Did Buffalo officer sanction heroin use for promotional film? - The Buffalo News
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Did Buffalo officer sanction heroin use for promotional film?

Robert Sagliani was using heroin again, this time in a public restroom at a Main Place Mall restaurant.

A Buffalo police officer was outside the restroom door, and others around him in the restroom knew what he was doing. And it was all captured on film.

But Sagliani wasn't worried about being arrested. The 37-year-old addict figured the police officer knew what he was doing that day, because she recruited him to be there.

He had agreed to be in a public service short film about the dangers of drug abuse – part of a deal he thought he had with police after they arrested him and his 63-year-old mother in late December for heroin possession.

For participating in the film, police would arrange for him to get into a drug treatment program – and, he thought, dismiss his pending drug possession charge.

But first he had to play his role in the film. And it turned out to be more than the director was hoping for. Asked to demonstrate how to prepare heroin to inject, Sagliani went off script and snorted a quick hit before getting to the demonstration. The cameras were rolling and the director kept the snorted heroin in the movie.

“I filmed a real drug addict doing drugs,” Greg Robbins, the movie’s producer, writer and director later told The Buffalo News.

But Sagliani's drug use in the public restroom has raised questions about how much the police officer knew about what was being filmed that January 2017 day and the department's role in recruiting him for the short film following his December arrest.

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Sagliani's lawyer wants charges against Sagliani and his mother dismissed.

“It is abhorrent that the Saglianis would be encouraged to illegally use heroin, endangering their lives, in the interest of a film which could be used as an election year campaign commercial,” defense lawyer Mark A. Sacha wrote in a court motion.

Sacha said the police showed “extremely poor judgment and intentionally improper conduct” and that what happened to the Saglianis “makes a mockery of the legal process and the opiate crisis.”

“Although drug possession is a crime, it is even a greater crime to allow law enforcement to be used as a tool of politics and, in the process, manipulate, coerce and endanger at-risk defendants," Sacha said. "Robin Sagliani is 63 years old and has no record. She may be addicted, but she is not a prop or a guinea pig.”

For now, prosecutors continue to press the drug charges against the Saglianis stemming from their December arrests.

But Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn also referred the allegations in Sacha’s dismissal motion to the Buffalo Police Department for an internal investigation.

If the claims are true, it is “disturbing,” Flynn said. “I mean, what if somebody died?”

"Casting call"

It was right around Christmas when the Saglianis were picked up in a traffic stop in downtown Buffalo. According to Sacha’s motion, Officer Elizabeth Baker approached the stopped car and instructed the occupants to “turn over the drugs.”

Baker allegedly reached inside to pat down Robert Sagliani. At some point, he said, she started to choke him. Sagliani said he fought back. Eventually, police found a small amount of heroin on him. His mother also had drugs in her purse.

Both were charged with criminal drug possession. Robert Sagliani also was charged with assault, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration for scuffling with the officer. He was taken to Erie County Medical Center to be examined for bruises.

But at the hospital, Baker’s demeanor changed, Sagliani said.

“All of a sudden, she got real nice,” he said.

According to Sacha's motion, “Officer Baker told Robert Sagliani that they needed ‘real heroin addicts’ for the film. She told Sagliani that if he helped make the film, she would deal with his criminal charges in return.”

Baker allegedly gave Robert Sagliani her business card and put both defendants in touch with Robbins.

Sagliani said he and his mother met with Robbins. He said he used money given to him by the film crew to buy heroin for the restroom scene.

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Robert Sagliani's role in the film begins at 12:08. He is shown snorting drugs and describing how to prepare an injection of heroin. (Editor's note: The movie was posted to YouTube when this story was originally published June 13. After the story went live, the video was taken down.) 

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Also according to court papers, when Robert Sagliani and his mother showed up to the restaurant without a syringe, Baker called Robert Sagliani's girlfriend and asked her to buy one. He said a member of the film crew gave him more money than he needed to buy the drugs for the movie. He said he kept some of it to buy more drugs for himself.

Robert Sagliani told The News that he did not offer be in any movie but felt pressured to do so after his arrest to get his charges dismissed.

“In this case, Officer Baker intentionally violated Robin Sagliani’s and Robert Sagliani’s right to counsel," Sacha wrote in his motion. "It appears that the entire arrest could have been a casting call (with) the Buffalo Police acting as casting director for the film.”

'Playing with death'

The idea for a drug education video came from Robbins, who has a background in Christian-themed entertainment. He asked city leaders for research help for a fictional film he wanted to make – a movie that would be a graphic response to the mushrooming opiate epidemic. Robbins said he presented the idea to Mayor Byron W. Brown, who then recommended to Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda that his department help in any way it could on the project.

