000 people died of suicide between 2011 and 2013, according to the most recent data published by the New York State Department of Health. But rates in rural counties tend to hover above the state average, particularly in Western New York.

In Wyoming County, suicide rates nearly double the state average. Technically, among the eight counties in Western New York, Wyoming County ranks the second-highest in suicide rate. Erie County, with a population of more than 900,000, ranks the lowest.

In rural counties, rates may be higher for many reasons, including the fact that people live in more isolated territory and may have to drive longer distances to receive mental health care. In small communities, where everybody knows everybody, it’s difficult to break the stigma of mental illness and suicide.

About a decade ago, a few members of the community in Wyoming County noticed suicide rates tended to skew a little higher here, and they decided they wanted to do something about it.

That’s how the Wyoming County Suicide Prevention Coalition formed under the county’s Department of Mental Health.

Brandie Rajk-Winter, the coalition’s coordinator, said it’s especially hard to talk about suicide in a rural county.

“People are very private, and they’re also very prideful,” Rajk-Winter said. “And so they don’t often reach out to others.”

Rajk-Winter said middle-aged men seem to be the target demographic for suicide risk here. To reach out to this population, the suicide prevention coalition has partnered with nearby restaurants to offer customers a free cup of coffee in exchange for providing information about suicide risk and treatment. The coalition named the program “Cup of Joe.”

The coalition has also worked closely with farm organizations, since farmers have long been considered one of the most at-risk occupations for suicide.

“They’re very hard workers, but they’re also taught to just buck up and not talk about how they feel and just move forward,” Rajk-Winter said. “If you continue to ignore how you’re feeling — and say it’s depression, and depression continues to affect other domains of your life — it can get you to a point, almost a breaking point.

And I think when people start to think of suicide, it’s that their resources are running out. And the pain seems to be just bigger than what they have for resources.”

Traci Raynor, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who deals with patients in Wyoming County and other rural areas of New York, said a lack of transportation and lack of awareness might sometimes contribute to higher risks of suicide.

“Most people don’t like to talk about suicide. So they don’t. And therefore, people go uneducated,” Raynor said. “It’s almost a cultural issue, these barriers that they face… I think that’s the biggest thing in a rural area: If we can get awareness of what’s available, I think that would help a lot.”

Teenagers and younger adults, like Matthew Mayle, are also at an especially higher risk for suicide in rural areas. A study by Ohio State University, conducted over the course of the past two decades, showed rural teenagers died by suicide twice as often as urban teenagers.

Besides the messy room and maybe a little more sleeping, Mayle’s mother didn’t notice blatant signs of depression or suicide risk in her son, which can sometimes include feelings of hopelessness, reckless behavior, increased drug use or feeling trapped, among others. Suicide is more complicated than the general public sometimes assumes; it is not typically related to just one life event, and it’s usually accompanied by a diagnosable mental illness.

Since her son’s death four and a half years ago, Saundra Mayle joined the suicide awareness task force to help students, parents and teachers understand the warning signs and prevent future deaths.

“I still like to talk about him. I like to bring up his name. It’s OK. We need to talk about these things,” Mayle said. “(Suicide) is a very hard word, but if somebody’s having problems, we do need to ask: ‘Are you thinking of suicide?’”

Meredith Minier and her daughter, Marissa, are both central figures in the Orleans County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

A few years after her husband’s death, Meredith attended her first coalition meeting. A Rochester police officer, a survivor of a suicide attempt, was speaking that night. She remembers crying through the entire presentation.

“And that night is where I realized, maybe I can do some good for somebody,” Meredith said.

Like Wyoming County’s coalition (as well as many others across Western New York), the Orleans County coalition’s job is to provide resources to people and point them in the right direction if they have questions about suicide risk or prevention.

In Orleans County, suicide rates have fallen in recent years, but they remain above the state average, according to that same three-year span between 2011 and 2013.

The coalition in Orleans County also employs the same “Cup of Joe” program as Wyoming County, in order to target the middle-aged demographic. Lee Minier himself, after all, was 57 when he died of suicide.

“We’ve made it our mission to try and help erase that stigma. And in this small town it starts with your friends and family,” his daughter, Marissa said. “We just don’t have all the resources that are available to the people in the cities, but that’s another thing the coalition and the other departments in this area are trying to work to fix.”

On a personal level, Meredith and Marissa must deal with a particularly grim fact: Three generations of family members have now died by suicide.

But unlike Lee’s family before them, who did not initially tell him that his grandmother died of suicide until he was in his forties, Meredith and Marissa are taking an entirely different approach.

They’re open about it.

“It’s not the thirties or the forties or the fifties anymore, when families were keeping a lot of these personal issues personal. To this day, we have heard audible gasps, when we say out loud that we’ve lost three family members to suicide,” Marissa said. “People are shocked that we would say that out loud, even today, and that surprises me. And that is one of the reasons we are talking about it.”

For Meredith, the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death left her scrambling for answers. The trip to Germany, their plans to retire together, it was all thrown in limbo by Lee’s suicide.

It wasn’t until about five years ago that she finally realized her new future. That’s when her daughter and son-in-law sat Meredith down at the table and told her they were having a child.

“That was the day my life turned around,” Meredith said.

Hannah was born four and a half years ago, in 2011. Marissa has already noticed her father’s traits in her own daughter. She has a playful, mischievous side to her, just like Lee, and she also has an advanced vocabulary for her age and a knack for reading.

“I think they would have been the best of friends,” Marissa said. “And he could have taught her a lot of things that I won’t be able to. Because nobody could teach someone the way he could. So that’s sad. Not only did I lose a father — I was only 25, when he died — but it’s taken away a grandfather from my daughter.

And having to watch my mother go through that… that was probably the hardest part.”

Eventually, Marissa and Meredith will need to tell Hannah about her grandfather. She knows all about Papa already, and she sees all of the pictures in their homes, but she does not yet know how he died.

When they decide tell Hannah, they will be blunt. They know suicide is not a topic to dance around.

“Because we want this to stop right here,” Meredith said. “This is not going on for another generation.”

The following numbers are the local and national suicide hotlines:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Erie County: 716-834-3131

Chautauqua County: 1-800-724-0461

Niagara County: 716-285-3515

Allegany County: 585-593-5706

Cattaraugus County: 1-800-339-5209

Orleans/Genesee County: 585-343-1212

Wyoming County: 1-800-724-8583

Timothy Simpson, Killed by Police in Missouri

This story was originally published in May 2013, providing an in-depth look into a police shooting in rural mid-Missouri. A review of police records — and dash cam video obtained through a Sunshine request — revealed that officers fired 20 shots at an armed subject in a heavily residential trailer park. 

CALLAWAY COUNTY — It took four seconds to kill Timothy Simpson.

The death shot came to the head. Extensive damage to the brain, the autopsy reads. His life ended on April 2, 2012, in the doorway of his cousin’s trailer. He was 34.

Investigators later searched the scene and recovered 15 shell casings from a highway patrolman’s M-16 assault rifle. They also found five from a deputy’s .40 caliber pistol.

Some of the shots that missed Simpson traveled through dry wall and pelted Jason Hazlett’s neighboring trailer in the Green Meadows Trailer Park, located right on the edge of the city lines of Fulton, Mo. The bullets hit Hazlett’s refrigerator and left visible holes in his bedroom, just inches above the bed where he normally sleeps.

Investigators found one other thing at the scene: a .380 caliber pistol belonging to Simpson. He’d been firing it randomly in the neighborhood early that morning, prompting 9-1-1 calls from neighbors and a response from law enforcement. One caller told the operator there was a man pacing around the park saying he was “gonna have a shootout with the cops.”

When officers arrived, reports claim Simpson first pointed the gun at his head before making a movement interpreted as a threat by officers. Even Simpson’s cousin, Dustin Hook, admitted to investigators the gun “might have looked like it was pointed at the officers.”

Hook said the shooting sounded like a bomb went off. Shortly after Simpson’s death, the family tore down the trailer to erase all memory of the incident. They bought a new one, but much to their horror, it only reminds them of the old one.

The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, simply meaning someone killed another person. Deputy Alan Lebel of the Callaway County Sherriff’s Department fired the pistol. Cpl. Troy Stegeman of the Missouri State Highway Patrol fired the M-16 assault rifle. Judging by the video from Stegeman’s patrol car, obtained by KOMU 8 News via a public records request, the shots began at 6:17:28 a.m.

Four seconds of repeated booms.

Then radio traffic at 6:17:32.

“Shots fired!”

And then dead silence.

“Received gunfire,” said the stoic voice on the other end. “Shots fired.”

They called for the EMS. Timothy Simpson was pronounced dead at the scene.

Callaway County prosecuting attorney Chris Wilson said he has declined to press charges against the two officers.

“When a law enforcement officer is facing the business end of a handgun,” Wilson said, “their job is to protect themselves.”

SHOTS FIRED

The world will never know exactly what happened in that trailer park. The Highway Patrol’s video captures the sounds of the shooting, but the activity happened yards away from the view of the camera.

According to reports, highway patrolman Stegeman responded to a Troop F radio call around 6 a.m. Somebody had been shooting a gun in the air at the Green Meadows Trailer Park, so he met Lebel at the corner of Route F and West 7th Street, just a few blocks from the area. Family members would later tell investigators that Timmy Simpson had been “acting crazy” and may have been upset about a girlfriend.

“Paranoid,” Michael Simpson told investigators. “That’s the word I’d use.”

Local authorities knew Simpson. He’d been in and out of jail for the past decade, convicted on drug charges, theft and assault. His family said he had a history of mental illness.

It was pitch black when Lebel and Stegeman encountered Simpson standing in the doorway of his trailer. From the lawn, they drew their weapons and demanded he drop his gun. Instead, he put it to his own head, threatening to kill himself.

The next move is under dispute.

