Attorney Drew V. Tidwell was seen drinking whiskey in an Amherst bar for about 90 minutes before a hit-and-run accident that killed a bicyclist last month, sources close to the case disclosed.
But prosecutors say he will not face alcohol-related charges because they cannot prove that he was intoxicated or driving erratically at the time.
Witnesses have told police that Tidwell was drinking in the University Inn on North Forest Road the evening of Aug. 17. About 15 minutes after he left the establishment, the car Tidwell was driving struck and killed Donald Fruehauf, 68, on Getzville Road.
Tidwell, 51, pleaded guilty today in a deal with prosecutors that makes no mention of his drinking. Authorities said the attorney may have avoided more serious charges because he drove away from the scene.
By pleading guilty to a felony charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, Tidwell admitted publicly for the first time today that he was the driver of the car that killed Fruehauf. The guilty plea, accepted by State Supreme Court Judge John F. O'Donnell, will end Tidwell's law career and put him in prison for a year.
Tidwell told the judge he is sorry for the "pain and suffering" he caused Fruehauf's family.
"Your honor, I was driving down Getzville Road. I hit a person with my vehicle," Tidwell recounted. "I panicked at the time and proceeded on home."
The attorney gave no more detail about the incident and declined to comment further outside the courtroom. He was accompanied to court by his wife, a clergyman and four attorneys -- Michael S. Taheri, Peter J. Todoro Jr., Paul J. Cambria and Barry N. Covert.
The only mention of alcohol in the brief court appearance came when O'Donnell asked Tidwell if he had been drinking in the past 24 hours. Tidwell said he had not.
"Drinking is not an element of the offense he is pleading guilty to," Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said. "The charge strictly involves leaving the scene of an accident."
The plea deal specified that Tidwell receive a sentence of one year in prison -- no more or no less.
The victim's family questioned whether one year behind bars is sufficient punishment for hitting Fruehauf, leaving him to die and not summoning police.
"He's pleading his way out, and it doesn't bring Donald back," said Warren Fruehauf, one of the victim's two younger brothers. "(Tidwell) isn't pleading to being drunk. He's pleading to one charge, but he's got more hanging over his head."
Because authorities lacked evidence that he was driving erratically, Tidwell managed to avoid the more severe charge of vehicular manslaughter, which carries a prison sentence of up to seven years.
Experts on criminal law explained that, in order to charge someone with the manslaughter count, prosecutors need evidence of driving while intoxicated and a witness or physical proof that the driver was acting in a dangerous or criminally negligent manner.
Because Tidwell left the scene, and because there were no witnesses to the fatal incident, Clark said, Tidwell could not be charged with manslaughter.
"Given the facts and the evidence of this case, the charge he is pleading to is the strongest charge we could have presented to a grand jury," Clark said. "It is an unfortunate fact of the law that, in some cases, a person can benefit from leaving the scene of an accident."
But Clark also added: "If he stayed at the scene, it is conceivable he wouldn't have been charged with any criminal act."
Although some people might criticize the plea arrangement, Tidwell is not getting off lightly, according to Taheri.
Taheri, who also represented Tidwell after a driving-while-intoxicated arrest in October 1995, said Tidwell and his family feel "terrible" about Fruehauf's death. As a convicted felon, Tidwell no longer will be able to practice law. Sources said the case forced Tidwell to resign this week from his six-figure job as partner with the Buffalo law firm Hiscock & Barclay.
"I'm not in any way trying to minimize the crime, or the suffering of the Fruehauf family," Taheri said. "But Drew Tidwell is a decent man. He feels terrible about what he did. He has spent a lot of time in counseling with his clergyman since this happened.
"He's going to prison, and he's losing his right to practice law, which has been his livelihood for many years. This is a very able and well-regarded lawyer who is giving up his right to practice law. He takes full responsibility for what he did and accepts the consequences."
Was Tidwell drinking alcohol that night, and was he inebriated when his car hit Fruehauf?
Taheri declined to answer.
"I can only address that by saying that the use of alcohol is not an element of the offense he is going to plead guilty to. We are willing to discuss the factors that are part of the offense," Taheri said.
Officials at the University Inn declined to comment.
"Has he been here before? Sure he has, but was he here that night? I don't know," said Rick DiVita Jr., the hotel's president. "I can't confirm if he was here, or what he was drinking."
Amherst Police Chief John J. Moslow said justice is being served by the plea deal and sentence.
"It's a direct result of a very thorough investigation and the teamwork of our accident investigation unit, the Detective Bureau and the patrol force," Moslow said. "We pooled the resources of those three units and gave this case a very high priority.
"There was a lot of community concern regarding this accident and I want to thank citizens and the media for publicizing our confidential telephone tip line. That provided very good leads."
Fruehauf, an auto mechanic, was fatally injured when Tidwell's 1995 Mercury Marquis struck him on Getzville Road on the night of Aug. 17. Family members said Fruehauf was riding an old bicycle as he searched the neighborhood trash for broken TV sets or other items he could repair and use.
Tidwell drove home without stopping to help Fruehauf or reporting the collision to police.
Four days after the fatal crash, Taheri called the district attorney's office, telling authorities that they could find the car that struck Fruehauf in Tidwell's garage on Colony Court North, about a mile from the accident scene.
As it turned out, the defense lawyer called police only hours before investigators would have gone out to question Tidwell.
Moslow said investigators using tiny fragments from the shattered lens of a turn signal recovered at the scene were able to determine the type of car involved in the crash.
"It enabled us to focus on a limited number of cars in that area. There's about six cars, and we would have been knocking on Tidwell's door within hours," Moslow said.
While declining to comment on reports that Tidwell was drinking that night, Moslow said investigators did obtain proof that Tidwell alone had operated his car in the hours before the accident.
"We were able to show that he operated the vehicle in question earlier in the day, and we were also able to exclude all others who would have had access to the car," Moslow said.
Part of that evidence showed he had driven his car to a downtown Buffalo parking facility, and video tapes showed him arriving and leaving work that day, authorities said.
Tidwell resigned this week from his job as a partner with the Hiscock & Barclay law firm, said Mark R. McNamara, managing partner of the firm.
"Our thoughts and sympathies go out to the Fruehauf family," McNamara said.