Fatal Fixation: The fast times and sudden death of of Joe Traver - The Buffalo News

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Fatal Fixation: The fast times and sudden death of of Joe Traver

Everybody knew, and nobody knew.

Joe Traver liked boys. Everyone knew that. Driving around in his Mercedes with press license plates, Traver accompanied by underage males was part of Buffalo's landscape. Alternately obnoxious and charming, Traver was a nationally known photographer with worldwide credits, an artist who framed some of the most widely seen and famous photographs of Western New York in recent memory. Traver's talent was universally acknowledged; his energy and his networking among Buffalo's elite relentless.

Almost everyone in powerful circles knew him, and everyone knew there almost always was a teenage boy with him.

He was larger than life, especially for Buffalo. He gave lavish formal parties, many attended by some of Buffalo's leading citizens. Traver's home off the Elmwood Strip was the scene of almost constant informal get-togethers. He had the infallible ability to be on the scene for any major news event on the Niagara Frontier. Disasters. Blizzards. Visits by dignitaries. Anything big. Traver was there taking pictures.

"He was almost like a public figure in Buffalo," says David McLain, a professional photographer who calls Traver his inspiration and mentor. "He was high-profile, and he reveled in that. He strutted his stuff around. He cared about teaching photography. He didn't have a wife, he didn't have kids -- the guy's life was photography."

Now, almost five months after Traver reacted to sexual abuse charges and a piercing media spotlight by committing suicide in his whirlpool tub, most people familiar with Traver still say they know the truth.

But just beyond the undisputable facts of Traver's story, the truth diverges.

For one group people who Traver called, in his six-page suicide note, "a plethora of the best friends on the earth" the truth is that police persecuted Traver, arresting him in the most humiliating way they could on flimsy evience.

Others who knew Traver say the truth is he used his photography work to attract 15-, 16- and 17-year-old boys for sexual purposes.

Those who believe that Traver was guilty also say the friends who watched Traver surround himself with generation after generation of high school boys are at least partially culpable, because they turned a blind eye to the obvious. They believe his friends provided the photographer with a support system that police say allowed him to continue molesting boys.

And so for some, Traver's story casts a larger shadow than the details of his life and death. It's a cautionary tale, a story that has as much to do with the community in which he was able to thrive for decades as it does with Traver himself.

Traver knew how his adopted community worked; he knew how to play the angles to get what he needed, professionally and personally. He flouted one of the community's basic taboos: Traver liked boys. And whether he was guilty of molesting any of them or not, Traver created the appearance of it, whatever the cost to his professional or personal life.

For decades, the conflicting truths followed Traver. Was Traver guilty of pedophilia? Did he spend the last 20 years of his life courting the affections and trust of the sons of some of Buffalo's most well- established citizens in hopes of sexually molesting them?

Or were his friends right was he an innocent, harmless man whose only motive was sharing the joy of photography?

Ultimately, only a few people know or knew the real truth at the very least, the two teenagers who made sworn statements that he'd sexually abused them, and Traver himself. Everyone else is left to weigh the accusations, listen to voices of those closest to him and consider the opinions of experts.

And the answers to these timeless, tortured questions might be his true legacy:

Does evil exist if you ignore its evidence? Can a situation be something other than it appears to be? Is it possible to avert your eyes so much that you ignore your instincts?

Each side blames the other for the Traver tragedy, but they differ heatedly over its true nature.

Was the tragedy that Traver provided alcohol and drugs to hundreds of boys over the years, and sexually molested at least one and possibly many more?

Or was the tragedy a single event on June 19, when Traver smoked some marijuana, then climbed into a whirlpool bath at his home and pulled a plastic bag over his head?

No one disputes this much: In early June, a lanky 15-year-old boy was picked up for running away from his father's house and taken to the county's East Ferry Street Youth Detention Center. There, he asked to call his friend Joe Traver. He was questioned by a probation officer, then a psychologist, and finally by Patricia A. Bowers, chief of the Erie County Sheriff's Department's domestic violence prevention programs.

Eventually, the boy made and signed a statement alleging that on May 24, Traver, 48, had sodomized him in an upstairs bedroom of Traver's home.

Things moved quickly after that.