The Callaway County Sheriff’s Department and Missouri State Highway Patrol declined to comment for this story, but the investigative documents contain interviews with both officers. Stegeman told investigators that Simpson “appeared to be taunting him” and made a “forward motion” with his pistol. He also said Simpson had waved the gun at him when they first arrived on the scene, even though Lebel said in his interview that Simpson originally had the gun pointed at the ground. The encounter occurred after Stegeman had been informed of the 9-1-1 calls and Simpson’s threats to start a shootout.

“I didn’t second guess anything,” Stegeman told investigators. “My anxiety spiked at that point. I was like, this doesn’t sound good whatsoever. It’s not just someone going out happy shooting, he’s yelling, ‘call the cops, bring ‘em on out here and let’s have a shootout.'”

When the situation turned heated and all guns became drawn, Lebel said Simpson “continued to disobey my orders to put the gun down.”

“Simpson started to bring the muzzle of the gun down pointed towards Trooper Stegeman and I. I fired my duty weapon three to four times at Simpson aiming at his center mass,” Lebel said. “I stopped firing when Simpson fell to the ground inside the trailer and was no longer a threat.”

Chapter 563.046 of Missouri’s Revised Statutes authorizes law enforcement to use deadly force when the subject “may otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.”

However, the law makes no specifications as to how many times the officers can fire or where they can aim on a subject’s body.

“The law’s not written in a vacuum,” Wilson said. “You read the law, and then you compare the law to what you know to be true.”

After Wilson declined to prosecute the case, the joint investigative report from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Callaway County Sheriff’s Department became open record for KOMU 8 News to request. The search warrant shows five shots from Lebel’s pistol, listed as .40 federal casings (other documents in the report list four casings). The 15 from Stegeman’s assault rifle were listed as .223 caliber shell casings.

It is unclear whether Simpson himself fired a shot. A .380 shell casing was found at the scene from his gun, but it could have been a leftover from the shots he fired in the air in the middle of the night. Stegeman said he found a box of .380 ammo after examining Simpson’s dead body.

Bullet holes were everywhere at the crime scene. On the front of the trailer. The back of the trailer. The neighboring trailers.

“They didn’t really have to shoot that many rounds off,” said Chasity Hook, Dustin’s brother and Timothy’s other cousin. “They could have shot one time or something.”

Hook saw the shooting from her trailer next door. Her mother, Rose Simpson, lives down the street and rushed to the scene when her daughter called her that morning. In the immediate aftermath of her nephew’s death, she released her raw emotions in an interview with KOMU 8 News.

“After they shot him the first time they should have just stopped and let it go,” Simpson said that morning, nearly in tears. “They didn’t have to keep shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting and take his life. That is wrong. And they get away with this.”

More than a year later, her sentiment hasn’t changed.

“Way too many times,” Simpson said. “[They] use a military rifle so you might as well put him in the line of fire and shoot him like a dog, because that’s what they did.”

The sheer amount of shots may seem stunning to the untrained eye, especially the 15 fired from Stegeman’s assault rifle.

But it’s not surprising to David Klinger, a criminal justice expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former street cop.

“For an officer to fire 15 rounds in a shooting, with an individual who is armed with a gun, is not unusual,” Klinger said. “In fact, I’ve interviewed multiple officers who’ve fired more rounds than that.”

Michael Lyman, a Columbia College expert on use of force and former DEA agent, listened to the video of the gunshots from the Highway Patrol and reached the same conclusion.

“I don’t know that that’s an unreasonable number of shots to be fired,” Lyman said, just seconds after hearing the shooting on tape. “It’s hard to say what a proper number of rounds would be because it depends on the actions of the subject at the time.”

The bottom line, Lyman and Klinger both said, is that officers are trained to shoot until the threat has ended. They also said they are trained to shoot first at the midsection.

“Officers are trained to shoot to stop,” Lyman said. “Not shoot to kill.”

Except Timothy Simpson died from a gunshot wound to the head.

HEADSHOT

Due to the potential for civil litigation from the Simpson family, Wilson declined to comment specifically on this case. However, he agreed to speak with KOMU 8 News to discuss general topics regarding officer-involved shootings and how he reaches decisions on whether to prosecute.

That’s why Wilson paused for several seconds to answer one particular question.

Do you really not consider where the subject was shot?

After the prolonged silence, he finally responds.

“The key is, what threat was the officer facing?” Wilson said. “You often hear people say, ‘well they could have shot him in the leg, or they could have shot him in the hand’ or something, and that’s Hollywood. That’s just not reality.”

Klinger said headshots are sometimes unavoidable.

“What police are trained across the country is to shoot to center mass,” Klinger said. “But if you continue to shoot into those areas and the suspect is still there, then officers are then trained to go to the headshot.”

According to the autopsy, the bullet Simpson took to the skull caused multiple fractures and essentially destroyed the tissue on the entire right side of his brain. The fragments found were “consistent with a high velocity round.”

“It’s a very unfortunate situation that somebody had to lose their life over this,” Lyman said. “But if the officers did everything that they could do leading up to the shooting, many of these situations have no other reasonable outcome than the shooting of the subject.”

GONE ASTRAY

Even if the dangerous situation caused the officers to shoot Simpson – and shoot him in the head – there is also the question as to what happened to the other shots.

If the autopsy shows that four shots hit Simpson, it means at least a dozen other shots missed him and flew somewhere else. Many of those bullets landed in Jason Hazlett’s trailer, located just north of the scene.

That morning, he pointed out several holes in his refrigerator, and his home still has visible damage to this day. Bullets tore open the front of his trailer, hit the side of his window, traveled through that wall and then through Hazlett’s bedroom, where bullets struck above his bed.

Hazlett was sleeping in the other room that morning.

That might have saved his life.

“I sleep on my hip,” Hazlett said, demonstrating his normal sleeping position on his bed. “It would have probably got me.”

The shots then went through the back of the trailer and toward the rest of the park. According to 911 calls, several children were awake in the trailer park in preparation for the school day.

Diagrams show the officers were likely not that far away from their subject during the standoff.

It was still dark at 6:17 in the morning, but they told investigators they had shined a bright flashlight on Simpson to see their target.

“It could be other things and other factors. Maybe their ability to see the person. Maybe the person was moving,” Lyman said. “It’s really hard to say. It’s difficult for any of us after the fact to armchair quarterback the thing and pass any judgments.”

That raises another question: the appropriateness of an assault rifle in a residential neighborhood with children.

“What if it had hit someone else’s kid,” Rose Simpson said.

But Lyman said it is not uncommon for law enforcement agencies to give assault rifles to their officers.

“With regard to the trailers located behind, that’s another difficult circumstance,” Lyman said. “But you can’t expect reasonably for the officers not to respond if they are facing that threat of serious physical injury or death.”

DEALING WITH LOSS

Timothy Simpson’s toxicology report from the autopsy showed a positive test for methamphetamines at the time of his death. He was a drifter who didn’t have a permanent residence. When investigators asked Chasity Hook about her cousin’s occupation, she couldn’t answer.

“He’s had a rough life,” Hook said. “All his life.”

When word began to spread among Simpson’s family that he might have been shot, his father called 9-1-1 to demand information. Kenny Simpson told the operator “a war is coming on” if his son was dead.

That war has come in the form of litigation. Simpson’s family hired an attorney shortly after the incident.

“I just think it’s wrong,” Rose Simpson said. “It doesn’t give you the right to be the judge, jury and executioner.”

Wilson sees it differently.

“We have to determine whether it was reasonable for that person to believe that there was a threat of death or physical personal injury,” Wilson said. “And if it was reasonable, then that person gets the benefit of the doubt.”

Collateral Damage

Originally published on Nov. 14, 2014.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – On June 3, 2013, an unfortunate but familiar sequence of events unfolded.

The Buffalo Police Department executed a search warrant at an apartment on Breckenridge Street on the city’s West Side, looking for drugs. Upon entry, officers encountered a dog, described in this particular incident report as “an aggressive pit bull type.” One officer fired his shotgun three times. The dog died.

Cindy was two years old, not even fifty pounds heavy. Adam Arroyo, an Iraq War veteran, adopted her when she was only six months old.

“These animals,” Arroyo said, “they become like part of your family.”

That week, Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda launched an internal investigation into Cindy’s death, following accusations that his officers had accidentally raided the wrong apartment and should never have confronted Cindy in the first place. The case received major local media attention— one of the few dog-shooting cases to make headlines in Western New York.

But these are not uncommon scenarios. According to use of force reports requested by WGRZ-TV under the Freedom of Information Law, Buffalo Police shot at 92 dogs from Jan. 1, 2011 through Sept. 2014. Seventy-three of those dogs died. Nineteen survived. In comparison, Buffalo’s numbers more than triple the amount of dog shooting incidents involving police in Cincinnati, a municipality of similar size. The New York City Police Department, the nation’s largest force, reported killing half as many dogs as the Buffalo Police Department in its two most recent annual discharge reports.

SEE: New York City Police Department 2012 Annual Firearms Discharge Report

“The numbers are what the numbers are,” Buffalo Police Chief of Detectives Dennis Richards said. “Certainly, no officer takes any satisfaction in having to dispatch a dog.”

During the time period analyzed by WGRZ-TV, one individual officer shot 26 dogs, killing nearly all of them. In the years 2011 and 2012 alone, this officer killed as many dogs in the line of duty as the entire NYPD.

The Buffalo Police Department does not train specifically for canine encounters, according to Richards, even though dozens of other police departments across the United States have recently implemented new training procedures to deal with dogs. Unlike other departments, officers in Buffalo do not use Tasers, spray or other tools to contain animals in a non-lethal manner.

“It has not come to that point in Buffalo,” Richards said, “that we’ve implemented any of those other techniques.”

Under departmental protocol, Buffalo Police may legally use their firearms “if the officer or another person is in the process of being attacked by an animal and is in imminent danger.” In the case of Cindy, police simply noted in their incident report that the dog was “aggressive,” a word which appears dozens of times in the use of force records.