Robbins said he would make the short film with a volunteer cast and crew and that it would be free to any agencies wanting to show it.

That’s how Robbins came to work with Steven Nichols, a Buffalo police captain for community policing and special events.

"The mayor said, ‘Let’s go with this,’ ” Nichols said in February. “It’s a positive message, as dramatic as it’s going to be.”

Nichols recently said the Police Department's cooperation, which involved ride-alongs for the director, did not include sanctioning real drug use, on camera or off.

“I cannot condone breaking the law. It’s illegal to buy (heroin), it’s illegal to possess it,” Nichols said. “It is definitely an area we don’t want to get into. You’re playing with death.”

If any real drug use occurred in the film, Nichols said, it would not have been with police assistance.

As for Baker, the police officer who was photographed with the film crew and Sagliani at the restaurant, “if she was there, she was there on her own. That is just totally in violation of everything we do,” he said of drug use.

A snort, but no injecting

Nothing in Robbins’ original pitch to city leaders involved real heroin use.

Robbins' script for "Blink of an Eye” centers around a high school girl who becomes addicted after being prescribed opioid painkillers. In the 16-minute film, the camera follows the fictional teen character through a typical day – at home with her family, walking the halls at school, and ending with the girl shooting heroin, first in a public restroom, and then, fatally and gruesomely, under a highway bridge.

A local high school student who portrayed the character did not use real drugs in the movie.

But Robert Sagliani said he did.

After the film shows the teen’s mother collapsing at the news of her daughter’s death, the action cuts to Sagliani. Like the girl in the movie, he's shown preparing a fix in a cramped public restroom. Except his drugs are real.

Energetic and engaging, Sagliani does a quick snort of grains from a small plastic package. Then he deftly demonstrates for the camera how to mix the heroin for an injection.

While doing this, he describes people who overdose.

Of those lucky enough to be revived, he says, “They wake up, they don’t remember, so when they wake up, they wanna keep getting high.”

His prep work done, Sagliani instinctively brings the needle to his arm, before his mother, standing near him, softly says “no,” as she moves to pull his hand away.

Robbins, off camera, can be heard saying, “Dude, dude, don’t do it man!”

Robert Sagliani puts the needle down.

Then, the scene jumps to a smiling Robert Sagliani a few weeks later, a successful graduate from the White Deer Run rehabilitation program in Pennsylvania.

As he stands outside the City Court building, Robert Sagliani thanks the Buffalo Police Department, the filmmakers and White Deer Run for helping him.

“Today, I’m going to court to finish up my charges,” he says in the film.

Still in court

In real life, Sagliani is still waiting for his charges to be dismissed.

He said he stuck with the drug treatment program and except for one slip, he has stayed clean since he left rehab.

But he is still in court.

Nichols confirmed police officers put Sagliani in contact with the movie director. But Nichols is adamant that the Saglianis would not have been offered a deal on their criminal cases. What the police provided, he said, was help getting clean.

“With our ‘Angel’ program we can get them into treatment,” Nichols said. “Which we did. (Sagliani) did go into treatment. He is working.”

Sacha disputes the police version. He said officers making any deal with a defendant without a lawyer present is out of bounds.

While Sagliani remains grateful for the help getting clean, he also feels cheated. He believes the charges against him and his mother should be dropped for their help on the film.

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While the DA opposes an outright dismissal of the charges, the prosecution echoes some of Sacha’s concerns.

Assistant District Attorney Michael J. Hillery, who is handling the case, submitted an affidavit calling the Saglianis’ story “a provocative series of unsworn claims.”

“If they are true, a troubling picture emerges,” Hillery wrote.

The Saglianis’ last City Court appearance was in May. At that time, Sacha asked Judge Joseph A. Fiorella for an immediate dismissal of the charges, saying the cases had gone on “for much too long in light of what happened.”

Fiorella has called the cases against the mother and son “bizarre.”

He declined to dismiss their charges without a hearing.

But he told Sacha at a recent hearing that “if what you’re saying is correct, I agree with you.”

He set June 26 as a date for an evidentiary hearing on what happened and advised both sides to come prepared.

Flynn said that the prosecution doesn’t plan on calling any witnesses at the hearing, but he also said that, in the interim, his office will monitor the investigation by Police Department into the officers’ behavior during and after the Saglianis' arrests.

For his part, Robert Sagliani has no complaints about his part in the film. He has only good words to say about the filmmaker. He says he has been drug free for going on two months.

He just wants to be done with his days in court.

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