Erie County Judge Michael L. D'Amico interviewed the teenager in his chambers, then signed a no-knock search warrant allowing deputies to force Traver's doors and look for evidence. Just before 5 p.m., police entered the house.

Bowers, who was in the first wave of the entry team, says deputies and Buffalo police encountered Traver on an upper landing as he left a bathroom. Traver refused to lie down on the floor, police say. In the struggle to get him down, a detective was shot in the hand with another officer's gun. Traver's suicide note disputes these events, saying the gun went off as Traver opened the bathroom door.

Among the items police confiscated was a commercially made video showing teenage boys having sex. Police found that in a VCR in Traver's bedroom, where the victim told them it would be.

Photographers and reporters waited outside until Traver was escorted out his front door in handcuffs, his head covered by a T-shirt.

Joe Traver is led into City Court on June 13, 2001. (Buffalo News file photo)

Traver spent the night in the Erie County Holding Center and was taken to City Court the next day. On his way into court, as he was photographed by his media peers, many of whom he counted as his friends, his face was a mask of pure misery.

In court, Traver entered an innocent plea, and he was released on $45,000 bail.

At some point during the next few days, Traver typed a six-page e-mail to his friends titled "Goodbye from JT" in which he denied all charges.

Six days after his arrest, Traver again appeared in court, where his attorney entered a plea of innocent to felony charges of first-degree sodomy.

One week after his arrest, Traver was found in the whirlpool tub, dead of asphyxiation.

***

You couldn't miss Joe Traver. He stood just over 6 feet tall and weighed 315 pounds, but it was Traver's attitude and ambition that made him a recognizable figure in one of Buffalo's few celebrity classes -- the media.

Traver made it his business to know people, especially important people. His parties were notable not only for their extravagance, but also because at Traver's parties, his teenage friends socialized on equal footing with their parents, not to mention their parents' friends, bosses and those important people Traver made it a point to know.

Even people who didn't know Joe knew his work.

That famous photo of Bills fans hanging from the goalposts after the Bills' defeated the Jets to clinch a spot in the 1988-89 playoffs was his. The shot won him the title of "Pro Football Photographer of the Year" and occupies a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Look up Buffalo or Niagara Falls on encyclopedia.com. Traver took the majority of the photos. For 20 years, since Traver first made Buffalo his home, his camera was the lens through which the world saw Western New York.

And if you were an upper-middle-class parent of a teenage boy in Buffalo in the past 20 years, rest assured that your son probably knew or at least knew about Traver.

That was the odd and disturbing aspect of Traver's life. He was rarely seen without at least one teenage boy. Even when Traver was working on the sidelines at Bills games, a teenage boy hovered at his elbow.

When Traver went out of town, his house remained filled with lights and laughter as teenage boys met there in groups, sometimes with their girlfriends. At least in the early years, the key was stashed behind the house, and the boys knew where to find it.

Traver's pantry was stacked with cans of cashews and box upon box of Pepperidge Farm cookies, and his refrigerator was filled with beer, according to those who hung out at his house. The boys in his inner circle were welcome to dip into his stash of marijuana. When Traver was home he joined the party, but when he was out of town, the parties continued unabated.

One of the high school boys who attended parties at Traver's house in the late 1970s recalls a pattern of disturbing incidents. Now a professional in another city, he asked that his name not be used.

After knowing him and his friends for several months, the man says, Traver offered to take modeling portfolio pictures of several of them.

"It would start outside the art gallery and in Delaware Park," the man says. "And then Joe would want to take pictures in his house. He'd say, "Bring your own tennis outfit,' then it was, "Take your shirt off and put these shorts on.'

"All of a sudden you're in a crumpled-up pair of shorts and no shirt in his studio."

The man remembers the day he and his friends found four or five large black-and-white pornographic photos of two boys in Traver's kitchen drawer when the photographer was out of town.

"These kids looked to be around 16 or 17," the man recalls. "We didn't know them. There they were, with their pants around their knees. A couple of years later, we met them -- they were Joe's friends from Hudson.

"So after this weird photo (shoot) thing and we saw the pictures, we talked about it and decided, "We can't ever be around him in groups of fewer than two.'''