Many of the 92 shootings in Buffalo occurred during high-intensity raids and search warrant executions, which often involve split-second decisions and fast-paced pursuits of armed and dangerous subjects. In some cases, these criminals train their dogs – usually pit bulls — to protect themselves and threaten law enforcement.

Sometimes, a police officer has no choice but to fire his weapon.

“It’s a small percentage of the number of total search warrants executed or actions taken by police,” Richards said, noting the department responds to about 1,000 calls per day and has already carried out 357 search warrants this year.

Not every call involved a search warrant. According to a November 2011 incident report, Buffalo Police responded with a dog control officer to an intersection on the East Side, where two dogs had apparently killed another dog. When the police arrived, one of those dogs charged an officer, at which point he fired a fatal shot.

In January 2011, two officers opened fire on two large black dogs in the back lot of the police station after they began to “bark and charge.” The officers fired one shot each— both missed. The dogs ran away. And in December 2012, an officer responded to a call at a residence near Delaware Park, which claimed a man was preparing to shoot a dog in the yard. When the officer arrived, the pit bull then “started charging at the officer,” prompting the officer to fire a round and kill the dog.

Buffalo Police have shot an average of 24 dogs per year since 2011, a pace of one dog roughly every two weeks. Due to the lack of a national record-keeping system, however, it’s difficult to compare Buffalo’s numbers to other municipalities.

Cincinnati Police provided WGRZ-TV with a copy of its use of force records, which revealed officers had shot 27 dogs from Jan. 1, 2011 through Sept. 2014.

The New York City Police Department produces an annual discharge report, publishing its most recent version in 2012. According to those reports, the NYPD shot 72 dogs in 2011 and 2012, but fewer than 30 percent of those cases (21) resulted in fatalities. Buffalo Police – which has a fatality rate of 79 percent since 2011 in officer-involved dog shootings – killed twice as many dogs as the NYPD in that two-year span.

Of course, for every Cincinnati and New York City, there are also cities like Milwaukee, where a lawsuit cited by the Associated Press revealed the police department shot nearly 50 dogs per year from 2000 to 2008. In Southwest Florida, the News-Press discovered 111 instances of dog shootings among multiple agencies between 2009 and 2012, representing about 37 per year. According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Police shot approximately 90 dogs per year between 2008 and 2013.

Dr. Randall Lockwood, a senior vice president for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has studied police dog shooting incidents in hundreds of municipalities, dating back more than a decade.

“Your information from Buffalo, unfortunately, isn’t that unusual for some cities, particularly where there hasn’t been training,” Lockwood said.

Although it’s impossible to create an official tally of nationwide dog shootings, it’s apparent through social media that these cases occur quite often. Using Facebook, dog owners can often rally tens of thousands of supporters after police shoot their dogs, which has helped lead to widespread departmental change in some instances. In Colorado, for example, a string of officer-involved dog shootings collected major media attention and, eventually, led to a new state law requiring police officers to undergo canine training. Illinois passed a similar law last year, and legislation has surfaced in several other states addressing dog shootings by law enforcement.

In Cleburne, Texas, the public has rallied this fall for Justice for Maximus. A police body camera recorded an officer shooting and killing Maximus the Pit Bull, which spurred an investigation. In the midst of the public outcry, the department has enlisted the help of Jim Osorio, a former police officer and one of the nation’s most renowned experts on police canine encounters.

MORE: Law enforcement to train for dog encounters

Osorio, author of “Surviving the Canine Encounter” and an instructor for Canine Encounters Law Enforcement Training, will teach officers in Cleburne non-lethal methods for controlling dogs in the line of duty. Using a live dog, he’ll show officers how to read dogs’ facial expressions, how to approach dogs and how to use spray, Tasers, batons or other tools to safely fend off a threat.

Osorio has traveled the country to implement this same training. He said he’s trained countless officers in places like Ithaca, N.Y., Atlanta, Ga., Texas, Washington, Idaho, Indiana and California.

“I felt the need that police officers need better interaction with dogs on the street,” Osorio said, “other than just taking out a gun and shooting them.”

Lockwood said it’s time for every department to get on board.

“Unfortunately, it usually takes a high-profile incident, something that’s gone viral, gone public, or a lawsuit, to really have this taken seriously,” Lockwood said. “But that’s changing. We’re now seeing police departments who are looking at this kind of training. Proactively, and pre-emptively, they recognize that it’s an important part of community-oriented policing.”

Buffalo has not implemented this training, according to Chief Richards.

“I don’t know if that would be a recommended course of action. Have you heard of that?” Richards said. “No, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of using live animals to illustrate how an officer should react.”

Adam Arroyo was at work when police raided his apartment last June. He claims he chained Cindy before he left that morning.

When he returned home that evening, he discovered bullet holes in his dry wall, not to mention the remnants of Cindy’s chain and toys. But he didn’t find Cindy’s body. After police killed her, Animal Control immediately transported her to the animal shelter. From there, Arroyo cremated her.

According to Arroyo, his apartment complex has two units in the upper section. He believes police intended to raid his neighbor’s apartment, but instead barged through his door and shot Cindy.

“We should not get the wrong apartment. I can’t justify getting the wrong apartment,” Commissioner Derenda told reporters that week in a press conference. “We are looking into what took place. If something took place that shouldn’t have taken place, then people will be held accountable.”

More than a year later, the Buffalo Police Department declined to provide WGRZ-TV with an update on the internal investigation. Arroyo has since moved out of his apartment.

“How would they feel if somebody ran into their house and did that to them?” Arroyo said. “The message would be, just do your investigation correctly, realize what you’re doing, and maybe have animal control or some type of non-lethal method to extract these dogs.”

On the early morning of July 29, 2014, Buffalo Police assisted on a raid in West Seneca. Same scenario: executing a search warrant, digging for drugs.

“I pretty much heard the two shots,” said Ronnie Raiser III, who had just awoken in his bedroom when the officers entered his home. “After the first shot, I heard the dog squeal.”

During the raid, police killed Raiser’s one-year-old pit bull, Rocky. The department’s incident report once again described the dog as “aggressive.”

Raiser has filed a formal complaint with the Buffalo Police Department and the West Seneca Police Department, alleging excessive force and civil rights violations. In the complaint, Raiser claims the officers raided the home looking for Ecstasy. Instead, he said officers only found a small stash of his roommate’s marijuana.

“Not only did they not find any of the items listed in the warrant,” the complaint states, “they shot and killed my 15-month-old dog Rocky.”

Raiser plans to eventually file a notice of claim.

“I bawled my eyes out,” Raiser said. “It’s hard. It really is.”

According to the use of force reports obtained by 2 On Your Side, the same police officer involved in the raid of Raiser’s home also shot Arroyo’s dog, Cindy, back in 2013. This is also the same officer who, as previously mentioned, shot 26 dogs in a three-and-a-half year span, more than any other officer in the department.

Richards explained that some officers act as the lead for the entry team during raids, which could place certain individuals in position to encounter aggressive dogs more often than others.

“It’s a very dangerous job,” Richards said, “and per capita, the amount of work that we do, the amount of search warrants executed, the amount of calls answered by individual officers, I think the numbers are what the numbers are.”

Twenty-five of the 26 dogs shot by this officer died. In fact, more than three-quarters of the dogs shot by Buffalo Police died from their wounds. In Cincinnati and New York City, fewer than half of the dog shootings resulted in death.

Richards said he couldn’t explain the high percentage of fatalities. In Cincinnati, the police department’s policy explicitly directs officers not to take head shots at dogs, if possible.

READ: Cincinnati Police Department’s Policy

Chief Richards said the Buffalo Police Department would consider using non-lethal tools to contain dogs, noting that his department has researched other cities before for feedback.

“We’re always willing to look at other tools available and other technology available and other ways of doing business,” Richards said. “Tasers have come up in the past from time to time – the use of Tasers – but I think they’re still a controversial topic.”

In New York City, written procedures direct officers to “attempt to prevent an animal attack using non-lethal options, including batons and OC spray.” The ASCPA considers the NYPD a shining example of a progressive police department as it pertains to animal protocol.

“We have been involved in training NYPD officers for many years,” Lockwood said. “On a per capita basis, New York is far lower in incidents than that of lot of other cities.”

For Buffalo, the department will have to live with its own number: 92 dog shootings in three-and-a-half years. Seventy-three fatalities.

“It’s nothing to be happy about when a dog has to be let go. But, again, we should stress that it’s the owners of those dogs. It’s the drug dealer that is putting that dog in harm’s way,” Richards said.

On June 3, 2013, the search warrant of the Breckenridge apartment on the West Side yielded no drugs, Arroyo said.

“Cindy was the first dog that was mine… she was actually my dog. First dog ever, and she was a great dog,” Adam Arroyo said. “She was friendly. All the kids in the neighborhood used to come up and pet her. She wasn’t a threat, you know?”

The Steven Rios Case

Originally published on Feb. 14, 2013. 

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – There are no cameras allowed in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

No tape recorders. No cell phones. No coats. Nothing in your pockets. Everything you own stays in a locker, except for your photo identification. Alongside mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and fathers of convicted criminals, you wait for a correctional officer to call your name. Then, you trudge down a flight of creaky stairs, walk through a long, winding corridor and eventually reach the entrance to the visitor’s room, where an officer behind a barred window greets you.

Flash your ID, please. He graciously provides you with a pencil and yellow legal pad of paper. It’s the least he can do. He’s been waiting for your arrival.

You’re in. Your head perks up. He’s not at the first table. Not at the second table. Not at the third table. He’s not the inmate with the long ponytail. He’s not the one with the tattoos. Suddenly, the one you’re looking for emerges. You lock eyes. A slender man, towering over you and appearing much taller than he does in photographs, walks toward you, sporting glasses, white shoes and a jumpsuit with the words “MAXIMUM CUSTODY” printed on the front.

Steven Rios stretches out his right hand.

“I’m Steve,” he says. “Nice to meet you.”

