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Buffalo's crimes of the century: Mayhem, murder and the mafia – darker moments in the city's history

William B. McKinley loved to shake hands.

The burly politician was proud of the furious pace he could keep up -- pumping 50 hands a minute -- as he traveled the country, a popular second-term president meeting his people.

But a handshake proved to be his undoing in Buffalo on Sept. 6, 1901.

For McKinley and his wife, Ida, the day began with a sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls. That afternoon, the president arrived at the Pan-American Exposition, emerging from an elegant black horse-drawn carriage, driven by two gentlemen in top hats. McKinley stood in a big room in the Temple of Music, off Lincoln Parkway, as Western New Yorkers lined up single-file to shake the hand of their president.

About 10 minutes into the public reception, a man approached the president with a handkerchief over his right hand. McKinley reached out to him. Two shots rang out from under the handkerchief. McKinley clutched his chest and fell, fatally wounded.

"Go easy on him, boys," the fallen president told police as they wrestled the assassin to the ground.

In terms of historical significance, the third assassination of an American president was Western New York's Crime of the Century. It was just one of many hundreds of shocking misdeeds that took place here or had connections to Western New York.

The crime history of this region is disturbingly rich.

A president was murdered in our city just 21 months into the 1900s. At our end of the century, investigators found themselves searching the globe for the sniper assassin of an Amherst abortion provider, Dr. Barnett Slepian. Slepian was slain in October 1998 in the kitchen of his home, in front of his wife and children.

In between, this region witnessed the 50-year reign of a feared Mafia don, Stefano Magaddino; the nation's bloodiest prison rebellion, in Attica; a racist serial killer named Joseph G. Christopher; and the arrest of former Buffalo Bills star O.J. Simpson in perhaps the century's most controversial homicide case.

And there's a strong local link to the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. Timothy J. McVeigh, a U.S. Army veteran who faces execution for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, grew up in Pendleton, in Niagara County. The April 19, 1995, blast killed 168 people.

Those are some of the most notorious, headline-grabbing cases. But a good argument can be made that thousands of so-called petty crimes -- which didn't involve presidents or celebrities, and never made the newspapers -- had a much bigger impact on life in this community.

"It's the less-publicized crimes -- the day-to-day burglaries, the purse snatches, the robberies -- that really hit home. These are the incidents that cause people to leave their neighborhoods, or make them prisoners in their own homes," observed Elmer O. Arnet, the former Kenmore police chief who retired this year after working in law enforcement since the 1950s.

It's difficult to overstate the effect of crime on Western New York. Crime -- and residents' fear of it -- helped to cause huge population shifts from Buffalo to the suburbs, reducing some of the city's finest neighborhoods to slums and turning downtown into a shell of its bustling past.

On too many occasions, life has been cheap. Violence has been sparked by booze or drugs. Reasons for killing have defied all logic.

"We've had horrible crimes all through this century," said Edward J. Patton, a Lake View historian and author. "The good old days weren't necessarily the good old days. There have been times of pure brutality and lawlessness."

In 1900 alone, Buffalo police arrested more than 17,000 people -- mostly men -- for public drunkenness or disorderly conduct.

At that time, the inebriated customers at waterfront saloons could lay bets on knife fights and eye-gouging contests. Two men would square off, poking at each other's faces with their thumbs. The man left with both eyes at the end of the battle was the winner.

A spilled glass of beer was worth two lives on Feb. 12, 1911. The beer, dumped onto a patron's lap in a tavern on Trenton Avenue, touched off a Wild West-style gunfight in the street. The man who spilled the brew and the man with the wet lap wound up killing each other.

On the night of May 6, 1918, a fellow named Pete Vukram was singing in Munich's Saloon on Abbott Road in South Buffalo. Another patron, Mike Milekovic, told Vukram to shut up. When Vukram began singing again, Milekovic pulled out a gun and shot Vukram in the chest, killing him. A judge sentenced Milekovic to three to 10 years in prison.

A year later, the federal Volstead Act was passed, banning alcohol for several years. But instead of calming the violence, the Prohibition era brought bloody gun battles between rival gangs of bootleggers to the waterfront of Buffalo and the Tonawandas.

In the 1920s through the 1960s, organized crime -- more specifically, the Mafia -- was an intimidating force in the community. The late 1960s and 1970s saw an explosion of drug use among young people. In the 1980s and in this decade, drug gangs used drive-by shootings and kidnappings as weapons in a horrific turf battle.

