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Aghast at a 'great neighbor' Cheektowaga residents tearfully tell of family man they thought they knew

When Cleveland Hill neighbors found out about Altemio Sanchez, they wept.

They talked and cried and commiserated the way one would upon the death of a good friend. Because for years, that's exactly what Sanchez was.

The man they knew wasn't a serial killer and rapist, accused in the deaths of three people. He was the best neighbor anyone would wish for.

The friendly and gregarious man they knew planted flowers out front and raised two good sons with his lovely wife, Kathleen. He hosted neighborhood parties, coached basketball at the local Catholic school and helped with church fundraising.

He was a sports fan, an athlete who bowled, golfed, ran and played basketball and baseball with friends at work, at church and at home.

Neighbor Ed Van Volkenburg has known Sanchez since his family moved into the neighborhood in 1986. Sanchez's boys, now in their 20s, were knee-high back then.

"He's got a beautiful, wonderful wife and two sons," Van Volkenburg said. "I personally watched those boys grow up. . . . He's a great, great neighbor and a wonderful, wonderful family man."

Sanchez worked the overnight shift at Luvata Buffalo in Riverside. But when he wasn't at work, he was typically found at home working on his lawn, his house or his car.

"His house was immaculate," Van Volkenburg said, choking back tears that welled nonetheless. "I used to tell him, 'You're making it bad for me. I can't do all that stuff.' "

Many neighbors recalled the great parties Sanchez threw. He was so well-liked that people who had moved away from the neighborhood still came back to attend.

The Walker family, who lived next door, never chose to go to his parties, but Sanchez would always come by to warn them that it might get noisy.

He was often known to do good deeds in the neighborhood. When the October storm hit, Sanchez came to the Walker family's house and offered to let them share his generator.

"No way you would think of the monster and associate it with him," said the mother, who would not give her first name.

Sanchez's aunt, Margarita Torres of Buffalo, shared the opinion of many when she said: "I can't believe he could have done anything like that."

Torres said that she did not see her nephew frequently -- mainly just at family funerals -- but that she did see him last at Thanksgiving for a family get-together at the home of Sanchez's nephew. He hugged and kissed her, she said, and he didn't act like anything was wrong or was bothering him.

Sanchez was college-educated and was always well-dressed and well-mannered, Torres said.

"It's shocking," she said. "He's a nice person. It's hard to believe. When I heard about it, I said, 'It can't be.' I can't believe it myself."

Monday, longtime neighbors stood outside in the rain. They talked about the man they thought they knew. And they expressed sorrow for his wife and children.

Sanchez was an active member of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Church in Cheektowaga. He helped with church fundraising and played softball on the church team, neighbors said. He also coached basketball and baseball at the church school, they said.

"There's nothing bad to say about the guy," said neighbor Jerry Donohue. "That's why it's such a shock."

Donohue had rushed home from work in the middle of the day after his distraught wife, Nadine, called him. She had seen the police cars descend on the neighborhood and immediately turned on the news. When she saw the police composite sketches flash across the screen, she thought of Sanchez and spent the rest of the morning in tears.

"Our kids grew up with their kids," she said, remembering how Sanchez coached the Cleveland Hill Little League team.

She wondered, she said, how could she know anyone if she didn't know him?

It was a question pondered by almost everyone whose life was touched by him, including those with whom he worked.

Sanchez worked as a machine operator at the sprawling Luvata plant, the former American Brass Co., on Sayre Street off Military Road. The news of his arrest was as shocking to his fellow workers as it was to his neighbors.

Employees leaving at the end of the first shift, or arriving to begin the second shift, Monday afternoon described Sanchez as a mild-mannered, hardworking colleague.

"He was a good guy, as far as we knew," said Rick Smith, who works the second shift in Luvata's copper mill. "Gone out golfing with him a bunch of times."

Sanchez worked the third, or overnight, shift at Luvata. He has been there for 23 years, said Jack Alonge, director of human resources for the plant. His job involved operating a crane and driving a forklift, co-workers said. They knew Sanchez as a guy with whom they played sports and joked around.

He had been a member of the plant's running club for many years, said Gordon Chudy, chief union steward on the second shift.

Chudy said he had run several 5K races with Sanchez but never the Linda Yalem Safety Run, held in memory of one of the Bike Path Killer's victims.

He added that Sanchez was a solid employee who could be trusted to pay attention and not make mistakes on the job.

Ken Czekaj, a 36-year Luvata worker currently on disability with a neck injury, was astonished to hear about his colleague's arrest.

"I'd see him and talk with him all the time," said Czekaj, 58. "He was a likable guy, very well-known in the plant."

When Czekaj saw Sanchez's picture on TV, he was stunned.

"In all the years I worked with him, he never said one thing that gave an indication that he might be involved in something like this," he said. "You think you know a guy, but you don't. It's unbelievable. It's scary."

News Staff Reporters Stephen T. Watson, Dan Herbeck and T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.


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