There’s no separating glass as you find a table in the back of the room where you can talk quietly. Wearing formal work attire, you apologize for over-dressing for the occasion. “Nah, you guys are fine,” Rios says warmly. “Where should we start?”

At the table to your left, there’s another man in a jumpsuit playing a card game with his children. Behind you, two guards sit comfortably and observe the room. In front of you, officers escort various prisoners in and out of the room in handcuffs.

You don’t know where to start. Neither does he. So instead of conducting a formal interview, you just talk. For two hours, you sit face-to-face with a former officer of the Columbia Police Department, a man prosecutors said slit a victim’s throat so violently it severed his jugular vein. They said Steven Rios drove to Jesse Valencia’s house on East Campus in the early hours of June 5, 2004, chased him down Wilson Avenue, strangled him unconscious and then cut his throat with a serrated knife. They said Rios killed this fun-loving, 23-year-old University of Missouri student because the two had been having a homosexual affair, and murder was the only option to keep his wife and police chief from finding out. In 2005, jurors voted 12 to zero that Rios was the murderer. After a retrial in 2008 — called because of hearsay testimony in the first trial — 12 more jurors listened to the evidence and reached the same conclusion.

So for the majority of his adult life, Steven Rios will likely remain in this state prison in Sioux Falls, kept an eight-hour drive from his home in Columbia because a former police officer might not be safe in a Missouri prison with the chance of meeting someone he once arrested. This building, located on North Drive, overlooks the skyline of the largest city in South Dakota, but Rios cannot see the beautiful sunrise or scenic Falls Park from his prison cell.

He has not spoken publicly since the second conviction, but his story hasn’t changed since the day of his arrest.

“The people who really matter,” Rios said, “know that I am innocent.”

Like his ex-wife, Libby, who divorced him and remarried after the affair, but still claims he’s not a killer. Her interview with KOMU 8 News breaks almost a decade of silence.

“There’s an awful lot of people who cheat on their spouse every day,” the former Libby Rios said. “That doesn’t mean they’re capable of committing a murder. It doesn’t mean they should have their lives taken away from them.”

Libby’s parents are on board, too. John and Suzanne Sullivan, who still frequently correspond with Rios in prison, have forgiven him for destroying their daughter’s marriage.

“He hurt our daughter. He hurt our family,” John Sullivan said. “There have been some serious rifts in our family, perhaps some of which are still there. But as we went through the trial, with the evidence presented…”

“He didn’t do it.”

Problem is, two juries said he did.

——

Jesse Valencia wanted to be a lawyer. He was politically active, a frequent publisher of editorial work in local newspapers and the kind of kid who surely would have excelled in law school. He was gay– and darned proud of that fact. His shaggy hair was his trademark. So was his friendly, effeminate voice, razor-thin build and, best of all, his infectious personality.

Valencia seemed to attract everybody he met. On April 18, 2004, he met officer Steven Rios under the most unfriendly of circumstances. Responding to a peace disturbance call at an East Campus party, Rios encountered an uncooperative college kid and immediately arrested him. Valencia wasn’t in big trouble, no, but it gave Rios a reason to keep seeing him.

The officer-civilian relationship turned into a sexual relationship. Nobody knew about it except for a few of Valencia’s friends. When somebody found Valencia’s dead body just off the MU campus on the afternoon of June 5, 2004, Rios admitted he knew the victim, but nothing more. He then reported on duty to the very murder scene two juries eventually convicted him of creating, using his poker face to hide any emotion. Over the course of the next few days, tips from the Crimestoppers hotline began to cause suspicion. There was a cop who’d been having sex with the victim, the witnesses said. When Rios learned of these vague accusations about an officer, he set up a voluntary interview with investigators. He knew the storm was coming in his direction, and he wanted to clear the air.

He tried to protect his clean image by lying about the affair to investigators at first, but the police were a step ahead. They had witnesses who could identify Rios. They knew the truth about the affair. When the media released Rios’ name and reported that he’d been the officer sleeping with Valencia, his world began to crash down. On June 10, he bought a shotgun and threatened to kill himself, which landed him in the former Mid-Mo Mental Health Center in Columbia. On June 11, he escaped from the center and climbed the roof of the Maryland Avenue parking garage, where he threatened to jump in front of hundreds of dazed spectators.

That was an admission of guilt, according to former police chief Randy Boehm.

“We’re saying, ‘If you’re not guilty of this, why are you reacting that way?” It actually caused us to re-evaluate his involvement in it,” Boehm said. “We began to feel like that he was reacting that way because he knew that he had done something he could not undo.”

Police still claimed Rios wasn’t a suspect. Then, the lab results came back: DNA under a fingernail matching Steven Arthur Rios. The mixture matched another suspect — a sexual partner of Valencia’s – but the Columbia Police Department wasn’t pursuing him anymore. That DNA didn’t matter. Rios’ did. On July 1, 2004, they arrested him. In a probable cause statement, Detective John Short cited an expert opinion that stated Rios’ DNA wouldn’t have lasted under Valencia’s fingernail for more than a week, thus proving the evidence must have meant he had some contact with the victim besides just sex. However, in CPD’s investigative report, which KOMU 8 News obtained upon the denial of Rios’ appeal in June 2012, Kim Gorman of the Paternity Testing Corporation told investigators “it would be impossible for her to speculate” how long the DNA would stay under the fingernail. In trial, one of the defense’s witnesses testified the same opinion.

To understand why Rios maintains his innocence, it is first important to understand why the juries convicted him in the first place. There was motive for a police officer to silence the young man who could have revealed their relationship to his wife and his police chief. There was DNA, not only under his fingernail, but also on his chest and on Valencia’s sheets. The probability of the hair on Valencia’s chest belonging to anybody but Rios was 1 in 757.6 trillion. There were two bizarre suicide attempts, a whole lot of lies to investigators and an unflattering story about an officer of the law abusing his power. And the timeline of the murder, presented by prosecutor Morley Swingle, resonated with the jurors as a plausible scenario, even though it would have needed to allow time for Rios to discard of his clothes and blood. According to search warrant documents, investigators did not recover any blood from his house, drains or car.

Valencia also fell unconscious after strangulation, which could have been caused by something called the unilateral vascular neck restraint. An officer testified in court to having taught the technique in a class Rios attended years earlier. Rios’ appeal disputed this fact. Plus, officers testified to having seen Rios wear a clip knife with a serrated edge on occasion, even though police never recovered the murder weapon and Rios claims a trace metal test shows he never wore that kind of knife. Swingle argued in court that the missing clip knife was evidence that Rios threw it away after the killing.

The jurors heard all of this evidence, and they decided to convict Steven Arthur Rios on two different occasions.

“Perry Mason and Clarence Darrow could not have gotten him off,” Swingle said.

But Rios and his family say there’s more to the trial and case than what media outlets originally reported.

“I think Steve has actually said, ‘If I watched the news, I would think I did it,'” Libby Sullivan said. “I hope [people] do understand there’s an awful lot of things they don’t know.”

Libby and her ex-husband haven’t spoken to each other in years, but they’re on the same wavelength.

“I just ask people to learn more before they form an opinion on the case,” Rios said. “I think hopefully, one day, if someone knows something out there, there may be a small piece of the puzzle that could break the whole thing open.”

——

Christopher Ryan Kepner arrived home in the middle of the night on June 5, 2004, woozy and intoxicated from a night of drinking. All he wanted to do was sleep.

But he couldn’t. Next door, in the apartment rented by Jesse Valencia, a frustrating commotion kept his eyes wide open. No, I don’t want to sleep in the car, he told police he heard from a voice.

Stop it, he heard. No, I’m not sleeping in the car.

Kepner told investigators he heard bumps on the wall. In 2004, he described the scene for KOMU 8 News.

“Heard the bumping on the wall, like all across the wall, from here to here, in the frame of about two to five minutes,” Kepner said, demonstrating with his hands. “Just bumping, just like somebody stumbling and kind of bumping into the wall like ‘Oh, stop it.'”

According to police documents, Kepner recalled hearing this dispute sometime between 3 and 4:30 a.m. In an interview with the Columbia Tribune’s Mike Wells, he stated the same time frame. Kepner, who had moved into his apartment the previous month, hardly knew Valencia. He certainly didn’t know his life well enough to predict what may have started an argument in his apartment, but he told police “it seemed like someone was ‘booting’ another subject out of the apartment.” In trial, Kepner told the jury he awoke around the next day to find Valencia’s apartment door partly ajar.

On June 5, 2004, Steven Rios worked the overnight shift at the Columbia Police Department. At 3 a.m., his shift ended. Rios then joined officers Jerry Greene, Scott Young, Leah Wooden and Jason Jones at the top of the CPD garage for a customary post-work routine: drinking beer and making small talk after a long night on the job. During the time Kepner told police he heard a disturbance, Rios was miles away from Valencia’s apartment, on the top of the garage with four alibis. Jones told police that Young was the final officer to arrive- around 4:15 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. He remembered “the sky began to lighten up,” and at that point, the crowd began to disperse.

Police computer records show that Rios used the entry key at the Columbia Police Department at 4:37 a.m. That fact cannot be denied– he can be accounted for until then. Wooden and other officers estimated in trial that Rios left the garage sometime around 4:47.

The next half-hour to forty-five minute time frame are under dispute. Rios said he left the garage and drove straight home to his wife and infant son. The jurors thought he made a pit stop on Wilson.

At 5:15 a.m., Libby Rios Sullivan awoke to the sound of her son squealing on the baby monitor. For two or three minutes, she told police she sat in her bed, praying her son would quiet down so she could get some much-needed sleep. That didn’t happen. A few minutes later, she said her husband walked into the house. No bruises, no scratches, no bloody clothes, she recalled. The police reports show Rios did not suffer any injuries or have any significant scratches. Libby said her ex-husband then washed himself and went to sleep.

Officer Timothy Giger timed the route from the Columbia Police Department garage to 1414 Wilson, the address of Jesse Valencia. Two minutes and 42 seconds. From 1414 Wilson to the Affirmed Drive address of Steven and Libby Rios, the route takes seven minutes and seventeen seconds.

