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'I'm grateful for the chance to live again' Unjustly imprisoned for 22 years, a son of the West Side returns to his roots on Easter

Twenty-two years of wrongful imprisonment robbed Anthony J. Capozzi of many things, but not his outgoing personality or his memory.

It was like old times -- very happy times -- when Capozzi, before sitting down Sunday to his first home-cooked Easter dinner in more than two decades, left his parents' Jersey Street home for a few minutes to stroll down Fargo Avenue with his younger brother, Albert J. Capozzi Jr.

Pausing to light up a cigarette, he noticed neighbor Jim Messina getting into his sport utility vehicle across the street.

"It doesn't look like the same neighborhood," Capozzi called out. "It looks brand-new. Every house is painted."

That, Messina said, walking over to say hello, reflects the strong sense of community amid the well-kept Victorian houses not far from Kleinhans Music Hall.

Residents who have known the Capozzis for decades tied blue ribbons around curbside trees in the neighborhood to welcome Anthony back after his release Tuesday from Central New York Psychiatric Center.

Capozzi was convicted in 1985 of two Delaware Park rapes that DNA evidence recently linked to Altemio C. Sanchez, the alleged Bike Path Killer.

"I never meant any harm to anybody. What did they get me for -- being strange?" said Capozzi, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-1970s.

"We knew you didn't do anything," Messina said. "Don't forget that."

"Well, I hope I'm not keeping you," Capozzi said, turning to head home.

"Are you kidding me?" Messina said. "It's a pleasure to see you. Take it slow, OK?"

"Sure, I'll take it slow," Capozzi said.

As he paused to point out the spot where he and several boyhood friends lit up cigarettes for the first time, Victoria Christopher approached with a photograph of Capozzi's eighth-grade class at Holy Cross School.

Looking at the faces, he rattled off the names as if it were yesterday. The picture of a pretty brunette brought him up short. Where was she now? he asked Christopher, who taught fourth grade at the former Niagara Street school when Capozzi was a student.
"She's married. She lives in Arizona," Christopher said. Capozzi was deflated.

"I haven't dated a girl in so long, and I'm just a kid," he said. "How old am I?"

Fifty, he was reminded.

"I went to all of Anthony's basketball games," Christopher said. "The girls loved him. He was such a good-looking kid."

Back at the house of Albert Sr. and Mary Capozzi, lasagna and ham were in the oven, and three tables stretched end-to-end from the dining room into the living room to accommodate the 24 family members who gathered to celebrate a religious holiday made all the more special because of Anthony's release earlier in the week.

Applause greeted the family early in the day when they arrived for Mass in Holy Angels Catholic Church on Porter Avenue.

The Capozzis' high-spirited gatherings were never the same after he went to prison, his father said. "Every Easter was sad; it was an empty feeling."

Many of Anthony's 15 nieces and nephews were very young or not yet born when he went away, said his sister Pamela Guenther. She and her two sisters turned prison visits into family outings so the kids could get to know him.

Though he will not sleep again in his former bedroom in the Jersey Street house, the family believes that with proper medical care, Anthony Capozzi will be able to live independently at some point.

"It's a long road ahead, but that's what we're hoping," Guenther said.

Her brother Anthony is content to take freedom one step at time.

"I'm grateful," he said, "for the chance to live again."

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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