As testimony began Monday afternoon in Robert E. Kleasen's lawsuit seeking $2.5 million in damages from two top Erie County officials, an assistant manager of the Buffalo hotel where Kleasen lives described him as "one of the nicest guys we have here."
Kleasen, 56, is a former Texas death-row inmate convicted of murdering a Mormon missionary near Austin, Texas, and using a power saw to dismember the body. The conviction was overturned in 1977.
Kleasen has a long criminal record in New York State, and his transfer to Buffalo created a community uproar in May 1988.
In a U.S. District Court trial, Kleasen is accusing County Executive Gorski and Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins of ruining his chance to start a new life in Buffalo when he was released on parole in 1988.
Kleasen sat in silence Monday afternoon as Richard Low, a senior state parole officer, became the trial's first witness. Gorski and Higgins are expected to testify later today.
Kleasen has blamed the sheriff and county executive for creating a "campaign of hate, disinformation and fear" designed to force him to leave Buffalo. Gorski and Higgins have denied the accusation.
Although Kleasen's transfer to Buffalo upset many city residents, Peter L. Stegura, the assistant manager of the building where he now lives, had high praise for Kleasen in an interview.
For more than a year, Kleasen has been living a quiet and trouble-free existence as one of about 100 full-time residents of the downtown Hotel Lafayette, Stegura said.
"He's one of the nicest guys we have here. He's on the preferred customer list, as far as I'm concerned," Stegura said. "He doesn't bother anyone here. In fact, if you ever need a hand, he's happy to provide it."
A part owner and a bartender at the Hotel Lafayette Tap Room, also located in the building on Washington Street, said they never had problems with Kleasen and never heard of a resident who had.
"Since the initial shock of him moving here, it's become no big deal," said Robert McCarthy, co-owner of the bar.
In an opening statement Monday, David G. Jay, Kleasen's attorney, accused Gorski and Higgins of engineering a campaign of police harassment and public outrage that made it difficult for parole officials to find Kleasen a place to live.
Jay said he will prove in the trial that Gorski and Higgins harassed Kleasen by appealing his transfer in State Supreme Court and demanding that he be examined by psychiatrists at the Erie County Medical Center and Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
James Tuppen and Kenneth Schoetz, attorneys for the county officials, said Gorski and Higgins were duty-bound to question Kleasen's transfer to Buffalo.
Kleasen was released from a state prison to Buffalo after serving a four-year, eight-month term for the 1971 shooting of a Wayne County man who was target-shooting on land owned by Kleasen's mother.
Under the parole board's usual procedures, a parolee being released from prison is returned to the community where he was tried and convicted for his crime, Tuppen told the jury. But in this case, he said, community pressure in Wayne County and Rochester prompted parole officials to make a sudden decision to put Kleasen in Buffalo, where he had lived in the 1960s.
Higgins and Gorski were concerned for the safety of county residents because of Kleasen's criminal record, dangerous psychiatric profile and "expertise with firearms and explosives," Tuppen said.