The man had one more experience with Traver. On a photography trip to Syracuse, the two had separate motel rooms, but around bedtime, "He showed up in my room, ostensibly to talk about logistics for the next day," the man says. "He sat on my bed, and said, "Oh, you look tired. Do you need a massage?' It was clear what was going on. I was like, "Get your hands off me.' He said, "Hey, no problem,' and he backed off, but I was creeped out."

Traver was a freelance photographer who provided boys with trips, access to sports and concerts and a place to party. In Massachusetts it was an attorney who took a special interest in troubled teenage boys. In other cities, it's been a church youth group worker, a teacher, a coach.

Kenneth V. Lanning, former FBI Special Agent at the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Institute in Quantico, and an expert in those who commit crimes against children.

The details don't matter to Kenneth V. Lanning, a recently retired special agent at the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Institute in Quantico, Va., who spent the last 20 years of his career focusing on the sexual victimization of children.

"I've seen this pattern of behavior over and over again," says Lanning, after hearing a summary of the Traver story. "Ninety percent of what happened in this case, I've already described in my writings."

Is it possible that Traver could have molested boys for 20 years, some of whom would now be 35 years old, without anyone ever making legal accusations against him? Or is it possible that, as Traver said in his suicide note, "They (law enforcement) want me with a vengeance"?

"Could he have been molesting boys for 20 years without any victims ever coming forward? Yes," Lanning says. "And could this be some kind of witch hunt? Yes. But the facts make that enormously unlikely, and I strongly suspect this is not a case of overzealous prosecution."

Lanning says the patterns in Traver's life indicate what he calls "acquaintance molestation." Most of these cases involve teenage boys, he says, and often these teenage boys don't tell anyone what has happened to them -- not while it's going on, not after it ends, not ever.

"These cases involve a compliant or cooperating victim," says Lanning, and if the two people engaged in these sexual acts were consenting adults, there would be no crime. But those under 17 are legally incapable of consenting to have sex with an adult.

The boys are seduced, plain and simple, according to Lanning. Using gifts, attention, kindness and sometimes cash and the simple biological fact that sex can feel good a pedophile entraps boys and makes it impossible for his victims to explain what has happened in a way society will accept.

Young children are usually tricked, lied to or threatened, Lanning says, and society accepts those explanations from sexual-abuse victims.

"Society starts to get a little shaky," he says, when confronted with the fact that older children and teens will endure unwanted sexual contact to continue a relationship they value with a person they care about.

Even when boys submit to sexual contact "with mixed feelings, they also still frequently care about the guy," says Lanning. The acquaintance molester "may have treated them better than any adult has ever treated them in their life, including their own mother and father."

Lanning warns parents: "Beware of anybody who wants to be with your kids more than you do."

The effects of the hormonal surges of adolescence are also undeniable, Lanning says. "There's no human being on the face of the earth easier to seduce than an adolescent boy."

The pedophile's attraction is based on the age of his partner, Lanning says, so as the boys he is abusing become older, he is always grooming younger replacements. At some point, either the abuse becomes unbearable and the boy ends the relationship or the pedophile drops the boy because he has become too old.

Now what? With the relationship finished, why shouldn't the boy come forward?

Why should he? Why would he?

Lanning imagines this conversation with parents: ""Mom, Dad, you know that guy I've been friendly with for the past couple of years? Well, I had sex with him, again and again. I knew what he wanted and I kept going to his house because he gave me marijuana, or beer, or just really listened to me when I talked.'

"How do you explain this to anybody?" Lanning asks.

The answer is, boys don't. They bury it deep inside with their other shames and embarrassments and guilt and try to forget it.

The molesters "have to have pretty good interpersonal skills to do this," says Lanning. And as a result, he adds, after the arrest of an acquaintance molester, other adults will often step forward to say, "I know he didn't molest those kids."

"And guys like this are the most prolific child abusers."

Joe Traver's roots were in Hudson, a small community 30 minutes south of Albany. "I grew up in a great home with a pair of "textbook' 1950s parents, Dad fresh home from WW II and Mom the perfect homemaker," Traver wrote in the lengthy suicide note e-mailed to dozens of people.

"I learned many values from my parents and one being kindness to people, sometimes to people you don't know well. Dad was always bringing home men from work who didn't have families at the holidays or homeless guys who roamed the Hudson riverfront and railroad tracks. Our family had even taken in AA patients and a couple pregnant girls."

