More than 20 boxes of sensitive legal documents related to litigation from the Attica prison uprising were reported stolen from the Lenox Hotel Friday afternoon, according to Buffalo police.
Shortly before 1 p.m., a hotel employee told Central District officers that a man entered a seventh-floor suite at 140 North St., removed 27 boxes of files, loaded them into his pickup truck and drove away.
The owner of the truck acknowledges he took a number of boxes from the Lenox Hotel -- but from the first floor, and around 10 a.m. Police still are investigating the burglary of the boxes, and it remains to be determined whether the boxes actually were taken Friday.
It is possible they were taken earlier, and the call to police on Friday simply sent up a red flag, said an attorney close to the case.
Amid a sea of unknowns, one thing remains certain: the documents are missing.
The seventh-floor suite is rented to Elizabeth Fink, a New York City attorney who is the lead counsel representing inmates in the 1971 uprising at the state correctional facility in Attica.
Ms. Fink is on vacation and did not return telephone calls seeking comment Friday. She did, however, release a brief statement through John Elmore, a local attorney for the Attica inmates.
The stolen boxes, Ms. Fink said, contained information related to "privileged and confidential matters associated with the Attica case, some of which were accumulated during 28 years of litigation."
"They're very sensitive documents dealing with litigation," Elmore added. Although copies exist of some of the documents, others cannot be replaced, he said.
Elmore said he became very concerned when he learned the boxes were taken. While he waited 90 minutes for a Buffalo police patrol car to arrive, he decided to contact a private investigator to track down the boxes.
The 911 call was classified a burglary and, therefore, received a lower priority, according to police dispatchers, who said officers responded in a reasonable amount of time.
But the police response wasn't fast enough for Elmore.
The attorney said he feared that by the time police ran the license plate number of the truck and located its driver, the files might be destroyed.
"It took the Buffalo police a long time to arrive," he said. "It was so long, and so urgent, that I contacted a private investigator. The private investigator has located the person we believe was the driver of the truck."
Elmore said the private investigator identified the driver through the license plate number reported to police, but was unable to locate him. Elmore did, however, say that the information collected by the private investigator would be turned over either to the Buffalo police or to the FBI.
"We believe the person who took these files is motivated to disrupt the attorneys for the inmates' efforts at settling this case," Elmore said. "The person who we suspect took them is in no way connected with the lawyers representing the inmates or the inmates."
According to the license plate number reported to police, the boxes allegedly were loaded into a 1999 Ford pickup truck registered to Varysburg resident Philip J. George.
When George was contacted Friday evening by The Buffalo News, he said he did remove 18 boxes from the Lenox Hotel -- but he took them from a suite on the first floor, with the blessing of both the Internal Revenue Service and his employer, Lucas Varity.
According to George, Lucas Varity rents a suite at the Lenox Hotel. Recently, the company has given the IRS access to that suite while they conduct an audit. At about 10 a.m. Friday, he said, he and an IRS employee loaded 18 boxes of documents related to the audit into his pickup truck and took them back to Lucas Varity.
George never was on the seventh floor of the hotel, he said. When asked if he knew anything about documents related to the Attica trial taken from the hotel, he replied, "Attica trial? What's that?"
Elmore said neither he nor his private investigator had talked to George, but his explanation sounded plausible. The attorney plans to verify the story this weekend.
"Maybe it was a mix-up," Elmore said. But mix-up or not, 27 of the 35 boxes from Ms. Fink's suite remain missing.
Elmore said he did not know how recently anyone saw all the boxes in the suite. It's possible they were taken before Friday.
There was no evidence of forced entry at the door, Elmore said.