That’s nine minutes and 59 seconds combined. In the rough time frame from 4:47 or so to 5:15 or 5:30 a.m. on June 5, 2004, Steven Rios would have had to drive a ten-minute route and stop in between to chase Jesse Valencia down Wilson Avenue, strangle him, slit his throat with a knife and then discard his clothes, the murder weapon and any blood.

“You’re talking about four o’clock in the morning when there’s no traffic, and he’s a police officer, so he doesn’t have to obey the speed,” said prosecutor Morley Swingle, recalling his victory in court. “Twenty-four jurors have heard this evidence and 24 to zero have said, ‘Yeah, the timeline works.'”

The prosecutor believed Rios had enough time to commit the murder. So did the police chief and the investigators. The juries did, too, or else they wouldn’t have convicted him.

Rios’ ex-wife isn’t so sure.

“I was there,” Libby said. “At our house. Saw him come home… I saw his demeanor. He wasn’t covered in blood, he didn’t have scrapes, he didn’t have bruises.”

That’s what defense attorney Gillis Leonard tried to argue in the second trial.

“It’s sort of like the O.J. thing,” Leonard said. “Where did the bloody clothes go?”

Police documents show investigators raided Rios’ house and car for evidence. At his home, they “screened the drain trap water for trace blood with negative results,” and they also found negative results when screening the hall bathroom.

“He would have had to change clothes, clean up very quickly – very quickly – and get home,” Libby Sullivan said. “Where did he clean up? Those things don’t make sense to me. Even if you think I have some ulterior motive and am lying [about the time], look at everything else.”

The timeline happened well after the period between 3 and 4:30 a.m., when Kepner told investigators he heard the disturbance next door. Except that’s not exactly what Kepner said in court. When the trial began, Swingle poked holes in his story. Kepner said he was fairly certain it was still dark outside when he heard the commotion, but he told Swingle he couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that it happened before 4:30 a.m. After all, he’d spent a night out at Flat Branch Pub, a popular Columbia brewery famous for chili-flavored beer, brown ale and other assortments of alcohol.

“Are you going to let this man get away with murder,” Swingle told the jury during the 2008 trial, “because a man who’d had three vodka tonics and two pints of beer isn’t sure what time he heard thumping in the middle of the night?”

Under oath, Kepner couldn’t tell the jury what he told the police or the Columbia Tribune in 2004, not with the risk of perjury in a testimony filled with drunk memories. In court – where it mattered — he told Swingle the commotion technically could have happened any time between 3 and 10 a.m. This summer, part of Rios’ appeal claimed that Leonard should have called reporter Mike Wells to testify about Kepner’s original time frame. A judge overruled it.

But this isn’t the court of law anymore. Rios argues that at one point, Kepner did say he heard a disturbance when Rios was still on the roof of the Columbia Police Department’s parking garage. And when he awoke the next morning, Kepner said he noticed Valencia’s door open, which the defense team argued could have been a result of the real murderer chasing him out of his apartment.

There could have been a separate dispute that did not result in murder. That’s a possibility, but the defense used Kepner as a way to shed doubt on Rios’ involvement.

“[Kepner’s] testimony was not as well-received as it should have been,” Leonard said. “I thought he made a clear case for a commotion Steve had nothing to do with. But apparently the jury just kind of dismissed him.”

Kepner’s original statements to police also raised the possibility that another suspect had an altercation with Valencia on June 5, 2004. According to the Columbia Police Department’s 1,200-page investigative report, detectives pursued multiple persons of interest besides Rios. They arrested Rios following the discovery of his DNA under Valencia’s fingernail, but that same lab test also revealed the DNA of another person of interest in that same DNA mixture. The sexual partner, who had sex with Valencia fewer than 48 hours before the murder, was one of the last people to speak to Valencia alive.

An expert told police that “the bottom line” was that “DNA minor components are from Rios and [suspect’s name],” but Rios claimed this fact was underreported publicly at the time of the arrest.

“We never ran from the DNA evidence,” Rios said. “When they first disclosed it, they didn’t say that it was a mixture with another suspect.”

That was a focal point of Leonard’s defense–that DNA evidence proved only sex, not murder.

“They had other DNA on his body,” Leonard said. “He was an active, gay young man.”

Leonard also said not all the hairs found on Valencia’s body were testable. DNA evidence did not tie any other suspects to Valencia, but investigators pursued several suspects aggressively. One person of interest failed a voice stress test and requested to take the test again, according to police documents. Rios passed his voice stress test, even though Boehm said they are unreliable and inadmissible in court. Friends told investigators that this same person of interest had a romantic relationship with Valencia, but the man himself denied any sexual involvement during police interviews. Detectives also tried to get a positive identification on him from a witness early in the process, and they collected his DNA sample to enter into the database. Public records from the Boone County probate division also show that he became mentally unstable shortly after the first trial. Starting in July 2005, he began to check in and out of hospitals and “on two occasions his father had to wrestle a knife from his hands because his parents feared he would stab and cut himself.”

After Rios entered the picture, investigators did not re-interview the man again, though they did interview the person with the matching DNA again. During the course of the investigation, police also took DNA swabs from a man named William Clinch. He admitted to having sex with Valencia after meeting him online. In 2009, Clinch was convicted of murdering his brother-in-law in the so-called “McDonald’s Murder.”

Despite a list of other suspects who would be inviting to any investigator, once Rios became involved, Boehm said the investigation took a turn.

“I do think that once it started to become clear that there was some involvement with our officer and he might actually be responsible, we became more aggressive toward him,” Boehm said.

Rios said the suicide attempts might have sealed his fate.

“I kind of forced their hand,” Rios said. “It was not tied to Jesse’s murder. It was not, on my part, a consciousness of guilt in any part. It was just something that I dealt with personally. It was my whole life as I knew it, it was crumbling because of my wife and my whole life.”

In a two-hour session in the Sioux Falls correctional facility, Rios did not blame the Columbia Police Department for its investigation. He said he harbors no hard feelings toward detectives who simply did their jobs.

Rios ex-in-laws are a little more skeptical.

“We think there was a rush to judgment by the police to get it off the front page,” Suzanne Sullivan said, “because he was an embarrassment to the department.”

Not true, said Boehm.

“We certainly didn’t rush to judgment that he was responsible,” Boehm said. “It’s been long enough and I don’t want to get into specific details, but there was specific information that started to eliminate our other suspects.”

Still, John and Suzanne Sullivan aren’t buying that theory. They declined to say publicly whom they think committed the crime, but they’re adamant it wasn’t their ex-son-in-law. They also believe Rios would be a free man if he simply hadn’t threatened suicide.

“[After that], it certainly appeared to us that everything changed. It went from being, no, you’re not a suspect, to, you are our one prime suspect.”

Police arrested Rios less than a month after his two suicide attempts.

He’s been behind bars ever since.

——

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Steven Rios says he’s innocent.

“If I’m sitting in prison, and I’ve been found guilty of a crime, certainly what I’m going to say is, ‘I didn’t do it,'” Boehm said. “It’s very rare that somebody says, ‘You got me!’ You just don’t. Denial is a part of their life.”

A few hours after your talk with Rios begins, a voice over the intercom begins to bark orders.

All inmates who want to eat lunch, please exit the visiting room now.

Rios doesn’t flinch. Five years of silence has left him desperate, especially now that a judge denied his latest appeal for a new trial. In that appeal, he attacked Leonard for not calling the Tribune reporter to the stand, among other witnesses. Rios said he should have been able to testify himself — as he did in the first trial — and he also said a fellow officer could have testified that he was not taught the unilateral vascular neck restraint.

None of these defenses worked. They rarely do. Murder convictions are nearly impossible to overturn, but Rios says he’s still waiting for the day somebody comes forward with new evidence.

“We’re hoping the third time’s the charm,” Rios said.

When the interview ends, you shake Steven Rios’ right hand a second time. He thanks you for making the eight-hour drive to visit him. You thank him for his time. You grab your pencil and yellow legal pad, turn your back and walk through that quiet, white-walled corridor once again. You get to leave, but Rios stays in captivity.

“He did a horrible crime and he deserved to be punished,” Swingle said. “It’s so tragic that he chose to kill Jesse Valencia instead of just taking his lumps for having had an affair.”

“He deprived Linda Valencia of having a son, deprived Jesse Valencia of his life.”

Caught up in the whodunit, that’s the sentiment all parties seem to forget in murder trials.

“Jesse was a victim,” Suzanne Sullivan said. “Nobody should die the way he died.”

No matter who killed him.

The Stories of the Survivors

Originally published on Feb. 27, 2016.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – By her own estimation, Iyona Wilson has already buried nearly two dozen friends, family members or acquaintances, a pace of more than one death per year. She’s only 18 years old.

In Oct. 2014, her cousin was shot and killed. She’s attended a funeral for a 14-year-old, saw a shooting outside of the McDonald’s on Grider Street and constantly refreshes her Facebook feed only to learn of new victims and more tragedy. In the past nine months alone, she’s read about an 11-year-old shot and injured on Humason Avenue, an 8-year-old wounded on South Division Street, and a 16-year-old killed in a shooting on French Street. The 16-year-old was the 8-year-old’s older brother.

Although violent crime in Buffalo has dropped lately – by as much as 10 percent in 2016 compared to the previous 10-year average – it’s still a haunting reality for thousands of people in this city.

Wilson, who graduated last year from Math Science Technology Preparatory School in Buffalo, works tirelessly with the Buffalo Peacemakers to de-escalate the violent activity in her city’s neighborhoods.

But in her work, she carries scars, which developed gradually over her 18 years.

“I just feel like I bury more friends than I have friendships,” Wilson said. “We can’t enjoy our teenage years.”

Earlier this month, Wilson and two friends, 17-year-old Nakira White and 18-year-old Rachel Cofield, shared their personal stories of gun violence with 2 On Your Side, each bringing a unique perspective to the conversation. Cofield graduated from MST with Wilson last June; White is a senior at Sweet Home High School but attended MST for a year as a sophomore.

