Craig Lehner had plans for the evening of Oct. 17.
The Buffalo police officer and former member of the Army National Guard was going to get together with some of his military buddies to remember a long-gone friend. It’s something Lehner and his pals did every year on Oct. 17.
This year, Lehner couldn’t make it. By now, the reason is well-known: The K-9 officer and member of the Buffalo Police Department’s underwater recovery unit died in an Oct. 13 training exercise. His body was found days later, and Lehner was laid to rest following one of the largest and most public funerals in the city's history.
The proceedings, which began at a funeral home in Hamburg and concluded at Forest Lawn, were centered around a two-hour ceremony at KeyBank Center. There, on a stage draped in blue, before a crowd of between 6,000 and 7,000, friends, colleagues and admirers remembered the 34-year-old officer.
“His nickname was Superman,” said Detective Leo McGrath, one of eight speakers who offered reflections. “That’s not surprising. Craig was in great shape. He had Superman’s physique, plus two full sleeves of tattoos.”
Two arms of tattoos were accompanied by a heart overloaded with drive. The speakers built a portrait of a man who was driven by loyalty, unresolved pain and a desire to do the right thing.
“Craig become a role model for his fellow officers,” said Lt. Salvatore Losi, Lehner’s boss on the K-9 unit. During the funeral, Lehner's dog Shield was positioned to the right of the casket. He wore a Buffalo Police Department garment decorated with a Superman logo, and chewed on a rope as Officer John Kujawa held his leash.
Lehner and Shield – whom Lehner named after James A. Shields, an officer killed in the line of duty in 2002 – had been on the unit for only 13 months. But both officer and dog were tireless workers, training hard during days on and off.
And though Lehner was a solid 20 years younger than most of his fellow dog-handling officers, Losi said, he was “a colleague we all sought to emulate.”
Lehner, a scuba diver, had recently joined the department’s underwater recovery team. McGrath was his commander on that unit. He described Lehner as “calm, cool, collected.”
“He had so much confidence, you would have thought he was on the team for years,” McGrath said, noting that on training missions, Lehner always found whatever object was being searched, “even in black water.”
On Oct. 13, McGrath opened the briefing that precedes dive trainings with the same question he asks every time. He repeated it for the crowd at Lehner’s funeral, many of whom were uniformed police officers and first responders from Western New York and beyond: “What is the most important thing to concentrate on today?”
Members of his team shouted out, “Safety!”
“My team will respond, ‘Safety,’ ” McGrath repeated. “Correct.”
Then he added, “On Friday, before I got my question out, Craig shouted out the answer. I had to tell him to be patient. ‘Wait for me to get my sentence out.’ But that’s how eager he was to get to work.”
Until that point, the ceremony had been quiet, reverent. It looked, and sounded, like what it was: a large funeral. Outside, as a motorcycle hearse brought Lehner’s casket from Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home in Hamburg to the arena, thousands of officers and dozens of K-9 dogs stood at attention. Inside, the mood was quiet and somber, right down to Buffalo Sabres’ anthem singer Doug Allen’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Allen, who was told by his contact at the Sabres that the Lehner family had hoped he could sing, agreed easily.
“I’m honored to do it,” said Allen, who wore the same black-and-white tux, with an American flag pin given to him as a gift by a Secret Service agent, that he wears to every Sabres game. But Allen toned down his usual punchy performance of the anthem: His voice didn’t boom. He didn’t do his signature point to punctuate “land of the free.” Nor did he sing to an organ track. Rather, he tuned himself by blowing an E-flat note into his pitch pipe, and began to sing. And when he did, he avoided looking directly into Lehner’s mother Kathleen’s eyes, simply so he could keep his composure.
“This is a guy who, just like those people who were fighting for what they believed in when the anthem was written, was willing to make the sacrifice,” Allen said. “It’s a great privilege to sing for that.”
Lehner’s fun side – which, by all accounts, was ample – was celebrated. His policing partner and friend of almost 10 years, Officer Tommy Champion, recalled how Lehner used to delight in pulling in a patrol car next to a person who was singing and dancing, and then dance along to the same song.
“That was the humor, beauty and brilliance of my partner,” said Champion, who also joked about Lehner’s good looks, and noted how officers would sometimes say to him, “Whatever, Bradley Cooper.”
Retired Sgt. Major Mark A. Sorrentino, who led Lehner in the Army National Guard, revealed what the officer was planning to do on the evening of Oct. 17. Every year, Lehner and other former members of Guard’s 105th Military Police Company, get together to honor the memory of Specialist Michael Williams, whom everyone called “Mikey.” In 2000, when Lehner first joined the National Guard, Williams was a veteran member of the unit and “one hell of a man, and soldier,” Sorrentino recalled. “Those two bonded instantly. Mikey took Craig under his arm and helped bring Craig out of his shell.”
In February 2003, the 105th was activated to be sent to Iraq. Lehner and Williams roomed and trained together at Fort Drum, but when it was time to deploy, Lehner fell ill and couldn’t go.
Williams did go, and on Oct. 17, 2003, was killed in action in a roadside bomb blast.
“Craig was devastated to hear of the loss,” Sorrentino told the crowd. “For over 13 years, Craig shouldered guilt and remorse knowing the man that filled his position, his friend, his mentor, was gone. Because of the loss of Mikey, you could see how Craig lived his life, and knew that every day was a gift. He lived his life without fear, and was determined to accomplish his goals and dreams.”
Lehner, who did go to Iraq with his unit in 2011, and also served at Guantanamo Bay, grew into a strong leader, Sorrentino said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind if Craig yelled, ‘Follow me,’ he would not have to look over his shoulder to see if his soldiers were following,” Sorrentino said. “Craig’s soldiers called him Superman. They believed in him. They believed he could fly.”
Sorrentino and his fellow members of the 105th see solace in the date that Lehner’s body was recovered.
“We all felt that Mikey was going to help bring Craig home to us on the 17th,” he said.
The deepest sense of hope and comfort, however, came from Shield, who stood or lay quietly throughout the funeral. (Shield will one day be buried with Lehner, which was the officer’s request.)
Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said the department has received “numerous requests” to adopt the dog, including “about a hundred … probably more like 200” from the commissioner’s own 12-year-old daughter.
“She said to me, ‘Dad, Shield needs a home. He needs a family, ’” said Derenda, who responded, “The BPD is his home, and his family. He needs to work, and do what his partner, Officer Lehner, trained him to do. He needs to work because that’s what Officer Lehner would want him to do.'"
Derenda added, “Shield will carry on, and be a living legacy, a daily reminder to all of us of the strength, courage and dedication of Craig Lehner.”
Just after 2:30 pm, the graveside ceremony at Forest Lawn ended as a flock of doves were released. About 15 minutes later, as the crowd thinned, Shield approached the grave and put his paws on the casket.
Includes reporting by News Staff Reporter Joseph Popiolkowski.