Traver's mother, still living in Hudson, agreed that the family helped many people. "We took some children in that we didn't know to accommodate a priest friend of ours," says Mim Traver.

Traver brought this generous tradition to Buffalo when he arrived in 1977 to work as a staff photographer for the Courier-Express. He first lived on Summer Street, then moved to Lincoln Parkway, eventually buying the large, three-story house at 187 Hodge Ave. where he lived for the rest of his life. Wherever he lived, Traver was an unselfish host.

"He was an excellent son," says Mim Traver. "If you could read the letters that I have received from people that I have never met and never will meet -- letters of gratitude that would just blow your mind. Joe was a very generous man."

Mike Billoni met Traver when they were students together at the State University of New York at Morrisville, where Traver graduated with an associate's degree in journalism in 1972 before earning his bachelor's degree from Syracuse University in 1974.

Billoni worked as a sportswriter at the Courier when Traver was a photographer. Even then, the big man with the camera already had made a name for himself, Billoni says.

"He was legendary from the standpoint of being a phenomenal photographer who would do everything he could to get a photo.

"I never met anybody who was as outgoing," says Billoni. "And literally, if anyone needed anything, Joe was there."

And even in those early days, Traver was known for being in the company of teenage boys.

"These allegations have surrounded Joe as long as I knew him," Billoni says. "I think it was the epitome of "Where there's smoke, there's fire.'"

Billoni remembers "there would be these school kids" in Traver's house.

One of those "school kids" is now a teacher and will not allow himself to be identified.

This man graduated from Canisius High School in the early 1980s. He became part of Traver's circle simply enough: He heard from his Canisius classmates that ""Joe invited us over.' Word would filter down. It was "Come one, come all.'"

At the house, he says, Traver offered the boys "booze and lower-level drugs, including pot and "Whip-Its,'" nitrous oxide propellants for whipped cream that provided a mild high when inhaled.

Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, a Canisius High School graduate himself, says emphatically, "There was not one kid who went to Canisius between 1978 and 1997 who did not know who Joe Traver was."

Brendan O'Brien was a freshman at Canisius when he met Traver at the school. Soon, Traver was picking him up after school daily. They'd drive to an Elmwood Avenue bakery to "grab a pint of milk, some chocolate chip cookies and go shoot some pictures."

O'Brien, now a Navy pilot in Bahrain, says his parents initially "were concerned that I was befriending someone 18 years my senior," so they asked to meet Traver.

The four shared a restaurant dinner one night and talked. O'Brien says his parents "determined that he was A) friendly and B) beneficial to me, and someone who could be trusted with their son."

In 1986, Traver was listed as a photographer for the high school yearbook, the Arena. But within a year, Traver was officially persona non grata at Canisius High School.

Former Buffalo Vice Detective Marty Harrington says he was called to the school "three or four times" in the late 1980s by a "very, very nice man, a Jesuit priest, an older man, concerned because he didn't want Traver associating with any of his students."

Harrington already knew Traver. In the early 1980s, Harrington and other members of the Buffalo Police Department vice squad stood along North Street between Elmwood and Delaware posing as male prostitutes.

"(Traver) had the big Mercedes, even then," Harrington says. But the members of the vice squad were not what he was looking for. "He wanted runaways, 15-, 16-year-old boys," according to the detective.

No order of protection was ever sought to bar Traver from Canisius High School property, according to police; he was given the message by school administrators. Even after Traver was warned, Harrington says, he often found Traver sitting in his Mercedes, parked just beyond school grounds at dismissal time.

"And the boys would be all around the car," Harrington says.

Harrington tried to keep tabs through the years on boys associating with Traver. Two sons of a local businessman were frequently with Traver.

"I called up the old man to tell him what we knew," says Harrington, shaking his head. "And he said, "Joe Traver has done an awful lot to help my sons out.'

"He had a ring of kids that he would associate with," Harrington says, "kids who he could become a father figure for. Mostly they were blue-bloods. He picked victims who were either not going to tell their parents, or whose parents would not prosecute because of their stature in the community."

Through the years Harrington says he visited several parents to tell them police suspected Traver of molesting their sons, "and they would be very sorry that they couldn't help us," he says, "but they did not want to let their kids get involved. I would say, "But what about his next victim?' and they would still refuse."

Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark in his office in 2001. A Canisius High School graduate himself, Clark said, "There was not one kid who went to Canisius between 1978 and 1997 who did not know who Joe Traver was." (Buffalo News file photo)

Clark explains further: "This is a small town. You could become the president of HSBC, and if you did something stupid at a basketball game when you were in Canisius High School, all over town people are going to be saying, "He's a big deal now, but I knew him when his nickname was "Barrelhead' in high school.'

"It would never be forgotten," says Clark. "Never."

Both Harrington and Clark say the upper-middle-class origins of the boys Traver surrounded himself with actually worked to protect him.

"Why have no adults ever come forward to say they were molested by Traver when they were teens?" Harrington says. "Because they're all lawyers and doctors now."

***

Traver's professional scope actually expanded after the Courier-Express went out of business in 1982. His work appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, Newsday, USA Today, Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic. He worked on the picture desk at Sports Illustrated for the 1994 football season, and continued to contribute after that. But in Buffalo, Traver was known more for the rumors that surrounded him than for his work.

Traver had boys with him "all the time," says Clark. "That's odd. That's odd, without ascribing any ulterior motive (to Traver). He knew what the reaction was to him and his entourage, and it was almost like he flaunted it."

Traver's friend David McLain agrees. "Everybody knew about Joe, and what they knew was, 'He walked around with little boys.' He physically stood out, and he would hang out on his front lawn catching rays with three 16-year-old boys.

"I think he was a little insecure and he wanted to feel good about himself, and he reveled in the audience these younger kids provided," says McLain. "There was this component of Joe's personality that thrived on having this adoring audience of kids who loved his stories and would think he was cool. That's not pretty, but that's not a pedophile."

The FBI's Lanning disagrees. "A person who craves the company and adoration of children? What is the name of that condition? Pedophilia," he says flatly.

***

In 1989, police, tired of getting doors slammed in their faces, tried another tactic. Rookie police officer Joseph Panus, who was then 23 but looked 17, was sent to meet Traver.

"Somebody obtained an invitation to a party at Shea's (co-sponsored by Traver) for me," Panus says. There, he approached Traver.

"I told him I was a student, I don't remember at which high school, and that I was interested in photography. Eventually I did get his phone number, and I called him a few times." The calls were monitored by detectives.

Panus says Traver "did invite me over to his house for a little one-on-one meeting. The guys wired me up with a microphone. I went in and he showed me his portfolio." But nothing else happened. "I got the impression he knew when to make an advance, and when to mind his p's and q's."

Brendan O'Brien insists Traver's behavior with him was never improper. In fact, when Canisius cracked down on Traver, O'Brien says administrators called his parents in to alert them to the potential "dangers of Joe."

"They told them all the stories about Joe, and my parents responded, "Yeah, but Joe's a good friend of ours,'" O'Brien says.

O'Brien's parents were so confident that their son was safe with Traver that O'Brien recalled asking his mother for permission to go to Puerto Rico the next day with Traver for two weeks.

"I can't think of any reason why not," O'Brien says his mother answered.

O'Brien emphasized that there was "never an advance, never an offer, never a time I felt uncomfortable or put upon" while with Traver. In fact, he says, Traver's generosity sometimes made him the victim of the young men he associated with.

"Joe was charitable to a fault and taken advantage of many times because of it," says O'Brien.

There was other tension among those who shared Traver's hospitality. One class of high school students would be hurt and puzzled as the years passed to find boys a few years younger than them -- boys they would not have willingly associated with -- filling Joe's house.

O'Brien says Traver and he "had gotten into disagreements about (younger) people coming over ... But there was never a feeling of gross impropriety about it."

Traver eventually expanded his circle of friends to include boys who attended other private schools in the city and even from suburban schools, according to interviews.

O'Brien admits there were "a couple of raging parties" at Joe's house complete with teenage drinking "I'd be lying if I told you there weren't." But he also says, "as much as Joe was a friend to teenage types, he was an adult, and had the house and car to prove it."

McLain also vouches for Traver's integrity. Despite spending many nights with him in hotel rooms, Traver "never, and I mean never, made a sexual pass at me despite countless opportunities," McLain says.