Incidents of depraved and senseless violence have spanned the decades, outraging the community again and again.

In 1937, 16-year-old Frank Swiatek of Wilson Street hacked his sleeping older brother, Leo, to death with an ax. After he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, a judge sent Swiatek to a reformatory, rather than a state prison. He was released on parole after two years.

Five months after his release, Swiatek struck again. In July 1940, he used a hammer to kill his 10-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister as they slept in their beds. This time, a criminal jury found Swiatek innocent by reason of insanity. This time, he was sent to a mental institution.

On July 17, 1978, Gail Trait butchered her four young children -- ages 2 to 9 -- in a house on Montana Street. Police found an opened anatomy book next to two of the corpses. Ms. Trait spent almost 10 years in prison. Then her murder convictions were overturned and she was declared legally insane in 1989. After 10 years of treatment in state mental health facilities, she was released last year to a group home.

Fast-forward to Oct. 2, 1998. Gary Trzaska, 41, a gay landlord from Cheektowaga, was attacked as he walked to his car on Broadway in Buffalo. Police said Trzaska was beaten and stomped to death by three teen-agers who laughed and encouraged each other with high-fives. Two teens face trial, and police are seeking a third.

"It's one of those crimes that really scares people, because there may be no other reason behind it than kicks," said one detective.

The city's most notorious

Here is a look at some of the notorious people and acts that have scared people in this century:

Leon Czolgosz. The self-proclaimed anarchist who killed McKinley was proud of his crime.

"I done my duty," Czolgosz, who originally gave his name as Fred Nieman, told police.

After his arrest, the 28-year-old killer had to be protected from a lynch mob. Officers were stationed around Buffalo Police Headquarters, where Czolgosz was held, for several days after the shooting.

By Oct. 29, 1901 -- just 53 days after the assassination -- Czolgosz had been indicted, tried, convicted, sentenced and executed in the electric chair at the Auburn state prison.

Don Stefano Magaddino. Possibly the most influential crime figure in the history of Western New York. Magaddino was anything but flashy, a quiet family man who lived in a nondescript ranch home in Lewiston. But he was a feared Mafia leader from about 1918 until his death in 1974.

"The don was a very powerful man, not only here, but nationwide," said Donald Hartnett, a retired FBI agent who was head of the organized crime squad in the 1960 and 1970s. "He was on the ruling commission of the mob."

For decades, police said, thousands of dollars poured each week into Magaddino's coffers from bookmakers, prostitution rings, loan sharks and illegal dice and card games. He also raked in profits from his mob family's control of the Laborers Local 210 labor union.

Magaddino was one of the organizers of the infamous Mafia summit meeting at Apalachin in 1957. One month before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, police said Magaddino was heard telling fellow mobsters that Kennedy was a "mad dog" who deserved to die.

Magaddino's empire began to crumble in 1968, when police found $500,000 stashed away in Magaddino's funeral home and his son's attic.

"At that time, Magaddino had been telling his underlings that money was tight, and he could not afford to pay them Christmas bonuses," Hartnett said. "People began to stop trusting him when we found all that money."

John "Big Korney" Kwiatkowski. His "Big Korney Gang" of Polish-American bootleggers and bandits terrorized Buffalo in the 1920s.

"In their day, they were feared as much as any Italian Mafia gang," said the late Edwin A. Gorski, a Buffalo police detective who assembled a scrapbook about Kwiatkowski.

On April 16, 1929, gang members (including two dressed in police uniforms) robbed the Fedders Radiator Co., 57 Tonawanda St., of $7,000. They machine-gunned an employee to death, and then shot it out with police who responded to the crime scene.

Police finally captured the gang members after a blazing gun battle that had men from the Korney gang firing at cops from their getaway car.

Pasquale "Paddy" Calabrese. The Federal Witness Protection Program was started because of Calabrese, the first Buffalo Mafia insider to turn on his bosses. Calabrese became an FBI witness in 1967 after pulling off a daring mob-approved robbery at the treasurer's office in City Hall. The witness program gave him a new identity and life after he agreed to testify against mob leaders here.

Winston Moseley. People all over Western New York locked their windows and doors in March 1968 after the escape of Moseley, who had killed Kitty Genovese in a notorious murder witnessed and ignored by several of her New York City neighbors. Moseley, a prisoner at Attica State Correctional Facility, escaped after being taken to the old Meyer Memorial Hospital for treatment of a self-inflicted injury.

