Although his attorney says Drew V. Tidwell was wracked by guilt and trying to do the right thing when he contacted prosecutors and pleaded guilty in the hit-and-run accident that killed an Amherst man, law enforcement officials say there was another reason:
Compelling evidence was leading police to close in on Tidwell.
That evidence included a bar tab showing Tidwell purchased five whiskeys over a 90-minute period shortly before the fatal hit-and-run. Interviews with bar employees and the recovery of a small piece of Tidwell's car at the scene also were part of the evidence pointing to Tidwell as the driver of a car that fatally injured Donald Fruehauf, 68, on the night of Aug. 17.
"It was only the result of a very thorough and intensive investigation by our department that may have compelled the defendant to come forward and plead guilty at all," Amherst Police Chief John J. Moslow said.
"The police had him nailed," added another source close to the investigation.
Tidwell, 51, a prominent Buffalo lawyer, pleaded guilty Friday to leaving the scene of a fatal accident in a deal that guarantees him a one-year prison term. He admitted to hitting Fruehauf, who was riding an old bicycle, and then failing to stop or seek medical help for the dying man. The plea deal came 17 days after the accident.
Critics have questioned whether the plea deal provides sufficient punishment.
"I think everyone would agree that equating one year in prison with taking a person's life is not fair," said Moslow. "But from a legal point of view and the constraints placed on law enforcement and the district attorney, this sentencing is not unusual."
Defense lawyer Michael S. Taheri said Tidwell is being punished and that his client feels terrible about what happened.
"He made a mistake by panicking that night, and now, he's trying to do the right thing," Taheri said. "He made this decision after agonizing over this, getting counseling and talking to his clergyman."
But if Tidwell had not pleaded guilty, police believe they would have charged him anyway.
"He's an educated man, and I think he had to know the investigation was pointing at him," added Assistant Chief Ronald Hagelberger.
Tips from the public and intense police work led investigators to conclude that Tidwell had been drinking whiskey before the collision at the University Inn on North Forest Road. Credit card records and interviews with workers there showed he purchased five straight whiskeys during a 90-minute period, ending about 15 minutes before the fatality.
A bartender who served Tidwell told investigators the attorney appeared to be sober as he left the bar.
"In fairness to Tidwell, we don't know if he left one of those drinks at the bar, or if he bought one of those drinks for a buddy," said one law enforcement official.
Investigators also learned that Tidwell was the only person in his family who had access to his 1995 Mercury Marquis that evening.
Taheri declined to comment on whether Tidwell was drinking alcohol that night, and Tidwell was not required to admit to any drinking under his felony plea deal.
The drinking issue is likely to be an important one in a civil lawsuit that the Fruehauf family plans to file against Tidwell. Attorney William J. Love Jr. was in the courtroom with Fruehauf's brother, Robert, as Tidwell pleaded guilty.
Love said he is conducting his own investigation into the events of that night.
"We certainly suspect he was drinking that night," Love said.
Robert Fruehauf, 65, said he had mixed feelings as he watched Tidwell plead guilty before State Supreme Court Judge John F. O'Donnell. Fruehauf said he is upset with Tidwell but feels sorry for his family. Tidwell is scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 17.
"This is not going to bring my brother back. But (Tidwell) is being punished, too, by his exposure to the world. His family is hurting, too," Fruehauf said.
Fruehauf also read a brief statement thanking Buffalo newspaper, radio and television reporters for publicizing the case. Amherst Police also thanked the news media for publicizing the department's telephone tip line.
"The media kept the case in the public eye, and I think it's important for the public to know about a case like this," Fruehauf said. "We appreciate it."
Police said Friday they do not know if Donald Fruehauf would have survived if Tidwell stopped to check on him and summoned medical help.
Hagelberger said police believe Tidwell's car struck Fruehauf on Getzville Road shortly before 9:22 p.m. That's when another motorist called 911 after finding Fruehauf lying in the street.
"The woman said she tried to talk to him, tried to tell him that help was on the way," Hagelberger said. "He was making some kind of noise. We don't know if he understood what she was saying, or if he was trying to talk. But he was still alive at that point."
An ambulance crew soon arrived, rushing Fruehauf to Erie County Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 10:13 p.m. -- 51 minutes after police got the call.
"Would he have survived if he got medical help sooner? We don't know," Hagelberger said. "I do think it's safe to say every minute always counts in a trauma situation. If it was my son or daughter, I'd certainly want him to get medical help at the soonest possible moment."