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Mr. Demolition Man

As a teenager and young man, Albert J. Steele Jr. was one of the most resourceful thieves to walk the streets of South Buffalo.

He could break into a vehicle in minutes, crank up the engine and drive off into the night – without car keys, according to cops who knew him.

“Albert got so good at it, I used to say he could start a car by telepathy, just by looking at it,” said Patrick “Dixie” Dugan, a retired Buffalo police officer who used to chase Steele.

When they caught Steele, authorities had a hard time keeping him behind bars. He escaped from prison four times in one 13-month period. He once broke out by clinging to the underside of a truck as it was leaving the prison.

But Steele, a 57-year-old bear of a man with a weathered red face and thick white beard, says his life of crime is all in the past.

He now makes a very good living demolishing houses and hauling away the debris from Buffalo’s most downtrodden neighborhoods.

His biggest customer, the City of Buffalo, paid Steele’s company more than $10.8 million for demo work over the past seven years. Since 2006, his Hannah Demolition has done more demolitions for the city than any other company.

Why does Steele get so much of Buffalo’s business when there are 24 other companies licensed to do demolitions for the city?

“We’re able to outbid other companies, because I have all my own trucks and all my own equipment,” Steele said. “We work hard.

We work fast, because my men do not have to sit around for hours at a time, waiting for [rented] trucks to take away the debris.” .

“I work hard,” Steele added. “Pretty much every Monday to Friday, from 8 in the morning until 7 at night. I’m out there with my men, working with them.”

City officials speak highly of his work, and so do many of the people who work for other local demolition companies.

“Albert is a hardworking, handshake deal man He has given all that one could give to our city, giving to the poor and doing jobs for free when the individuals could not pay,” said Peter Battaglia, a South Buffalo contractor who has worked with Steele and many of his competitors.

Steele’s company gets hired often because it submits the lowest bids and does the work quickly and properly, according to James W. Comerford, the city’s commissioner of inspections.

Comerford said he grew up in South Buffalo and is familiar with Steele’s criminal background.

“I’ve heard of the Steele brothers all my life When somebody told me Albert was running a demolition company, I could hardly believe it,” Comerford said. “He’s licensed to do the work, and he does a good job. He also does a lot of charitable work.

If I had to judge, I’d say he appears to have turned over a new leaf.” .

But Steele said he knows that federal agents are watching and asking questions about him.

“The feds think bribes are being paid,” Steele said of how he and other demo companies operate in the city. “Well, I don’t pay any bribes. I’ve never been asked to pay a bribe to get work All the work we get, we bid on, against other contractors.”

Steele said he is a target of federal investigations because of his past.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they got my phones tapped,” Steele said, quickly adding, “I have nothing to hide.” He said his company’s books were audited by state and federal investigators several times in the past year.

“I know my reputation is still out there,” Steele said. “I’ve heard some cops have said, ‘The Steeles are no good.’ I say no, I’m not like that anymore. But to some people, it’s ‘once a crook, always a crook. You’re never going to change.’ “

Hardworking criminals

Born in 1954, Steele grew up on Abbott Road in the heart of South Buffalo. His father, Albert, was a toll collector on the State Thruway, and his mother, Ruth, was a housewife.

Steele had four brothers and two sisters, and it didn’t take him long to learn how to get into trouble.

When he was 14, he and his brothers would sneak off in their dad’s car in the middle of the night, searching the city for adventure and mayhem. By age 16, he was using LSD and Quaaludes, and stealing to get cash for drugs.

Steele said he only used drugs for about six months, but by that time he was immersed in a life of thievery.

His family was poor, he said, and if you wanted to get something, “You stole it.”

Steele and his brothers had many run-ins with police.

“They were the hardest-working gang of criminals I ever investigated,” said Thomas J. McCarthy, a retired detective from the Buffalo Police Burglary Task Force. “From sundown until sunup, they were out there, working the streets, looking for things to steal.” .

To catch the Steeles, cops had to work hard, too, McCarthy and other retired officers recalled. Many times, the Steeles -- often with Albert at the wheel -- led officers on high-speed car or truck chases.

Then, they abandoned the vehicles and ran through backyards.

“Once you did catch them, they’d say, ‘OK, you got me,’ “ McCarthy recalled. “I never knew them to be violent criminals.”

Steele served at least five jail terms in his teens and early 20s. He earned a reputation as a master escape artist after his four escapes from the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.

He escaped from Alden four times between August 1974 and September 1975.

“At one point, the Alden superintendent had a guard handcuffed to me, pretty much all day long,” Steele recalled. “When I played baseball with the other prisoners, I still had the guard handcuffed to me.

I had to bat with one hand and run the bases with this guard running with me.” .

By the early ‘80s, Steele said, he was tired of jails and courtrooms. At his father’s urging, he said, he decided to go straight.

“That wasn’t easy, because no one would hire me. No one trusted an ex-con,” Steele said.