"Pedophiles do not molest every single child they encounter," counters Bowers, "just like men or women (who are not pedophiles) are not attracted to every single member of the opposite sex they encounter. The ones pedophiles don't molest don't have whatever it is they are looking for."

Clark said there were kids who would hang out with Traver "to take advantage of all the goodies," and he never approached them sexually.

"In fact, he never approached most of them sexually," Clark says. "But the kids knew. The kids knew."

David Kocieniewski, a 1980 graduate of Canisius High School, says he knew there was something odd about Traver, and his friends knew, also. But Traver was clever, and the boys had never faced something like this before; they didn't know what to do.

"I knew of three boys in my high school class who complained about Joe making indirect advances toward them," he says. "Every one rebuffed him and, like most 16-year-olds, every one mistakenly considered himself an adult -- so no one quite realized what there might be to report to the police or their parents. Most kids figured he was just this harmless, eccentric guy.

"By the time I was in college, though, we were old enough to understand how inappropriate it was for Joe, who was in his 30s by this point, to still be partying with 15- and 16-year-olds," Kocieniewski says. "I confronted him, and, of course, he denied everything. But there was still nothing concrete to report to anyone, so we warned some of the younger kids and just kept hoping Joe would get help.

"As a parent, I can only hope that people learn from what happened and protect their sons and daughters. Because chances are there's someone else out there trying to prey on kids by playing the same manipulative game."

The '90s were a time of professional growth for Traver. He was elected president of the National Press Photographers Association in 1994. He was photo chief and manager of photo operations for the Goodwill Games in 1998 and 2000, and deputy photo chief and assistant manager of photo operations for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Meanwhile, Harrington had retired in 1995 and moved to Florida, where he continues to work in law enforcement. As Clark put it, "There was nobody bird-dogging Traver anymore."

***

Traver's suicide note explained his version of his association with the family that would finally result in his arrest.

"When I met the family in June 1998, my heart went out to this overburdened mother of seven kids. The oldest son was a pretty good kid and a good yard/lawn helper. Another son, "M.," (different last name) lived with his father in the suburbs until he ran away to Buffalo in the summer of 2000 ...

"Many of my friends are private school-bred and college educated. I thought for once that I might be doing something to help someone, not because of photography or personal gain, just because they needed a hand."

Looking back, Diane B. wishes she'd rejected Traver's offers of help. Her name has been withheld to protect her family.

Four years ago, when she and her oldest son were having lunch in the McDonald's on West Ferry Street, "Joe came up to the table and asked (my oldest son) if he did yard work," the woman says. "He said he needed somebody to cut his lawn and help look after his dogs."

Traver took the family's phone number, called the next day and picked up her son.

"He was back in like an hour and he had $20 in his pocket," she says. "But gradually he (Traver) started letting him come over just to watch TV, then after about a month, he would say he was taking (her son) to a show and then have him stay overnight" because the movie would let out after the boy's curfew.

In the next two years, Traver forged close ties with the two oldest sons.

"He would give my boys money, new clothes, anything they wanted, $100 jeans, sweaters and stuff, trips," the woman says. "They went to all kinds of games with him."

"He manipulated all of us. He made us think he was helping us."

Her suspicions were aroused, she says, and two years ago she brought her oldest son to the Child Advocacy Center, an incident that police confirmed. Her son, then 16, was interviewed, but he denied any sexual contact was taking place.

"I asked him and asked him," says the woman. "And I asked Joe, too. He always said, "No way. I would never do anything like that.'" But she remained suspicious, examining the photo negatives her oldest son brought back after accompanying Traver to the Goodwill Games. She found nothing.

Her second son, "M.," began to spend time with Traver around 1999, when he was 13. The pattern of gifts and overnight trips was the same, she says. But then Traver began to show interest in her youngest son, who is now 7.

"He asked me if he could take (the youngest boy) to a Sabres game, and promised to buy him a new bike if I said yes," the mother says. "But I said no, so Joe said no to the bike, which broke my son's heart, and he took it out on me. He was going after my third son, right under my nose. ... He turned my boys against me."

Diane B. is bitter toward the parents who may have suspected Traver was molesting their sons but refused to allow police to interview them.

