Phil Fairbanks, The Buffalo News
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Phil Fairbanks

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I cover federal courts and criminal justice issues and occasionally veer off into the world of refugees, human traffickers and streets gangs. As a product of the Watergate era, I value a newspaper's role as the community watchdog.

When Horace Tajah was convicted of drugs, guns and murder charges, he was sentenced to prison, eventually deported back to Jamaica and barred from the United States for life. Just months after his removal, Tajah tried to re-enter the U.S. by crossing the Peace Bridge on a commercial tour bus. He was caught and so was his wife, who on Friday admitted she lied about he…

Dwayne Brice was supposed to manage his father-in-law's veterans benefits. Instead, he stole $38,904 in benefits and, according to prosecutors, used some of it to gamble at local casinos. Brice, 37, of Buffalo, pleaded guilty this week to theft of government money before Chief U.S. District Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Scott S. Allen Jr. and …

Prosecutors say Robert Acker's child pornography collection included 918 videos and 34,000 images. Acker, 34, of Cheektowaga, was sentenced this week to 36 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo. Acker had previously pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography. Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott S. Allen, Jr. said a court-ordered search of the …

A federal judge has dismissed a $25 million medical malpractice suit against the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo. In rejecting the suit, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny said the plaintiffs, Edward and Roxanne Blake, "failed to prove” their malpractice claims. The Blakes, in their suit, claimed the VA failed to issue a timely diagnosis and treat E…

The armed robbery of an Evans Bank in the Town of Tonawanda last year was no ordinary stick-up. Unlike most bank robbers, the two masked men who held up the Evans branch forced their way into the vault and made off with $80,000 in cash. Even more important, a year later, the suspects are still at large even though their lookout and getaway driver is going to prison. …

David Menzies represented hundreds of clients, some of them here in Western New York. He also used those clients to cheat the Internal Revenue Service out of $280,930 over a five year period ending in April 2015. Menzies, a 51-year old Long Island man, admitted filing false tax returns on behalf of hundreds of clients as part of a plea agreement Wednesday that requi…

Just weeks after her son was gunned down on Newfield Street in Buffalo and left for dead, Carmen Maldonado Grajales traveled to Puerto Rico in what prosecutors believe was a maternal mission in search of the killer. A few days later, she was dead, too. Officially, three years later, the two murders remain unsolved. But prosecutors say they know who killed Grajales' s…

When U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin retired at the age of 94, his caseload, a docket that included two of his landmark desegregation cases, went to the new kid on the bench, Lawrence J. Vilardo. Even then, Vilardo, unlike a lot of people, understood the significance of what he was taking on, not to mention the legacy he was following. Curtin, who served as U.S. D…

If you're an immigrant in Buffalo facing deportation, chances are good you're fighting that legal battle without a lawyer. State lawmakers want to change that reality and have set aside $10 million in the new budget to expand immigrant legal defense services. The goal, according to legislators, is to fight back against President Trump's crackdown on immigrants…

To hear investigators talk, Feng Yang Chen was "the boss" of a sex trafficking ring that stretched from Texas to the Town of Tonawanda. Chen, 41, a native of China, is accused of operating her business out of Flushing, but sending her victims, the prostitutes she is accused of coercing into joining her organization, across the country to meet men. Chen used Backpage.…

If Neil Gorsuch is any indication, Donald Trump is looking for youth in his federal court appointments. In Buffalo, home to a judicial vacancy now two years old, the two Republican attorneys seeking the lifetime appointment fit the profile. Amy Habib Rittling, an employment attorney and a partner at Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman, is 48 and, if nominated and confirm…

When talking about the bizarre and sudden appeal of bitcoin, finance expert Brian Wolfe likes to compare it to a currency we all know: the U.S. dollar. Ask anyone where a dollar comes from and they're likely to say, a bank. The more informed, Wolfe says, might answer the Federal Reserve. Now ask those same people where bitcoin comes from; or, even better, what is b…

Pearlann MacVittie's mother died 33 years ago but her monthly pension checks never stopped arriving. And MacVittie never stopped cashing them. The 73-year-old West Seneca woman did not inform the pension fund of her mother's death and over the next three decades stole an estimated $291,070 in benefits intended for her late mother. She pleaded guilty to grand larce…

It was 1979 when U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin first ordered the desegregation of Buffalo's police and fire departments. Thirty-eight years later, the courts are closer than ever to ending their historic oversight. Satisfied that the city is abiding by most of Curtin's landmark decrees, the judge now handling the case recently ended much of his order. The courts…

A West Seneca mail carrier who claims he was running late with deliveries admitted Wednesday to stealing money from some of his mail. Richard D’Arcy Jr. also admitted dumping undelivered mail from his West Seneca route in a mailbox near his home in South Buffalo. Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie P. Grisanti said investigators found opened, undelivered mail in D'Arcy's…