During his three days of freedom, Moseley terrorized Western New York. He raped a woman, committed a robbery and took two women and a baby hostage on Grand Island. He was captured in a Baseline Road apartment by FBI Special Agent Neil Welch on March 21, 1968.

Welch convinced Moseley to surrender after the escaped killer and the agent sat on a couch in the apartment for almost an hour, with their hands on their guns.

"Moseley had a cold look in his eyes. He was the scariest person I've ever come across in law enforcement," said Hartnett, who assisted in the arrest.

Attica prison riot. In terms of lost lives, the 1971 revolt at the Attica Correctional Facility was the bloodiest confrontation between Americans since the Civil War. Thirty-nine inmates and hostages were killed, and 88 were injured. Most of the deaths and injuries occurred when State Police stormed the prison to retake it on Sept. 13, 1971.

The Attica revolt also spawned one of the longest-running court cases in American history. Attorneys for former inmates and State Police are still battling in Buffalo's federal courthouse over who was responsible for the carnage.

Anthony F. Barbaro. Two decades before a series of school shootings shocked the nation, an honor student from Olean High School killed three people and injured 11 others during a sniper attack from the third floor of the school. Barbaro, 17, a member of the school rifle team, was reportedly a loner who kept a diary describing several "battle plans" for his attack on the school. Police found smoke bombs, propane tanks and gasoline at his home. Eleven months after the Dec. 30, 1974, attack, Barbaro hanged himself in the Cattaraugus Count Jail. His murder trial had just begun; Barbaro had pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.

Larry Campbell. In one of the worst horror stories involving a state prison parolee, the 33-year-old Campbell murdered two people and terrorized two others in an Elmwood Avenue apartment on June 8, 1976. One of the victims was also raped and sodomized. Campbell, who was attending a Buffalo State College program for disadvantaged students at the time, was sentenced to 87 1/2 years to life.

Richard Y. Long beating death. The summer of 1977 became a hot one for the Buffalo Police Department after two off-duty officers were charged with beating and stomping Long, 18, to death after a traffic incident. Investigators said the officers were in a group of men who were on their way to another bar after a stag party. They dragged Long out of his Porsche and attacked him in a residential North Buffalo neighborhood after he cut them off in traffic.

The two officers, Phil Gramaglia and Gary Atti, and a friend, Jack Giammaresi, were convicted of criminally negligent homicide. They were all back on the street within several years.

Joseph G. Christopher. The African-American community was terrorized in September 1980 when a man police called "the .22-caliber killer" murdered two black men in Buffalo, one in Cheektowaga and one in Niagara Falls over three days. Police believe the same man may have killed two other black cabdrivers the next month, cutting their hearts out.

A massive task force investigation led to the arrest of Christopher, a U.S. Army private, the next year. Held at Fort Benning, Ga., in the stabbing of a black soldier, Christopher was arrested after he was overheard by an Army nurse bragging about the killing of black men in Buffalo.

At the time of his death in 1993, Christopher was serving a combined term of 58 years to life for the murders of three black men in Buffalo plus the murder and attempted murder of two black men in Manhattan. He claimed he had killed 13 black men.

The priest murders. Two caring priests were tied up, beaten and stabbed to death for pocket change over an 11-day period in February and March 1987. The killings of the Rev. A. Joseph Bissonette and Monsignor David A. Herlihy took place in East Side church rectories one mile apart.

Teen-agers Milton Jones and Theodore Simmons, who said growing up in a poor neighborhood had propelled them toward lives of crime, were sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

The L.A. Boys Gang. In the late 1980s, drug lords Donald "Sly" Green and Darryl "Reese" Johnson escalated violence to new heights on the city's East Side. They were convicted of ordering dozens of drive-by shootings, firebombings and kidnappings.

Green, who to this day insists he was framed, was even convicted of using a prison telephone to order bombings and shootings. He was sentenced to four life terms in prison, plus an additional 110 years. Johnson, a California native, was sentenced to eight life terms, believed to be the longest prison sentence ever ordered in a Buffalo crime case.

The Slepian assassination. The Oct. 23, 1998, shooting of Slepian, an outspoken advocate of abortion rights, brought words of condolence from President Clinton and people all over the world. A worldwide manhunt was launched for James C. Kopp, a pro-life activist who is believed to have fired the fatal shot from a wooded hiding place behind the Slepian home.

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