"They're just as wrong as Joe was," she says. "It wouldn't have happened to my boys if they had done something about it then."

To this family, Traver "was truly an angel," Clark says, paying medical bills and taking the teenage boys on trips. But there was no "built-in reticence" among working-class kids or their parents about admitting to authorities they have been victimized, Clark says.

Without disputing those social pressures facing middle-class boys, Bowers insists that giving a sworn statement was difficult for "M."

"To sit in a room with three women and talk about sexual conduct that took place was not easy for this kid," she says. "He liked Joe, too; Joe befriended him, and he'd done good things for him and his family. But this kid was basically drawing the line. I found ("M.") to be completely credible, with absolutely nothing to gain by providing this information."

***

In order to argue his innocence in his suicide note, Traver had to explain the motive "M.," the boy who accused Traver of molesting him, would have for lying.

"There was no physical contact of any kind at any time between me and my accuser, "M.,'" Traver wrote. "He ran away from his father's house nearly a year ago and was picked up by police and subsequently released to his mother.

"I had encouraged him to turn himself in and deal with his father, but when he was picked up, he was angry and wanted to blame someone, maybe me, for his arrest. About three weeks ago he was arrested again, this time allegedly breaking into cars at 2 a.m. This most recent incident caused him to be incarcerated in a Buffalo youth detention facility. His testimony against me is clearly under duress in return for his release."

Police say little of what Traver wrote is true.

Bowers says "M." was picked up on a warrant for being a runaway, not for breaking into cars. He did not arrive in the East Ferry Street Juvenile Detention Center bragging that he had damaging information on Traver or offering to swap information for special treatment.

In fact, "M." asked to call Traver after he was admitted to the detention facility, says the boy's mother, which prompted staffers to ask him about his relationship with Traver. Three separate interviews with people trained to detect sexual abuse had to take place before the full story emerged, Bowers says.

No one promised the boy that he would be released from the center in return for making his statement; despite what he told investigators about Traver, he was not released until his case made its way through the system, Bowers says.

In a sworn statement to Bowers, "M." said Traver had abused him about three times a week during the 10 months since he had run away. Just before midnight on May 24, the boy said, Traver "told me to go upstairs, and he started undressing me." There, while watching "a dirty (videotaped) movie about boys on TV," Traver "started feeling all over me and touching and rubbing (his genitals) ... I kept turning away from him, but he kept forcing me."

The boy said Traver forced him to perform oral sex that night, as well as "every time I was there."

When asked what should happen to Traver, "M." answered, "I hope he goes to jail. I don't want him near my little brother."

Police were concerned about a legally held 9mm handgun "M." told them Traver kept in his house, Bowers says. They were also concerned "M." might have second thoughts about talking to the police and try to warn Traver, who might then destroy evidence. So they asked for and received the no-knock search warrant.

Chief Patricia Bowers from the Erie County Sheriff's Office and Lt. David F. Mann Jr., chief of the city's Sex Offense Squad, worked together on the case against Joe Traver. (Buffalo News file photo)

"There is no other way to do a search warrant except the way it was done," says Lt. David F. Mann Jr., chief of the city's Sex Offense Squad, who also participated in the raid. "And his suicide (a week later) indicates he was willing to use some level of violence."

At 5:40 p.m. on June 12, police broke the locks on the front and rear doors of Traver's house and stormed up the stairs, guns drawn.

In his note, Traver wrote that he heard "a loud commotion" while in the shower. He said he opened the door of the bathroom just as Det. Gregory J. Savage was shot in the hand. "Did he shoot himself holstering the weapon? Falling on the stairs?" Traver asks in his note.

Bowers recalled it differently. She was fourth in line going up the stairs, still wearing, under her black raid jacket, the pink sleeveless dress she'd put on for work that morning.

"Everyone was yelling, "Police! Search warrant! Get down!' I heard that seven or eight times," she says. "(Traver) was on the landing, and he was not lying down. He was saying, "What is this all about? What are you doing?' An attempt was made to get him down," and that's when Savage was shot.

As deputies and police searched the house, Traver now handcuffed asked to speak to "the lady in the pink dress." Bowers came in and talked to Traver, who was "nervous, concerned and upset," she says. "I told him as much as I could."

