U.S. Defense Department officials want to seize a Grand Island man's Sherman tanks, armored personnel carriers, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns and other military equipment, part of what is described as one of the world's largest private armaments collections.
Authorities say Thomas W. Gould, 44, owner of Innovative Chemical Corp. and a lieutenant colonel in the New York Guard, has failed to display the tanks and other military items in a public museum as promised and as the law requires.
Gould's attorney said Monday that Gould does, indeed, have a museum.
But it is open by appointment only, is not listed in the telephone book, and the state says its provisional charter has expired.
Investigators also said Gould failed to have National Guard units demilitarize the armaments and has kept some of them in working condition. Gould was ticketed in March 1996 for driving an armored personnel carrier to a Grand Island bar.
Sources said the U.S. attorney's office in Buffalo has begun an investigation to determine whether Gould obtained the tanks and other military vehicles under false pretenses.
FBI agents and Army investigators already have inspected the tanks and other equipment stored at Gould's warehouse at 711 Northland Ave.
Included in the 34 pieces of equipment the Army wants back are three armored personnel carriers that Gould has allowed the Erie County Sheriff's Department to use for narcotics raids and hostage situations.
Gould did not return telephone calls seeking comment, on the advice of his attorney, Alan R. Feuerstein.
"I can assure you, to my knowledge, there is no wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Gould," Feuerstein said.
Gould has not been charged with any crime or wrongdoing, but agents are asking a lot of questions.
They are trying to find how a private citizen was able to obtain such a large cache of military vehicles and weaponry.
His attorney said his client did, indeed, obtain the tanks and other equipment for a museum. He said Gould properly registered the museum with the state Education Department.
"To my knowledge, Mr. Gould's museum is open to the public," Feuerstein said. "It does not have regular museum hours but is not required to by the New York State Department of Education. All of this has been fully documented."
A provisional charter for Gould's Western New York Military Museum was granted in November 1990 for five years and has not been renewed, said Louis D. Levine, assistant commissioner of the state Education Department and director of the State Museum in Albany.
Levine said the museum's annual report shows that it is open by appointment only and had 750 visitors in 1995, the last time Gould filed a report.
Ed Woolverton, chief of the U.S. Army's reuse program located at the Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Mich., said Gould's facility does not meet federal requirements for public display.
"It's one big warehouse," Woolverton said of Gould's building. "It's not open to the public, the vehicles are not properly demilitarized, and there were other violations.
"We haven't repossessed them yet; we are in the process."
Woolverton said that Gould has the right to contest the repossession but that once it occurs, the Army will hire cranes to load the tanks and vehicles onto railroad cars or trucks and ship them to an Army base in Pennsylvania.
Gould, he said, will be billed for the cost.
Gould, a strong backer of area police departments, formerly held the rank of captain in the Sheriff's Department Reserve Division.
Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins said last week that he removed Gould from the unit because of "a number of incidents that had embarrassed the department."
"It was nothing he did directly to this department, but there were too many controversies -- too many complaints about him," Higgins said. "We sent him a letter saying his services were no longer required."
Sheriff's deputies who investigated the armored personnel carrier incident on Grand Island cited Gould for driving an unregistered vehicle, and Higgins reprimanded Gould for "flashing his badge" at the deputies.
The Army's Woolverton said the personnel carrier should not have been on the road in the first place.
Army regulations governing its donation require that it no longer be driveable.
"While an armored personnel carrier no longer has weapons, it does have gun mounts," he said. "It would protect someone from law enforcement. Even with rubber treads, these vehicles are extremely heavy and can tear up the road."
Another incident occurred on Memorial Day weekend in 1995, when one of Gould's workers was towing a 1943 Sherman tank on the busy Kensington Expressway en route to a veterans event.
The driver lost control of the World War II truck towing the tank and smashed into a sheriff's cruiser.
Higgins said it was a painful decision to boot Gould out of the Reserve Division because Gould has done "a tremendous amount of volunteer work" for the department during the last decade.
"He's been darn good to us, I'll tell you that," Higgins said. "He donated the use of his armored personnel carrier for drug raids, bought uniforms for our SWAT team, and he was building our SWAT training range out in Alden. I'll bet the amount of time he's put in and the equipment he's donated is worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars."
Gould said in an interview last year that he owns more than 20 tanks, rare World War II Army trucks, and a large collection of cannons, military manuals, flame throwers, bazookas, swords and other items stored in two Buffalo warehouses.
"I'm a patriotic person," Gould said. "I believe these things should be preserved and displayed with the ultimate respect, for the role they played in our history."
Does Gould, indeed, have one of the largest private collections of tanks and military armaments, the Army's Woolverton was asked.
"That's the key right there," the Michigan-based official said. "Everyone we talk to says it's a private collection. Under the law, private collections are not permitted."
The Defense Department donates decommissioned military equipment to municipalities, museums and veterans posts or for use in monuments, he said, but never to private individuals.
The Gould investigation, which has been going on for several months, was confirmed by four law enforcement officials.
"(Agents) are going over his collection to see how he got it, under what pretenses he got these things, and whether all the items were obtained under the proper government regulations," said one source who is familiar with the investigation.
"This guy has a collection like you'd expect to see in the Smithsonian Institution," said one investigator.
Although he never served in the military, Gould obtained a lieutenant colonel's commission in the New York Guard, an auxiliary force not connected to the National Guard, because of his extensive knowledge of armaments, according to a New York Guard spokesman.
Gould has been honored by the Sheriff's Department, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Buffalo Police Department for the equipment and the technical assistance he has provided to their Special Weapons and Tactics teams.
"Tom has some unusual interests, but he is a great guy who has done a lot of good things for police agencies in this area," said one Buffalo police officer who supports Gould.