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Former Erie County Sheriff Michael A. Amico dies at 95

As a young Buffalo police officer, Michael A. Amico went undercover for a month with drug dealers, posing as a fellow dealer. At the end of the month, he turned them all in.

Amico’s long career took him from fighting crime in the streets, to testifying about organized crime before the U.S. Senate, to becoming Erie County sheriff and establishing the first narcotics unit in the department.

Amico, who also was one of the founders of Valu Home Centers, died Sunday in his sleep in his Amherst home. He was 95.

The Buffalo-born sheriff was honored about three weeks ago by former and current members of the department for his commitment to public service.

“He loved the Western New York community. He certainly should be remembered for his lifelong commitment to narcotics enforcement,” Erie County Sheriff Timothy A. Howard said.

Educated in Buffalo public schools, he graduated from Grover Cleveland High School in 1938, and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, becoming a bomber pilot. He flew B-24 Liberators in the Azores during the waning days of World War II, and remained active in the Air Force Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1969.

He joined the Buffalo Police Department as a patrolman in 1947, and was assigned to the Motorcycle Division in 1951. While working in Precinct 16, Amico ran into the intersection of Bailey and Kensington avenues and pulled a little girl from the path of a passing motorist. He was awarded the Merchants Mutual Casualty Medal for his actions.

His undercover work in 1954 helped crack a flourishing drug ring, and he was awarded the Kneeland B. Wilkes Memorial Award for outstanding police action. He became a detective in 1955, with postings in the Homicide Bureau and Bureau of Criminal Intelligence.

While doing police work, he graduated from the University of Buffalo Law School in 1958 and was admitted to practice law in New York the following year and to federal practice in 1960.

As a Buffalo cop, Amico moved up the ranks, commanding the newly formed Intelligence Unit charged with investigating racketeers in Western New York. In 1962, he was named assistant chief of detectives in charge of the Narcotics and Intelligence Bureau.

The following year, he was a principal witness before the Senate Investigating Committee on Organized Crime and Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, known as the “Valachi Hearings.” The Buffalo Evening News named him Man of the Year for his efforts.

He was named chief of Special Intelligence in 1964, in charge of vice, liquor, gambling, subversion, narcotics, criminal intelligence and organized crime.

He was eventually urged to run for sheriff, and in 1969, with the public eager for tough enforcement of drug laws, he was swept into office over the incumbent, Thomas W. Ryan. He was re-elected once before losing 1976 to Kenneth J. Braun.

During his tenure as sheriff, Amico oversaw the transformation of the department from a largely political organization to one that incorporated civil service status for deputies. His tenure was not without controversy, with a federal grand jury investigation into the alleged violation of civil rights by deputies, but no indictments were handed up.

He oversaw nearly 600 deputies, and is credited with creating the department’s narcotics unit. Howard called Amico “the father of the drug wars in Western New York.”

Retired Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins recalled working for Amico when they both served in the Buffalo Police Department.

“I worked for him back in the 1960s when he took command of the Buffalo Police Department’s narcotics squad. He was dedicated to eradicating drugs; we all were, but unfortunately the drugs are worse than ever, with kids dying,” Higgins said, adding that Amico “was a great family man and you knew where you stood when he said something. He was a consummate dedicated worker his whole life.”

New York State Police Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli recalled meeting Amico when he was a young boy and how impressed he was by the sheriff.

“I might have been 6 years old and my father, Joseph, and his family were lifelong friends from the West Side. The sheriff gave me a little star badge that I still have,” Nigrelli said. “I also remember seeing Sheriff Amico at Holy Cross Church. He was just this friendly guy, a person of the people, very approachable; an example of how a law enforcement official should act.”

Detective Alan Rozansky, who was hired by Amico in 1971 and is the sheriff’s current chief of narcotics, referred to last month’s gathering in Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More in Lancaster and said he was glad they had a chance to honor the former sheriff.

“I guess it’s true the saying that you’re as rich as you are happy,” Rozansky said. “That evening when we honored him, he looked like a billionaire.”

Erie County District Frank A. Sedita III called Amico a devoted public servant.

“Mike Amico was a total professional and a total gentleman. He devoted his career to enforcing the laws of the state and ensuring public safety, and will be sorely missed,” Sedita said.

After his retirement from law enforcement, Amico remained active as chairman of the board of Valu Home Centers, and contributed to a number of area charities and colleges, his family said. He belonged to a number of Italian American associations, and was active in his church, Holy Cross Catholic Church, where he had been an usher.

He also enjoyed Friday lunches at Chef’s.

Survivors include his wife of 70 years, the former Virginia Bishop; a daughter, Joanne Fontana; a brother, the Rev. Charles R.; three grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com and lmichel@buffnews.com