But in 1982, he said, a feisty, diminutive woman named Santina Caldarella gave him a job at Erie Auto Parts, a junkyard she ran on William Street.

“She gave me a chance, and she saved my life,” said Steele, who worked for Caldarella for many years and wound up marrying her daughter, Tracy.

Colleagues in trouble

Steele also drove a tow truck and plowed snow for several years before he started working for demo and asbestos removal companies about 15 years ago.

An expert truck driver and heavy-equipment operator, Steele learned the business by working for companies run by two men, Thomas Toporczyk and Jabril Shareef, who both got into trouble for the way they did business.

Steele said he only worked for Toporczyk and Shareef, and did not do anything illegal while working for the two men.

Shareef spent time in prison after convictions for extortion and mail fraud, and his wife, Ellen, took over the business, Steele said.

“I worked as a subcontractor for them, tearing down buildings I still do some subcontracting for them,” Steele said. “They’ve very nice people, and they always paid me.”

Toporczyk pleaded guilty in 2004 to filing a false laboratory report certifying that a building was free of asbestos. After that, Steele said, Toporczyk gave Steele an excavator -- the device used to rip and tear down buildings.

“You take over the business I’m getting out,” Steele recalled Toporczyk telling him.

Steele said he started his own demolition company in late 2005 but didn’t start bidding frequently on city jobs until 2006.

“I saw that I could make a lot more money by buying my own equipment and doing the jobs myself,” Steele said, rather than working for other people.

Piece by piece, he assembled his own fleet of trucks and excavators for demolishing buildings and hauling debris. Steele said he now has seven excavators, seven tractor-trailers, three bulldozers, two dump trucks and other equipment.

Steele has eight employees, including himself, and currently pays them $24.58 an hour, plus benefits worth another $20 an hour.

It’s hard and dirty work, but Steele said some employees have made as much as $120,000 a year, with massive amounts of overtime.

It has been profitable for Steele, too. Although he said he does not call himself a millionaire, he estimates the value of his buildings and equipment at $2 million.

For about two years, Steele had one employee working with him who had close ties to a high-ranking Brown administration official.

Steele hired Charles P. “Charlie” Comerford, one of the most honored high school basketball and football players in Buffalo’s history, to do asbestos removal work.

Steele said he didn’t even know at the time that Comerford is the nephew of James W. Comerford, the city’s commissioner of inspections, who oversees the city’s entire demolition program.

“Jim Comerford never asked me to hire Charlie. He was recommended by a firefighter who has worked for me. Charlie turned out to be a great worker, a bull worker,” Steele said.

Steele said he doesn’t believe any city jobs came his way because he hired Charles Comerford, who left his job with Steele about a year ago. He is now the athletic director at his alma mater, Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School.

“There was nothing fishy going on, and I’ll take a lie detector,” said Charles Comerford, 28. “I see my uncle three or four times a year, and we never talk about asbestos or demolitions.

Albert already had all kinds of jobs with the city before I started with him.” .

James Comerford agreed with the accounts given by his nephew and Steele.

’He loves it’

One recent morning, the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Steele squeezed into a white asbestos safety suit, hopped up into the cab of his excavator and began tearing apart a home on Baynes Avenue, on Buffalo’s West Side.

As he used the heavy-metal scoop of the excavator to batter down walls and turn rooms into rubble, Steele wore the excited look of a kid trying out a new toy on Christmas morning.

“Albert loves his work, loves it,” said one business associate who has worked with Steele for years. “He’s good at what he does because he really enjoys it.”

Steele’s company got $15,999 for the demo job on Baynes, and it took one full day. The next morning, the house and all the debris were gone.

“We can do five house demolitions in Buffalo a week,” Steele said.

While law enforcement officials confirmed that federal investigators have been looking at Hannah and other city demolition contractors, officials of the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment.

Investigators have asked people who know him if Steele ever hired arsonists to set vacant houses on fire, so he could bid on lucrative emergency demolitions at those sites, according to Steele.

“I think the people in the neighborhoods are starting the fires people who are frustrated that vacant houses are being used for crack houses and all kinds of things,” said Steele, who denies any involvement with arson.

While Steele appears to be a jovial and easygoing figure on a job site, friends say he sometimes goes into deep depressions. During those times, Steele stays in his house and doesn’t want to talk to anyone.

Steele said the depression stems from a horrific stabbing that took the life of his mother more than 16 years ago, in September 1995.

The killer was Steele’s 20-year-old nephew, Merle Steele Jr., who -- after years of mental problems and drug abuse -- attacked his grandparents in their home on Littell Street. Ruth Steele died on the day of the assault.

Albert Steele Sr. was badly wounded and died months later of heart problems.

Merle Steele Jr. was convicted of murder and sentenced to 34 years to life in prison.

“My biggest regret in life is that my parents didn’t live long enough to see me become a success,” Steele said. “A legitimate success in the legitimate business world.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com and sschulman@buffnews.com