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.

Even now, after years of penetrating their armor and finding her way into the dark secrets of refugees, Kim Griswold finds herself taken aback by their stories of trauma and torture. “What people do to each other,” she says. “It’s hard to wrap your head around.” For three years, the Buffalo physician has sat with refugees from some of the worst war-torn reg…

Lisa A. Miller and her daughter disappeared seven years ago and the two men who helped her flee have been arrested, convicted and punished for taking part in an international kidnapping that grabbed headlines across the nation. The only defendant in the case who hasn't been caught is Miller, who is believed to be living in Nicaragua with her now 14-year-old daughter, I…

Isabella Miller-Jenkins' journey into the national spotlight began with a car ride to Buffalo when she was 7. It also began with a high-profile, same-sex custody battle and a conspiracy to help her biological mother flee the country with her. Seven years later, the conspiracy and that initial car ride are sending Virginia businessman Philip Zodhiates to prison for …

Richard L. Klaffka posed as a severely disabled veteran and postal worker. He also pretended to be in a wheelchair, unable to walk, drive or care for himself. Klaffka and his wife, Cathleen, both residents of Colden, admitted Wednesday it was all a hoax. They also admitted netting $1.2 million in fraudulent benefits as part of their 10-year scheme. 'The defenda…

A member of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe admitted Thursday to possessing contraband cigarettes headed for a Seneca Nation distributor. Ian Tarbell, 44, was arrested in Pembroke in February of last year after a search of his U-Haul truck by Genesee County Sheriff’s deputies resulted in the seizure of 900,000 unpackaged, untaxed cigarettes. Tarbell, who was scheduled t…

When Shane Michael Aurand shared sexually explicit photos of a 7-year-old child, he was communicating with an undercover agent on the messaging app Kik, prosecutors say. Aurand, 20, of Gowanda, appeared Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. and was charged with production and distribution of child pornography. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stepha…

Jan. 9, 1935 – March 6, 2017 Kathleen E. Lauerman, a wife and mother whose concern for the lives of others led to a career in nursing and a lifelong dedication to social justice, died Monday at her North Buffalo home. She was 82. Born in Youngstown, the former Kathleen Hanna came to Buffalo in 1962 and, after marrying and raising seven children, resumed a nursing c…

When it first unfolded, the prosecution of Debra Arno and the allegations of a murder-for-hire plot garnered headlines. Two years later, on the day of Arno's sentencing in Buffalo federal court, it was her history of mental illness that took center stage. Arno, 58, pleaded guilty to a charge of soliciting a murder for hire and was sentenced Wednesday by U.S. District…

A man who hid behind messaging apps and meeting sites to prey on underage girls is going to prison for 15 years. Described by prosecutors as a "phantom" predator, Joseph Lombardo, 25, of Lancaster, admitted going on Kik and meetme.com to identify and attract his victims. He also hid behind the online alias "Chris Richardson.” Lombardo's sentence by U.S. District…

Agents seized 48 kilograms of cocaine in Illinois earlier this week, and that bust led to the dismantling of a Mexico-to-Buffalo drug trafficking network, federal officials announced Friday. The cocaine that was discovered as part of a traffic stop included 18 kilograms that was headed to Buffalo, the federal officials said. They estimated the wholesale value of the coc…

Jared Brown spent 15 months in prison for threatening then President Obama. He's going back to prison, this time for threatening President Trump. Brown, 20, of Niagara County, was sentenced Friday to two years in prison by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo for violating the supervised release that followed his previous prison sentence. Brown was accused of m…

On a recent winter morning, prosecutors sparred with a federal judge in a downtown courtroom over the wisdom of allowing a Tonawanda man convicted of fraud and awaiting sentencing to leave the country for his native Iraq. They reminded the judge that this was a man who "thought in his heart of hearts he would be acquitted" and, given the possible prison sentence that aw…

When two masked men with BB guns robbed the Evans Bank in the Town of Tonawanda last year, they forced their way into the vault and got away with nearly $80,000 in cash. Now, the FBI, eager to find the fugitives, is offering up to $30,000 for information leading to their arrest.   The reward, announced Tuesday at an FBI news conference in Buffalo, follows…

There are those who still live in the shadows,  fearing detection, wondering if they'll wake up to federal agents knocking at their door. But here in Buffalo, there also is a community of undocumented immigrants living openly among us, working in stores and restaurants, paying taxes and even serving in the military. They are people, often entire families, who are …

Frank Parlato Jr. claims the FBI concocted evidence against him. A federal judge challenged that allegation in a decision this week that rejects the Buffalo newspaper publisher's attempts to dismiss charges that he cheated the IRS and two heirs to the Seagrams' liquor fortune. In recommending the prosecution continue, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy pointe…