They believe in Buffalo, and they believe more must be done to highlight the positive things happening in their community.

But the three young women also spoke candidly about the friends they’ve lost and the emotional trauma they’ve endured. And they’re hardly alone— close to 35 percent of high school students in the Buffalo Public Schools reported they’ve seen somebody shot, stabbed or beaten in their own neighborhood. Exposure to such violence can significantly impact a child’s long-term health, and in the most serious of cases, this exposure can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to academic and medical research conducted in cities across the country.

Buffalo is no different — it still consistently rates among the most violent cities in the United States.

“It’s sad that we have to bury more people our age – there are adults who are 45, burying their kids who are 16 and 17,” Cofield said. “Innocent kids are getting hit.”

But these three young women, even in the face of immense adversity, are hoping to break the cycle of negativity.

On Oct. 9, 2014, a 17-year-old Burgard High School student named Shmerea Nailor was walking home from basketball practice in the Riverside section of Buffalo, near the intersection of Riverside Avenue and Ontario Street, accompanied by a few friends. Around 10:30 p.m., Nailor was shot and killed in front of a church by a person police have yet to formally identify or arrest. She was eight months away from her high school graduation, which she hoped to parlay into a college basketball career, potentially even at the Division I level.

Nailor was Iyona Wilson’s cousin, one of the many painful losses Wilson told 2 On Your Side about in this lengthy interview.

But Nailor was also a loyal friend, a loyal sister, and the daughter of Marquita Nailor.

“You think your kid is going to college, she’s gonna make something of her career, and she’s gonna be something,” Nailor said, “and then she’s gone.”

Nearly three years have passed since Nailor lost her daughter. She has since started a van service in honor of Shmerea’s name, created a scholarship program for area high schools and holds at least two charity events each year.

But the pain is immense, and it will not go away. Nailor’s other children have attended counseling after losing their sister. The loss of her cousin devastated Iyona Wilson. And it deeply affected Shmerea’s friends, basketball teammates and high school classmates, who honored her at the Burgard High School graduation in June 2015.

For Wilson, working with the Buffalo Peacemakers has offered perspective— that there’s nothing normal about living through constant reminders of violence, no matter how often it happens in your inner circle.

“Because I just thought that was the way of life,” she said, “because so many of my friends was dying, but now I’m older, and I’m looking at my generation, and sometimes it makes me want to cry because I just miss my friends. I wish they were here to enjoy the things that I’m learning, that I can experience, and they can’t experience that because they’re already gone.”

Gun violence has impacted Rachel Cofield directly in her Buffalo neighborhood. She feels unsafe sometimes when she takes her nephew outside or walks somewhere with her brother.

“We live in a cruel world and I don’t understand it. Because of gangs. Because of streets. Teenage males are killing each other over a street name,” Cofield said. “The street was there before you were even thought of, and it’s gonna be there after you’re gone, so what’s really this issue? Gun violence is sick.”

Nakira White, the soon-to-be 18-year-old who will graduate from Sweet Home this year, grew up mostly in the suburbs, where she said her mother shielded her from gun violence. But having attended MST in Buffalo – and having so many friends touched by gun violence one way or another – she feels the residual trauma.

“When I was growing up, I wanted to get a new puzzle for Christmas. I wasn’t worrying about if I would lose one of my family members,” White said. “It’s robbing the kids of their childhood. It’s not OK. It’s just not OK.”

Todd Timmons was a teenager when he buried his cousin, Kevin Carter, who was shot and killed at his home on Navel Avenue during a robbery attempt in 2007.

But that’s not his only personal encounter with gun violence.

Three years ago, the 23-year-old found himself in the middle of a violent melee at a house party on Newburgh Avenue. Timmons first noticed a heated argument. Then he saw someone in front of him firing shots, and soon, everyone was firing.

Timmons, a bystander to all the commotion, estimated he saw or heard at least 30 shots.

He tried to jump out of the line of fire— but a stray bullet caught him in the hip.

“I didn’t really feel it until I got to the emergency room,” Timmons said. “My adrenaline was rushing. I didn’t know if I was gonna die.”

When Timmons arrived at the hospital, doctors cleaned and patched his wound. A surgeon observed that the bullet had bounced off the hip bone and was stuck under a muscle, causing nerve damage.

Doctors told Timmons they couldn’t remove the bullet— because a surgery could cause further injury or paralysis.

So Timmons now walks around with a bullet inside of him, a reminder of that night three years ago when he was caught in the middle of a violent encounter. After rehabilitation, Timmons regained the ability to walk and run, although he still has to be careful he doesn’t put too much weight on either leg.

“I’m just thankful I’m alive,” he said.

Timmons now hopes to become a Buffalo Police officer.

He’s also a volunteer for the Buffalo Peacemakers as well as a youth mentor.

“I come from this community, so I know what’s going on in these neighborhoods. I know what some of the kids are going through in their houses, because I’ve been through some of the same things,” Timmons said. “I’ve been to a lot of funerals, where I see people I know losing people, and it’s the same hurting. It’s like, enough is enough.”

Exposure to chronic violence during childhood and adolescence can affect everything from school performance to psychological functioning to future relationships, according to Dr. Amanda Nickerson, the director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo.

Nickerson and her colleague, Dr. Rina Das Eiden, are in the second year of a five-year study into youth violence and victimization pathways. By interviewing more than 200 Western New York children, the two researchers are attempting to better understand the risk factors – and protective factors – that might predict whether a child grows up to carry out violence or become a victim of it.

One thing is already clear: seeing and hearing about violence so constantly has a profound impact on child development.

“It has a wide range of effects— there’s pretty much no area I can think of that it wouldn’t affect,” Nickerson said. “You’re not going to feel as safe, you’re not as willing to have healthy relationships, and you’re more likely to turn to risky behaviors, substance abuse and violence.”

And, depending on a number of factors, PTSD is a possible outcome.

“A good percentage of the kids who are exposed to chronic violence will go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Nickerson said. “Not everyone, but again, that’s a pretty serious clinical diagnosis that can come from that kind of ongoing stressor.”

In Buffalo, community and faith leaders are very conscious of the impact of violence on the city’s youth population.

Following the murder of 16-year-old Lewis Brewer on French Street in January, True Bethel Baptist Church took immediate notice and held an emergency forumfor more than 200 young men and women. The church, after all, is only a few blocks from the French Street location where the shooting happened.

On that January evening, Pastor Darius Pridgen and other leaders served dinner before separating the boys and girls into different rooms. Each person in attendance filled out a questionnaire, which included four questions:

What are your thoughts about the violence we are seeing in the city?

What do you feel should be done about it?

Do you ever feel pressure to be violent, join a gang or do other illegal things?

If you had the power, what would you change in your city?

Pridgen vowed to take the responses back to City Hall, where he serves as the Buffalo Common Council President.

Two participants in the forum were Alfred Middlebrooks, 12, and his brother, 16-year-old Amari Middlebrooks.

“The community’s going through a lot,” Alfred said before the meeting began. “We have a lot of shootings going on. Young black kids getting killed. We’re just here to protect that, to protect the youth.”

Pastor Rhonda Henderson, a True Bethel member, said one of the problems is that children don’t have time to process their feelings. They attend funeral after funeral, she said, without taking any time to reflect on their pain.

“They’re losing friends. They’re losing brothers. They’re losing fathers. They’re losing sisters,” Henderson said. “It just takes a toll.”

In their roundtable discussion on gun violence, Iyona Wilson, Nikara White and Rachel Cofield proposed a few solutions.

Repair a strained relationship between the African-American community and the Buffalo Police Department. Hold more community events. Emphasize the effects and impacts of gun violence in the public school system.

Cofield sees the problem largely as a vicious cycle.

“It starts in the home,” Cofield said. “If you’re growing up and you see your brother, your sister, your dad with a gun, then that’s all they know. But I just want kids to know—you do not have to choose that path. There are people out there who will help you.”

White would like to see more resources for children and teenagers to deal with the emotional trauma of losing friends and family to violence, in addition to the resources already available at school or at church.

“We just need an outlet. An outlet,” White said. “We just need to know, if I need someone to talk to, I can go into this building. I might not know the person, but they’ll be there to let me sit, and let me talk.”

All three agreed that positivity – not negativity – is sorely needed, particularly because people who live outside of violence-prone communities often feel as though they know all the answers.

“We have people saying false things. They don’t really know what’s going on out here on these streets. We actually know. We’re living it. Daily. We’re actually seeing it,” Wilson said. “Don’t speak about something you really don’t know about. That’s one. And, two, don’t feel sorry for me. If you’re gonna feel sorry for us, help us out.”

Wilson, White and Cofield aren’t children anymore— they’re entering adulthood, and they recognize that they have now have an opportunity to help the younger kids in their neighborhoods.

Back when Wilson attended a funeral for a 14-year-old, she noticed a 10-year-old kid crying in the corner of the room. The boy was the victim’s cousin, and he was struggling to comprehend what had happened.

Wilson grabbed the boy and tried to console him.

“He said, ‘I’m just mad.’ He doesn’t even know why he’s mad,” Wilson said. “He just knows he’s upset because he sees his 14-year-old cousin in a casket.”

These are the stories that stick with Wilson— the image of a 10-year-old experiencing tragedy and loss in such a profound way at such a young age. They are the stories that motivate her to seek solutions, no matter the incredible complexity of gun violence in the United States and in Western New York.

But as she works with the Peacemakers and other allies in the community, she wants the public to understand one thing:

Waiting is not an option when it comes to violence.

“Don’t feel sorry for us when it happens,” Wilson said. “Feel sorry for us before it happens.”

