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THEFT OF FILES, PRANKS PLAGUE JUDGES 2 AGENCIES PROBE INCIDENTS ON TOP 3 FLOORS OF COURTHOUSE

The pranks can be as harmless as taking the handles off the doors to the men's room.

Or, they can be as serious as rifling files and taking records pertaining to pending lawsuits.

This much investigators know for sure: Someone has been entering the offices of state judges on the top three floors of the Buffalo City Court Building for the past month to play pranks and steal the judges' papers.

Two law enforcement agencies now are investigating the bizarre incidents, but they aren't saying if they have any suspects.

All the offices that have been entered have expensive office equipment that thieves could sell easily, but nothing of apparent monetary value has been taken -- just judges' papers and files.

Since the theft of a large number of case files from the offices of two State Supreme Court justices in late April, legal papers have disappeared from the offices of a half-dozen judges on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the building at 50 Delaware Ave.

Lee Gagnon, chief City Court clerk, said the "bewildering" pattern of the incidents has led her to believe that they are being perpetrated by someone with a grudge against a state judge over an old case or by someone with mental problems.

Twice last week, while investigators from the Erie County district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department were working on the case, someone unscrewed the handle of a ninth-floor men's room used by judges and their staffs. The incidents, on two consecutive days, occurred between the close of the business day and the start of cleanup operations about 6 p.m.

None of the offices showed any sign of forced entry. The investigators aren't sure whether the crimes are being committed by someone who works in the sprawling courthouse, which is named after the late Buffalo Mayor Frank A. Sedita, or by someone hiding in its many rooms until workers leave.

Fourteen state judges and their personal staffs are housed on those floors. No similar problems have plagued the offices of the 12 City Court judges or other offices housed on the building's first seven floors.

The theft of papers in more than 25 cases from the offices of Justices Thomas P. Flaherty and George F. Francis -- including medical malpractice cases and a suit by a number of current and former city judges for pay equity with fellow judges statewide -- has delayed litigation while court staffs and private attorneys reconstruct the files.

Although spokesmen for the Erie County district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department confirmed their ongoing probe, they refused to discuss possible suspects or motives.

State Supreme Court Justice James B. Kane, the area's chief administrative judge who supervises all court activities in the eight counties of Western New York, declined to comment.

Neither District Attorney Kevin M. Dillon, whose father has judicial offices on the 10th floor of the City Court Building, nor Gerald Mack, chief of detectives for the Sheriff's Department, would say whether the case will be presented to a grand jury.

But Dillon has assigned investigators from his office, and the Sheriff's Department has at least one detective working full-time on the case, sources said.

Security in the 17-year-old building is difficult because it is unlocked 24 hours a day to permit access by judges and staff. The building is open to the public until at least 6 p.m. weekdays, court officials said.

The theft of legal papers and court caseload records could bring a prison term; burglary and theft of court records are felony offenses. None of the papers has been recovered.

So far, the offices of Presiding Justice Michael F. Dillon of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, the district attorney's father, haven't been vandalized. But the adjoining office of Appellate Justice Samuel L. Green recently was entered after hours, court officials said.

Someone also has made after-hours entries into the offices of Supreme Court Justices Norman E. Joslin, Thomas F. McGowan and Joseph D. Mintz, court officials said.

The cleaning crew of the building, which is owned by the city and maintained through leases with both the state and Erie County governments, isn't under suspicion, Mrs. Gagnon said.

Court officials are considering changing locks on the upper floors, but that would be expensive and may not solve the problems, Mrs. Gagnon said.

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