When emergency dispatchers sent an ambulance for the badly injured William C. Sager Jr. on May 11, they made no mention of Molly’s Pub, the bar in which Sager had just been thrown down a flight of stairs.
The dispatchers directed the ambulance to Main Street and Winspear Avenue, a major intersection visible from Molly’s, but not Molly’s itself.
Judging by radio calls The Buffalo News obtained, the ambulance dispatchers were not told that the victim had been injured inside Molly’s. The dispatchers reported that a caller to 911 – now known to have been a police officer moonlighting for the bar – had “walked up on” an unconscious man outside.
“Main and Winspear, outside there,” the dispatcher said as he relayed details to an ambulance team already rolling. “Caller stated he walked up on a 25-year-old male. He is reported to be unconscious. He is breathing …”
The Buffalo Fire Department also responds to medical emergencies that sound serious. Acting on the same information, a department dispatcher sent personnel to “Main and Winspear for a report of an unconscious man,” again with no mention of Molly’s at 3199 Main St.
The 911 caller was Officer Robert E. Eloff, one of two off-duty Buffalo officers providing security outside Molly’s Pub on the night of May 10 and the morning of May 11, Mother’s Day.
While The News obtained radio calls of dispatchers talking to the medics, it did not obtain a recording of Eloff’s words to a 911 operator. But a Buffalo police official knowledgeable about its contents described it as “goofy.” For example, the police official said, Eloff requested that his cellphone number not become part of the call’s record, a request that was not granted.
Asked whether Eloff kept his call vague to avoid linking the injured Sager with Molly’s Pub and bar manager Jeffrey J. Basil – who has been charged in the assault – the official refused to speculate. He spoke on the condition he not be identified, because departmental charges are pending against Eloff and Officer Adam E. O’Shei, Eloff’s security partner that night. Investigations are still open.
Two lawyers representing Eloff, Herbert L. Greenman and Aaron Glazer, did not return telephone messages left by The News seeking comment about the request for an ambulance.
When the dispatchers sent out their crews, they talked in matter-of-fact tones. An unconscious person on a sidewalk can involve a serious emergency, or it can simply be a drunk person who has chosen to lie down and fall asleep. Someone who walks up on such a person probably wouldn’t know the circumstances that placed the person there.
But the medic who tended to the injured Sager spoke urgently when he radioed back to dispatchers to describe the injured man’s status as they hurried toward Erie County Medical Center. It was a hot call, meaning it required lights and sirens.
“Notify ECMC I am coming in to them hot,” the Rural/Metro paramedic began. “Mid-20-year-old male patient. Unconscious. Head injury. Got an obvious injury to the top of his skull. Heart rate is about 40. Pressure is all right, 150 over 90. Got an IV in. No response as far as alert and orientedness, or any sort of consciousness. He is belly breathing right now.”
The intravenous line would allow doctors to inject drugs immediately if the patient’s heart stopped. His heart rate was low and his blood pressure slightly elevated. With belly breathing, he was using additional muscles in an effort to draw in air.
According to medical literature, those can be signs of pressure building within the cranium. Sager, a 28-year-old Air National Guardsman who served in Afghanistan, remained in critical condition Saturday after being shoved down a flight of stairs and rendered unconscious May 11.
Basil, 35, faces a felony charge of assault. He is being held in the Erie County Holding Center on $250,000 bail.
Police say just two people called 911 about the events at Molly’s that morning: Eloff and Donald E. Hall, a friend of Sager’s from Buffalo who was with him in the bar. Hall has rejected interview requests, but police sources said he was calling 911 to report that his friend had been harassed by the bar manager and off-duty officers.
For a short time on the morning of May 11, authorities appeared uncertain whether Sager was injured inside Molly’s. An early police summary said it was “unclear” if the victim “was involved in a physical altercation at Molly’s Pub.” In short order, investigators grew confident that Sager had been assaulted inside the bar. They began to examine the actions of Basil as well as Eloff and O’Shei.
Eloff declined to answer questions when called to testify during a felony hearing for Basil on May 23. He asserted his Fifth Amendment rights when faced with a series of queries. He refused to say even whether he was familiar with Molly’s.
O’Shei, however, did answer questions, and he described the moment when Basil, during a night of heavy drinking, gave Sager the shove that sent him down a flight of nine steps and left him out cold on the floor below. The officers’ impulse was to then haul Sager outside the bar. O’Shei said they were trying to avoid further injury to Sager from patrons trying to step over him on their way out and that they wanted to give the unconscious man some fresh air.
Medical personnel and a retired police administrator have since criticized the decision to move the injured man. The state Health Department, in its protocols for emergency medical personnel, says spinal injuries should be assumed in victims of serious falls and that they should be immobilized before being moved. The officers also handcuffed the unconscious Sager because, O’Shei explained, Basil was shouting that Sager had assaulted him.
O’Shei testified that he tried to connect with the injured man.
“I held up his head. He was bleeding from the nose,” O’Shei said during the felony hearing. “I start talking to him. I said, ‘Hey buddy are you OK?’ ”
With no response, he urged Eloff to remove the handcuffs and to call for an ambulance.
The episode at Molly’s – and Eloff’s actions in particular – highlight the conflicting roles that sworn officers play in providing security directly for bar owners. When officers don police garb, as Eloff and O’Shei did, they appear to serve the public, but the bar owners pay them.
Police sources say they have video images showing Eloff joining Basil, soon after the attack on Sager, as they walk toward the Molly’s office that contains the bar’s internal surveillance equipment. Then the bar’s video record went dark. Basil, according to police, had grabbed a crucial piece of the surveillance system’s hardware and disposed of it in a trash container outside. It was later recovered.
The State Liquor Authority says it’s illegal for police in New York to moonlight directly for bar owners because it violates an Alcoholic Beverage Control law blocking police from having an interest in the sale or manufacture of alcohol. However, the Buffalo Police Department for years let its officers work for bars – even those run by felons, such as Basil – if they remained outside and focused on crowd control and other external concerns. Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda banned that practice as well after the episode May 11.
Sager remains in the intensive care unit at ECMC. The fiancée he was to marry this summer, Erika Webster, has been named his legal guardian. A lawyer acting on her behalf has filed legal papers seeking to protect evidence in the case.
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