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Fiery 2003 death remains mystery to victim's sister

The red pickup was engulfed in flames on a late Tuesday night in Great Valley, a Cattaraugus County town 60 miles south of Buffalo.

Mark G. Pavlock crawled from his 1998 GMC truck, the flames inflicting severe burns to nearly 90 percent of his body.

Pavlock, 53, later died. His death was ruled an accident.

That was more than two years ago -- Sept. 23, 2003.

Since then, Pavlock's older sister, Barbara, has been consumed by her brother's death, and dogged in her pursuit for answers to what happened that night.

State Police, who conducted a months-long investigation at the time, said they had found no evidence of foul play.

But Barbara Pavlock isn't convinced.

Dissatisfied with the outcome of the police investigation, Pavlock, a Classics professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., has hired Buffalo attorney Michael T. Kelly as legal counsel.

She also has hounded anyone -- State Police investigators, the district attorney's office, politicians, local media -- to take another look at the case, and help put to rest, at least for her, a number of unsettling questions:

Why was her brother's truck parked in a field across from his home when the fire started?

Why were a gas can and cigarette lighter in the cab of his truck?

Why was his blood found in his driveway where his truck is usually parked?

"She certainly has legitimate questions and just wants to know that everything that should have been done has been done in a professional investigation," said Kelly, a former prosecutor with the Erie County district attorney's office.

Here's how police reports describe what happened that night:

It was shortly before 11 p.m., and Mark Pavlock's wife, Susan, was waiting for her husband to arrive home, when she peered out the front window of their Whalen Road home. She saw her husband's truck on fire in the field across from their driveway.

She dialed 911, then went to the scene, where she saw her husband on fire and crawling from the truck.

"My God, what did you do?" she screamed.

"I did nothing," he managed to say.

First responders arrived and put out the flames on Mark Pavlock, who was lying about 20 feet from the burning pickup.

The retired railroad brakeman, who worked as security guard, murmured something about a gas can before he was transported to Erie County Medical Center, where he later died.

Attempts to reach Susan Pavlock for comment were unsuccessful.

She and her two children reportedly have tried to move on after the tragedy. But Barbara Pavlock -- who said she doesn't have a relationship her brother's wife -- immersed herself in the case.

She learned more details about the scene. When she began to ask questions, she wasn't satisfied with the answers she got from investigators.

"The investigation itself was hopelessly flawed," she said. "It glosses over the pool of Mark's blood found in his driveway and fails to explain how his truck ended up in the field across the road. It does not explain how a gas can came to be on the floor of the passenger's side while Mark, saturated with gasoline, was on fire in the driver's seat. It also fails to mention head injuries that were observed by eyewitnesses."

State Police out of Olean said they did take another look at the Pavlock case last year, after Barbara Pavlock and attorney Kelly raised questions, particularly about the blood in the driveway.

Investigators believe the blood came from a cut above Pavlock's nose, but said there was no indication that it was the result of a physical struggle, said Trooper Arthur Pittman, a State Police spokesman.

A CAT scan also was done, and results showed nothing to suggest blunt trauma to the head, Pittman said.

As for the fire, Pavlock was a smoker, and apparently had been drinking the night of the incident, which may explain the location of the vehicle, the police said. Tests indicated his blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit, Pittman said.

"They've checked this case over through and through now," Pittman said. "They just have no reason to believe foul play was involved. There's nothing to suggest that."

No one may ever be able to explain the death.

Still, Barbara Pavlock is relentless in her pursuit for answers.

She said her brother -- a Vietnam veteran who had been a Little League coach and helped raise scholarship money for Salamanca athletes -- deserves at least that much.

"My brother was a decent human being who contributed to his country and community, by serving in Vietnam and participating in numerous activities for local youth," she said. "But there wasn't even coverage of his horrific death in the local newspapers."


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