Bernard A. Tolbert, head of the Buffalo office of the FBI, a native son and a prominent community figure, is leaving the bureau and Buffalo for a high-level security job in Atlanta.
Tolbert, 52, is starting in March with Coca-Cola Co. as a corporate security executive for its U.S. and Canadian operations, he confirmed Tuesday. He is retiring from the FBI this month to end a 21-year career with the agency, the last three as head of the Buffalo office.
Tolbert is a little glum about leaving behind his hometown, family, friends and the excitement of the FBI. And he's saddened in particular about one case he never got to close -- the fatal shooting of Amherst abortion provider Dr. Barnett A. Slepian at his home by a sniper in 1998.
"There's a bit of unfinished business I just haven't been able to reconcile: We haven't caught James Kopp," Tolbert said of the suspect, who is one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. "I leave unfulfilled in that regard.
"I feel that's an unkept promise, on my part, to Mrs. (Lynne) Slepian. But I know (Kopp) will be caught. Unfortunately, I won't be around."
The assistant special agent in charge of the Buffalo office, Stanley J. Borgia, 46, a native of Norwalk, Ohio, and a 15-year FBI veteran, will serve as acting head of the office until a permanent replacement is named, said Special Agent Paul Moskal, an FBI spokesman.
Tolbert grew up in the old Willert Park housing project, graduated from Lafayette High School and earned a master's degree in social work from the University at Buffalo, where he starred on the track team.
He was a social worker for Erie County in the late 1970s, when he was recruited by the FBI.
Tolbert returned to Buffalo in 1998 as the FBI's special agent in charge of 17 upstate New York counties, supervising dozens of investigations into government corruption, fraud, organized crime, narcotics gang activity and other crimes. He is the first African-American to command Buffalo's FBI office.
His departure from Buffalo will affect more than just the FBI.
"I think it's going to be a real loss to the community," said Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"He's one of the few special agents in charge who tried to get involved in the community and change the community's attitude toward the FBI. Minorities, in particular, have had a very negative attitude toward the FBI dating back to J. Edgar Hoover."
Tolbert's Buffalo roots also kept him involved in local foundations and organizations, such as Cradle Beach Camp, Medaille College, the United Way and UB. A month ago, he helped start the "Happy to Be Back in Western New York" club.
"His involvement in the community is a huge asset, and as a leader in the FBI, he brings with him enormous credibility," said Arlene F. Kaukus, president of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, where Tolbert served on the board of directors. "He is a role model for the young people in the community. On all counts, we are really losing."
Tolbert said that "I really have mixed feelings about leaving; it's with somewhat of a heavy heart. This is my home."