"M." had given Bowers a wealth of information about Traver's habits and his house. He also provided one detail to police that was unknown to the vast majority who enjoyed Traver's hospitality. "M." told police they would find the commercially made videotape in Traver's bedroom VCR that showed teenage boys engaged in various sex acts. It was Traver's favorite video, and it was always in the VCR, according to "M." In fact, the last time Traver had performed sex acts on him, the video had been playing, the boy told police.

Police did find the video in Traver's bedroom VCR, according to Bowers.

"I would estimate that they (the people in the video) were 15, 16, 17 or 18," says Bowers. Possessing such material is illegal, Bowers says, but marshaling the expert testimony to charge Traver with possession of child porn wasn't worth it. The video did, however, eliminate any doubts among authorities that Traver was a pedophile.

When the search was over, police escorted Traver out of the house with a T-shirt over his head.

As traumatized as Traver was by the arrest, what would happen the next day was worse. He was well aware of the rumors that swirled around him, his friends say, but up until his arrest Traver controlled his image. Suddenly he was being burned by a negative media spotlight.

"I cannot endure another walk for the TV cameras, being photographed by my friends in the media," Traver wrote in his e-mail.

"He had a lot of insight into how horrible the next two years would be," says David McLain. "He never cared about what random people thought about him. But now the media, the tool that he'd used, had been turned against him."

Lanning, the pedophile expert, has another idea. Suicide, he says, is "a highly predictable dynamic" among those accused of pedophilia for the first time.

"They basically realize in a sense that this lie is over. The most important thing in their lives is to convince themselves that they are a good, loving, caring person who happens to have sex with children. Every day, they look in the mirror and ask, "Am I a good guy who cares about kids or an evil, disgusting pervert?'

"If you were innocent, you would be outraged and want to defend yourself to the hilt," says Lanning, echoing the callous comment of an unnamed Buffalo police officer, who told a News columnist after Traver's suicide, "As far as I'm concerned, he pled guilty in the tub."

To this day, Traver's friends maintain his innocence, his gentleness, his drive to share his love for photography with teenage boys. But no one can deny that Traver satisfied some deep need by surrounding himself with those teenage boys, a need he continued to indulge despite some social scorn and the loss of work.

"What kept the neighbors from calling (about teenage drinking parties)?" asks Mann. "What kept the parents from knowing where their kids were? The friends who went to Joe with their concerns -- did they ever go to the police? Why did the entire community look the other way?"

But finally, police had the explicit sworn statement of a 15-year-old runaway.

After taking the boy's statement, police questioned his older brother, who also made a sworn statement saying Traver had molested him.

"There was a third boy who was interviewed extensively by us who would not and did not" accuse Traver, Mann says.

On June 19, Traver climbed into the whirlpool, made superficial cuts across both his wrists and pulled a clear plastic bag over his head. The only drug found in Traver's body was marijuana.

Onondaga County Medical Examiner Paul Gosink says most people who kill themselves this way have other drugs in their system.

Plastic bag asphyxiation without other drugs "would be difficult, but it could be done," Gosink says. "It would just be a matter of being willful enough (to keep the bag over your head) until you passed into unconsciousness."

With Traver's suicide, the investigation into the computer equipment and other evidence taken from his house was immediately suspended.

"You can't prosecute someone who is deceased," says Mann. "So there is no justification for proceeding with an investigation."

***

The Sunday before his suicide, Traver wrote in his e-mail, he attended Mass with his family in St. Mary's Church in Hudson. One week after his suicide, the church was full of his supporters, family and friends, many of whom had made the five-hour trip from Buffalo, for a Mass of Christian Burial for Traver. At the graveside, the dozens of professional photographers who attended the services each placed a new roll of film atop the casket as a tribute.

"I wanted to go to his funeral," says Diane B. "But it wouldn't have been pretty."

"There will never be a resolution of this," says Clark. Traver "never got a chance to confront his accusers in court, and they never got a chance to confront him. And that was not their choice, it was his choice. Read into that what you want.

"He goes to his grave an innocent man," says Clark. "That's the way the story ends -- most unsatisfactory to everyone. There is a powerful body of evidence, but it's not admissible in any court, except the court of common sense."

News staffer Anne Neville is a frequent contributor to First Sunday. Her e-mail is aneville@buffnews.com.

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