WNY’s Poorest Town Pitches Hope

From July 15, 2013

FRIENDSHIP, N.Y. – In 1908, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

105 years later, they are in fourth-place in the National League Central. They have lost eight more games than they’ve won this season. Since defeating the Detroit Tigers in 1908, they have failed to win another championship, leaving them with the unfavorable distinction of enduring the longest title drought in American sports history. A decade ago, they had a chance to reach the World Series, but a fan interfered with a foul ball, the shortstop made an error and the team unraveled to lose the pennant. They haven’t made the playoffs in six years.

Times are tough.

The Town of Friendship was established in 1815. If you think that’s a bizarre name for a city, note that the town was originally named Bloody Corners because of the two gangs who used to fight each other in the middle of Main Street. To ease the tensions, the town changed its name to Friendship in the late 19th century, at which point it became a pinnacle of the manufacturing industry. Doctors, dentists and lawyers lived in some of the large houses downtown. There were shops. A positive, upbeat vibe.

Then the people with money retired and either moved away or left very little money to their children. Over the next several decades, Walmart and K-Mart and Target and Sears opened across the country, and little towns like Friendship, off the beaten path of Interstate 86 in the rural Southern Tier of Western New York, lost most of their local business revenue.

Nowadays, Friendship is ranked by Business First as the poorest town in the region. Most of the residents live paycheck-to-paycheck. About one-fifth of them simply rely on welfare. There is no industry. Beautiful Main Street has mostly transformed into rubble. At the edge of downtown, across from the firehouse and Town Hall, three once-proud buildings have been abandoned for a decade.

Times are tough.

“It is heartbreaking,” said Susan Stickley, the town supervisor.

The people of Friendship aren’t Cubs fans. You’ll spot some of them wearing Yankees hats, but many of them probably don’t watch baseball or even know who the Cubs are. Chicago is 600 miles away.

But they’re just like Cubs fans. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chicago Cubs were one of the best teams in Major League Baseball, and now they’ve gone a century without another World Series. Friendship used to flourish; now it’s floundering. Stickley estimates the town needs about $250,000 to rebuild some of the vacant spots on Main Street, and they’ve set up a group called Friendship Revitalization Economic Development (FRED) in a desperate plea to save their town.

They’re taking any donations.

“We’ll take 10 dollars,” Stickley said.

At least it’d be a start.

“When you have this many people who don’t work, who move to a town like this,” Stickley said, “there is no pride in this town. There is no vested interest.”

“We want to make this what it once was.”

Spoken like a Cubs fan. Except the Cubs and the Town of Friendship aren’t just a random, “sports-to-life” analogy. They are tied together by a real, tangible bond, and it all began in the early 20th century.

And it just so turns out that Friendship might be the reason the Cubs won the World Series in 1908.

In those days, there were no divisions in baseball– just a National and American League. The winners of each league would play each other in the World Series. In 1908, the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs were embroiled in a late-September pennant race. On September 23, 1908, the Giants had runners on first and third in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Giants’ Al Bridwell hit a single, which appeared to score the run from third and give his team the win.

Except the runner on first, Fred Merkle, never touched second base. He tried to escape the crowd, which had rushed onto the field in celebration of the apparent victory. When the Cubs realized they could force him out at second base — and nullify the run — they got the ball to the second baseman so he could step on second base. The umpires stripped the victory from the Giants and called the game a tie, which wound up costing them the pennant and forced them to play a one-game playoff with the Cubs after the regular season. Chicago won, of course, and qualified for the World Series.

The event now has a name: “Merkle’s Boner.” It is one of the most infamous blunders in baseball history, but it wouldn’t have happened without one of the Cubs’ players retrieving the baseball after Merkle missed second base.

That’s where Friendship comes into play.

“There were stories around here,” Stickley said, “that we had a famous ballplayer.”

Wellman Field sits on the edge of downtown Friendship, just a short walk from the school and town library. It has sat in the same spot for a century, and at one point, Stickley said it was considered one of the top fields in all of the Southern Tier. The maintenance crew still does a fine job on Wellman Field, but it is no longer a palace. Instead, it’s just a little-league baseball field with oversized grass, metal bleachers and wooden dugouts.

In 1886, Floyd Kroh was born in Friendship. He started playing at Wellman Field almost immediately, and in 1904, he played for the town team. He was a prodigy. By 1906, he played professionally for the Boston Americans. They promptly released him during the 1908 season.

The Cubs signed him. He rarely pitched, since Chicago’s pitching staff was so talented and Kroh was only a youngster. Known to his friends as “Rube” Kroh, the 22-year-old pitcher officially appeared in only two games during the 1908 season.

But even though he didn’t play much, he was physically present at the Polo Grounds on September 23, 1908. He watched Bridwell single to center for an apparent walk-off RBI hit, and he saw the crowd storm onto the playing field.

Apparently, he also noticed Merkle fail to touch second base. So, as his teammates described to local newspapers, Kroh is the man who stole the ball away from a fan, threw the ball to the second baseman and thus won the Cubs the pennant and subsequently the World Series in 1908.

Most of Friendship doesn’t know Kroh ever existed, nor that he played an integral role in the Chicago Cubs last World Series victory.

“It’s unique to Friendship,” Stickley said. “We try and hang on to those things.”

It’s also fitting. The man who helped the Chicago Cubs win the World Series before 100 years of despair grew up in a town that would also slowly deteriorate.

But Cubs fans don’t give up. They pack Wrigley Field all summer long. Eight games under .500? There’s always next year. They’ll win the World Series again some day, right? It may be 104 seasons and counting without one, but if it happened back then, maybe it can happen again.

If Main Street in Friendship used to have shops, and people, and hope, then maybe that can happen again, too.

“I hope so,” says Scott, sitting comfortably at the diner on Main Street. “But I doubt it very much. It still is a nice town. They have a beautiful school.”

“And they’re great on baseball.”

Not even the Chicago Cubs can claim that.

Red House: The Story of New York’s Smallest Town

Published for WGRZ-TV as a part of the “Unique Places” series. This story also appeared online on USA Today’s website.

The idea for the story came after I got lost in Allegany State Park by accident, ten months earlier!

RED HOUSE, N.Y. – The state park destroyed most of it. Then came the dam, then the Interstate, and, eventually, the bulldozers. In Red House, even the red house is gone.

Sure, there’s still a town hall in Red House. It’s a small, unremarkable white structure, hidden at the bottom of the same mountains once used by Native Americans as a burial ground. A smattering of classical, nostalgic farmhouses, spaced comfortably along a one-mile stretch of Bay State Road, still remain, too, including the childhood home of a former NFL running back.

But not much of Red House is man-made anymore. The post office, the schoolhouse, the inn, the chemical plant and the lumber railroad have all been erased from memory, without even the slightest bit of remaining evidence to suggest they ever existed.

On Monday, the demise continues. Contractors will demolish one of the oldest homes in the town.

Llewellyn France, who was born here 83 years ago, remembers visiting that house as a child during the tail end of the Great Depression. Even then, Red House was in decline.

“I always refer to this as the rise and fall of Red House,” France said. “Now, we’re down to almost nothing.”

Red house scenery

The view’s not so bad in Red House.

People do still live here. There are only 38 of them, but they’re still here, living peacefully near Interstate 86 in the scenic Allegheny Region, 30 miles east of Jamestown and 70 miles south of Buffalo.

Red House has the smallest population of any town in the state of New York. About a quarter of the town’s population holds public office. The France family has occupied the highway superintendent’s position since 1944. The two town judges, Lance and Ann Marie Anderson, are a married couple who sometimes get middle-of-the-night phone calls asking them to arraign low-level criminals for sneaking alcohol into Allegany State Park. The Andersons, who have three children, represent about one-eighth of the population, and they have enormous influence when it comes to elections in the Town Justice race.

“I’m a much nicer judge than she is,” Lance Anderson said, “but we do have two judges.”

The history of the Town of Red House sounds like a sad story. It’s not, really. People moved away, and the government leveled homes, but that just means there’s now more space for everyone else.

“Look around,” Anderson said. “Thirty-eight people in a park that’s around 65,000 square acres. It’s like we have the whole park that’s our backyard.”

Funny how that works: the people who live in the smallest town in New York also happen to live in the largest state park in New York.

Admittedly, Anderson thought he’d move away from Red House, back when he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Miami. He figured South Florida might suit him better, but every time he visited his parents in Red House during the summers, he got hooked all over again.

“I used to sit in class and look out the window,” Anderson said. “I used to always think, ‘boy, if I could just get back to Red House and the Allegheny Region, where there are trees — not palm trees, but really nice trees — that’s really a good place to live.'”

Luckily, during one of those return visits to Red House, Anderson met his future wife. They bought his parents’ house and stayed for good. Anderson has now logged almost six decades in Red House, which is impressive, but not as impressive as Llewellyn France’s record.

France lives in one of the first homes on Bay State Road, a nice, spacious spot with a covered front porch. Eighty three years ago, he was born just down the road at his grandmother’s house, where his family decided to nickname him “Hook,” for reasons unknown even to him.

“I never did learn how to spell my regular name until I was in eighth grade,” France said. “Too many ‘L’s.”

Hook France was born in Red House during the Great Depression.

Hook France was born in Red House during the Great Depression.

Hook France left Red House briefly, spending three years in the Army from 1948 to 1951. But, like many of his neighbors, he returned, never to leave again. In 1965, the state tried to kick him off his property, but he hired a lawyer, took three trips to Albany and successfully fought to keep control of his property in Red House.

France retired as a state parks policeman in 1984. These days, his daughter lives next door to him, and he’s about as deeply entrenched in a town as a man could be. Before the Civil War, France’s great-grandfather built a sawmill and a home on this land, leaving behind his old residence in Salamanca. When it was time to move, he built a raft and transported all his furniture on water.

The sawmill and lumber industry fueled the brief rise of Red House, which held its first board meeting in 1869. Civil war veterans flocked here to start a new life, eager to take advantage of the Allegheny Region’s vast resources. During the late 19th century, the population surged to more than 1,000 people. When the state created Allegany State Park in the early 20th century, though, the government seized a lot of properties in Red House. The Kinzua Dam later sprouted up in the mid-20th century, which further intruded on the town. Year by year, the population dwindled.

