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Pioneer Hispanic officer retires after serving community 35 years

When Daniel Figueroa joined the Buffalo Police Department 35 years ago, he made a decision to continue living on the West Side, believing he could be an asset to the Hispanic community.

Now, Figueroa, one of the department's first-hired Hispanic officers, is retiring, leaving behind a long list of accomplishments that helped not only the city's Spanish-speaking residents but countless other citizens.

The 61-year-old Figueroa, known for his kindly nature, probably will be best remembered for cracking a gruesome homicide case last year, when the dismembered parts of a woman's body were found in a suitcase in the Black Rock Channel.

Homicide detectives had been unable to identify the woman because her head and hands had been cut off and were missing. The only thing police had to go on was a 20-pound bag of rice used to weigh down the suitcase.

When forensic tests identified the body parts as those of a 40- to 50-year-old woman, detectives went through a thick file of missing women and came up with several possible identities.

Figueroa, a detective sergeant in the Homicide Bureau, then took the "paid" sticker from the bag of rice and went to food stores all over the West Side until workers at the Tops Market at Grant and Amherst streets said their store used that type of sticker.

Names of the missing women were checked against store sales records, and the victim was identified as Madeline Irene, who had purchased rice at the store using her Tops BonusCard.

The arrests of the woman's 15-year-old son and a 50-year-old convicted pedophile followed.

"I liked solving that," Figueroa said, "but the case was sad."

Not every case Figueroa was involved with was so troubling.

In the late 1970s, while on patrol at Erie Basin Marina, he noticed a crowd of people and saw a man in the water.

"I took off my gun and jumped in and pulled his head above the water. I said, 'Somebody throw me a rope.' Someone did and they pulled us out," Figueroa said.

He learned that the man he had rescued was trying to commit suicide. "The man later wrote me a letter and thanked me," Figueroa said.

In 1975, Figueroa, an Army paratrooper during the Vietnam War, played a role in enhancing international relations. The nephew of the Mexican ambassador was passing through Buffalo when his car broke down. The nephew said a mechanic took his $2,000 watch for car repairs.

Realizing that the man had been taken advantage of, Figueroa put the word out on the street that he was looking for the watch, which was soon turned over to police.

After contacting the Mexican ambassador, Figueroa sent the watch back to the nephew and, in return, received a letter of thanks.

In his time, Figueroa -- whose retirement party is at 6 p.m. today in D'Arcy McGee's Irish Pub on Franklin Street -- has dodged bullets, worked undercover for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and enjoyed his role as unofficial liaison between the force and Hispanic community.

"When I started, I said, 'I'm going to raise my family here on the West Side. I'm not going to the suburbs. The Hispanic community needs help.' There were no Hispanic officers," said Figueroa, who often served as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking crime victims.

"Danny's a very well respected member of the Hispanic community and the Buffalo law enforcement community," said Northwest District Chief Arturo Salas. "He's a neighborhood boy who didn't abandon the neighborhood."

Police Inspector Joseph Strano shared the same high opinion of Figueroa, who is affectionately known as "Figs."

"He's a great asset. He's a gentleman, and he's going to be missed," Strano said.

Figueroa says he will miss the Police Department but looks forward to a long and happy retirement traveling with his wife, Elba.

"I recently had a physical, and the doctor said I'm good for another 35 years," Figueroa said.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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