The teenager arrested last month on charges of preying on elderly residents in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood had been locked up 15 months earlier on a single home invasion charge, but prosecutors didn't pursue the case.
Darnell J. Prude was released in May. That's when, police believe, he began a series of violent home invasions. He was then also linked to numerous similar robberies in June 2006.
The police administration found itself at the center of a firestorm last month amid allegations from some residents and community leaders that it failed to warn the public about the apparent serial predator terrorizing the neighborhood's elderly residents.
But, police say the blame lies with the district attorney's office for failing to follow through to take Prude off the streets when it had the opportunity.
The 18-year-old now stands charged in eight home invasions. He's a suspect in nearly a dozen more dating back to May 2006 in the neighborhood surrounding the Broadway Market.
Prude originally was arrested July 31, 2006, shortly after allegedly committing a home invasion-style robbery on Grimes Street. He was arraigned at that time and held in custody after a City Court judge found probable cause at a felony hearing that he committed the crime.
The case never made it any further.
Sources in law enforcement allege that prosecutors:
Failed to present the July 31, 2006, case to the grand jury, as required by law;
Allowed the case to lapse under speedy trial provisions;
Administratively closed and sealed the file to cover the mistake.
Despite the fact that Prude has now confessed to that robbery, Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark says the evidence was simply inadequate to secure a conviction at trial. Those pointing fingers at his office, Clark says, are just looking to blame someone else. "Everybody is scrambling back, forth and center to cover [themselves] over how things should have been done differently over the past six months," Clark said.
The district attorney acknowledges that procedurally the case should have at least been introduced to a grand jury after the felony hearing. That did not happen, Clark admitted. The case was administratively closed after the six-month statutory window for prosecution passed.
"The lawyer felt there was no way we would have prevailed in a trial," Clark said. "In terms of proper procedure here, I didn't like that . . . The proper way to clear a case is through the grand jury."
The case was handled by Deputy District Attorney Molly Gondek Musarra, who is also the Republican candidate for Erie County judge in Tuesday's election. Efforts to reach Musarra Friday were unsuccessful.
Prosecutors decided not to pursue the case because the evidence -- an apparent identification by a victim and possible DNA evidence in the case -- was flawed, Clark said.
After Prude was apprehended, the victim positively identified Prude. He also told police he recognized him as a man from an neighboring address. But it was later learned that man the victim thought was Prude was, in fact, not him, Clark said.
"Some say that, even if there was one chance in 10 we could have convicted him, we should have taken it," Clark said. "I'm telling you there was a nine in 10 chance he'd have been acquitted."
Police see it differently.
"In respect to the July 31 arrest, we felt that we had a good case. We had strong evidence," said Michael J. DeGeorge, Buffalo police spokesman. "We would have hoped that it would have been enough to put Mr. Prude away for a significant amount of time."
That said, DeGeorge added that police "certainly have respect for the DA's office and the job they have to do."
"We hope now that their office and the courts see fit to put Mr. Prude behind bars for a very long time after all of the violent acts he's committed," DeGeorge said.
Prude was jailed between July 31, 2006, and May 9, 2007, according to Erie County Holding Center records.
When Prude was arrested in July, he was in violation of the terms of his release on bail in an earlier purse-snatching robbery for which he was awaiting sentencing. In September 2006, he was sentenced on the crime to a year in jail.
In early May 2007, when Prude was eligible for release, officials at the Erie County Holding Center telephoned the DA's office to inquire about the status of the July 31, 2006, case. Prosecutors told Holding Center officials the case had expired because of the failure to provide the defendant a speedy trial, and Prude was released May 9.
Had Prude been tried and convicted in the home invasion on Grimes, he could have received up to 15 years in prison.
After his release in May, police say, he went on to commit as many as four more home invasions this past summer and later admitted to police his involvement in four others in June 2006 at homes of elderly residents on Grimes, Rother Avenue, Brighton Avenue and Mohr Street.
Although Prude also confessed to the July 31, 2006, case on Grimes Street, he cannot be prosecuted because of the speedy trial provision.
The criminal file was sealed in that case, Clark said, "because the law considers that a disposition in favor of the defendant and it's sealed as a matter of law."
Meanwhile, Prude is also considered a person of interest in the death of 73-year-old Donald Bernas, who was found beaten in his backyard on May 29. Bernas later died June 13.
Law enforcement sources argue that, had the DA's office obtained Prude's conviction in the July 2006 case, he'd still be in jail and unable to commit the home invasion robberies and possible murder this year.
That scenario, Clark said, was extremely unlikely.
"If we indicted it and went to trial, the odds it would have come back with a conviction was minuscule," Clark said.
Moreover, Clark said Prude was simply "not anybody of any great interest" when he was initially arrested in July 2006. He was awaiting sentencing on a street robbery and had pleaded guilty to several previous misdemeanors.
"It was just another case," Clark said. "It was of no significance [to police] at the time."
It wasn't until his arrest last month, Clark contends, that Prude was identified by police as being the serial predator targeting the East Side elderly.