Then, it reached 38.

“That’s 38 if my kids are here,” Anderson said. “Sometimes, they go off to school, so it drops down a couple of numbers.”

The Andersons and their children form one of the core families of Red House, just as Hook France and his daughter keep the tradition alive in their homes at the front of Bay State Road, named for the Bay State Lumber Company that once operated here.

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Marvin Hubbard, a three-time Pro Bowl running back, grew up in this home in Red House.

Beyond the creek, just a few hundred yards away from town hall, the Hubbards form another classic family on Bay State Road. Unfortunately, their white farmhouse, with “THE HUBBARDS” sign still very much intact, often sits empty these days, because the remaining Hubbard lives with her daughter now. Family members come to visit the property every so often, but it’s now a historical landmark of sorts. That’s because it was once the breeding ground for “Marvelous” Marvin Hubbard, who played football at Randolph High School, then Colgate University, and then the Oakland Raiders and the Detroit Lions.

The three-time Pro Bowl running back still makes an appearance every so often in his old hometown.

“Really good guy,” Anderson said. “Great athlete. And every once in awhile, he’ll show up here. We’ll see him and it’s kind of an honor to see him back in town.”

Red House used to get famous visitors, too. Anderson said Tim Horton used to spend his weekends in the Red House area to hunt, often showing up on the Anderson property because he liked their small pond in front of the house.

And then there are the ghost stories.

“I don’t know anything about ghosts,” France said. “Really, I don’t.”

France, perhaps the most trustworthy historian in Red House, would rather focus on the town’s real history. He’s not a fan of the supernatural. Somehow, though, Red House has gained a strange reputation for ghost stories, including the one circulating on the World Wide Web about that actual red house in Red House.

About a century ago, even before France was born here, there really was a red house. France notes that the red house was some kind of restaurant or cafe, just along the shores of Red House Creek. All he knows is that it existed at one point, and then it got wiped out.

The Internet, of course, begs to differ. Like a game of Telephone, someone wove a fascinating tale of a lovers’ quarrel in the red house of Red House. Long ago, they say, a man died in the Civil War, and his widow ended up marrying his brother. This angered the family, so, like Romeo and Juliet, the lovers took their own lives. And their ghosts apparently haunted the red house forever.

“Some people talk about ghosts all the time,” France said, shaking his head.

Anderson hasn’t heard that story either.

But he’s heard other ghost stories— the ones of the mountains.

“At one time, there was an Indian burial ground atop the mountains, so a lot of people say if they walk up there and hike up there, they’ll see orbs up at the top of the hill,” Anderson said. “I’ve never seen any orbs at the top of the hill. But I’ve never walked up there at night either.”

[And] every once in a while, someone will say they see Big Foot. Then, the next day they’re in court for consumption charges.”

Before there were ghosts, however, there were people. Although the town didn’t officially hold a board meeting until after the Civil War, France said the first settler arrived here in 1827. A guy named Darius Frink built a log cabin, and from there, people slowly began to gravitate toward the lumber and sawmill industry in Red House.

The peak of the 19th century didn’t last very long, though.

Lately, the fall of Red House seems to have accelerated. Look no further than the huge bulldozer in the front lawn of the abandoned home, the one that’s about to meet its fate on Monday. To its credit, the property has received a lot of last-minute visitors. There was the woman who pulled over to the side of the road, walked out of her car and began snapping photos of the old house, which mostly consists of broken windows and faded paint nowadays.

“Some of these were grand, old farmhouses of the 1800s and early 1900s,” Anderson said. “And just to go down the road and travel though what’s left of Red House, and to see houses being torn down by the state… you actually physically see that happen. You actually physically see the house being demolished. Everyone visited everyone else. We’re all neighbors. So, to see those houses being torn down, it’s kind of disheartening.”

Disheartening, yes. But the people of Red House have seen this before.

These are the same people, after all, who don’t have a post office anymore— they all have mailing addresses classified to nearby Salamanca, N.Y, located 10 miles away.

It hasn’t been easy for Hook France to watch his childhood slowly disappear for 83 years. Monday’s demolition is a gut-punch, but that’s all it is. In a few months, when the leaves fall off the trees and the snow begins to pelt the Red House area, France will hop in his snowplow and clear the roads, just as he’s done for 30 years, and just as his father did for 40 years before him.

“Smallest town in New York,” France said, sighing. “But we still make it as our own here.”

GET LOST

SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK – A sign of life. Finally. This is the first living, breathing thing I have seen in at least a half-hour, and it just might be my ticket out of here.

I am lost in Allegany State Park. It is well after midnight, I am facing mini-blizzard conditions on a blistering November night, there are no homes or even cabins anywhere in sight, the radio reception in my car has turned to static, my cell phone and GPS service have cut out, and I’ve resorted to searching for the North Star because I’m pretty sure that’s the only way I’ll be able to figure out where in the world I am. For 30 minutes, all I have seen is snow, snow, more snow, trees, even more snow and, at one point, some sort of body of water.

But finally, a sign of life darts across the road, forcing me to hit the breaks. We make eye contact. He is my last hope for survival.

He appears to be a local to the area, but I am still a bit nervous about getting out of my car and asking for directions. He looks friendly, but looks can be deceiving. I continue to stare at him. This will help me analyze him. Is he good? Is he bad? Is he dangerous? Personally, I’m starting to find him a bit smug. He’s acting like he’s too good for me. He won’t even say a word to me. I don’t even know if we speak the same language.

That’s because he is a deer. The only living thing I have seen in 30 minutes is a deer. I am in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a state park with a snow-covered road that’s leading me nowhere, having a staring contest with a deer. And it’s taken a comedy of errors for me to even land in this position.

I am in the middle of Allegany State Park because I was searching for a red house. I was searching for a red house because I got lost in the Town of Red House, (which is located just off Interstate 86 and is most famous for, as you might guess, having a red house), and if I was already lost in Red House, I might as well look for the red house. I was on Interstate 86 because I missed the cut-off for U.S. Route 219. I needed to get to U.S. Route 219 North because that would take me back to Buffalo from Olean, which is where the news of the day sent me on this Sunday evening work shift to meet a photographer for a story at St. Bonaventure University. But because of this long sequence of events, I have somehow ended up in Allegany State Park, and if this is a horror movie, I’m surprised I’ve even lasted this long.

I am lost. But I think that’s a good thing, because nobody really ever gets lost anymore. So even though a string of illogical decisions has left me in a rather precarious position, driving around in the snow in the wee hours of the morning with wild deer ready to attack at any moment, I decide to embrace being lost. I can’t call for help because my cell phone has no service. I can’t look up directions on my phone’s GPS system because there is no Internet service here. The visibility isn’t great because of the snow, the roads obviously haven’t been plowed, I have yet to see a single car on this road, and I’m beginning to wonder whether this is even a road at all.

For a change, I’m going to have to figure this one out on my own. They say the millennial generation can’t troubleshoot or think on their feet, so I’ll have to prove them wrong. The first decision I make is to keep driving. If I turn around, there’s a chance I’d get stuck in the snow trying to make a four-point turn, and it also appears to be a one-way route. I figure if I just keep driving, I’ll find some sign of civilization, and at that point I can get back onto the highways.

After miles and miles of driving, I finally see a light. It’s a cabin. And then I see more lights. Houses. I’ve made it! I begin to see cars— all covered in snow, of course. But there’s something funny going on here. All the cars have weird license plates. They don’t look like the ones I’ve become accustomed to in New York. Finally, the winding road takes me from the woods to the center of a small town, but the license plates still look strange.

I couldn’t have.

Could I have?

“You’re in Pennsylvania,” the woman at the convenience store says with a wide smile. “Welcome!”

Improbably, I have arrived in Bradford, PA. The charming downtown area strangely reminds me of East Aurora. It looks just like Western New York – quiet and snowy— except it’s not. It’s Pennsylvania. I tell the woman from the gas station convenience store the exact same story I’ve just relayed to you. She smiles, laughs at the fact that I’m not even in the correct state anymore and then reveals to me that the red house in Red House is actually right next to the interstate, so it’s rather unbelievable that I couldn’t find it (UPDATE: There is no red house anymore in Red House. It was knocked down more than a century ago). Then, she finally put me on the route to Buffalo. Although I could use my GPS for these directions at this point, I’m in an old-school mood, and I like the idea of being the lost foreigner who needs directions from the friendly local.

Two hours later, I’ve crossed state lines back in Buffalo. It’s been a long night, but there is something fascinating about winding up in a place you’ve never been, interacting with people you’ve never met. I think the most refreshing thing about getting lost is that it helps you realize that no matter where you get lost, people are generally the same. A year ago, I was covering a college basketball game in Omaha, Nebraska, and faced a similar situation: I didn’t know where I was, and on my way back to my home in Missouri, I’d gotten confused on the highways and seemed to be on an endless loop to nowhere. When I stopped at a gas station in Council Bluffs, Nebraska, I encountered a mother and two young children, who’d walked a few miles during the pitch-black hours to fetch some gas for their broken-down car. All they had was an orange can. They filled it, and then I gave them a ride back to their car. They were complete strangers, but even after interacting with them for five minutes, I felt like I’d known them for a while. That’s exactly how I felt with the woman at the gas station in Bradford. I mean, here I am, some kid who grew up 1,000 miles away in St. Louis, and we’re laughing like old friends. Whether you’re in Nebraska, Missouri, New York or Pennsylvania, you can find common ground with just about anybody. You can grow up poor, rich, black, white, in the South or the North, the United States or in South America, but the mere fact that you’re a human being allows you to connect with everybody at the most basic level, so there’s really no need to fear getting lost.

I’ve decided I need to get lost more often – preferably during daylight hours next time – because being lost keeps you on your heels. Being lost makes you uncomfortable. And if you’re waddling through life feeling perfectly comfortable with your surroundings every day, you’re probably not living much of a life at all.