Videotapes of Mayor Byron W. Brown's teenage son driving his parents' vehicle during a much-publicized joy ride show no recognizable facial features, but one tape furnished key evidence that prompted the teen's belated confession.
The tape shows a pedestrian, his arm cocked in a way that would indicate he's talking on a cell phone. Phone records were later checked, and they showed that Byron W. Brown Jr. was talking with a friend on a cell phone at the same time the image was captured on Feb. 24.
While the second tape, discovered five weeks after the incident, helped solve the mystery, Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson said he had a hunch from the very beginning.
"The first person in my mind was that it was potentially a family member -- their son -- who had taken the vehicle," Gipson said Wednesday after the long-awaited public unveiling of the tapes.
Gipson said he viewed a tape with the mayor's wife that morning. She said it didn't look like her son, nor did she recognize the jacket. Gipson said he decided that morning not to question the youth.
"I left that to his parents," Gipson said. "I didn't believe that I had probable cause or reasonable grounds that I could identify him as a person of interest . . . outside of a gut feeling or an assumption.
As time went on, however, Gipson said, he came to the conclusion that someone else may have taken the car by manipulating wiring or some other method that wouldn't have damaged the steering column.
At Wednesday's news conference, Gipson walked reporters through key frames of the tapes filmed by Canisius College surveillance cameras. In one tape, the Chevrolet Equinox is seen hitting the rear of a vehicle on Loring Avenue.
Neither of the tapes reveals clear facial features.
"The most you can get is a fuzzy image as he exits the vehicle," Gipson said.
The attorney for the Brown family said the release of the videotapes should dispel speculation that the evidence may have pointed to the mayor's son, who later confessed to a detective that he took the SUV for a joy ride.
"No jury on this planet would have ever picked out this young man as the person that is seen in those tapes," attorney Joel Daniels said.
When Canisius discovered a second videotape April 2, it seemed to indicate that the individual was using a cell phone. Gipson said the family's cell phone records proved that Byron Jr. was talking to a friend at that time. With that evidence, a detective interviewed the youth, and he confessed.
Byron Jr., 16, later pleaded guilty to traffic tickets charging him with unlicensed driving and leaving the scene of a hit-and-run property-damage accident without reporting it. He has a learner's permit but not a driver's license.
Gipson and Daniels were asked about many lingering issues Wednesday.
How did Byron Jr. manage to sneak out of the family's Blaine Avenue home without a police officer who was parked outside seeing him?
"[Byron Jr.] took what we'll call evasive action," Daniels responded, adding that the youth left through the back door.
The attorney said Byron Jr. returned home through the back door without being detected by either parent.
But wouldn't the officer have seen the Brown family vehicle pulling away from a curbside spot about 100 feet away?
Gipson said the mayor's security detail is rotated among as many as 70 or 80 officers, so the officer assigned may not have recognized the privately owned SUV as the Brown family vehicle.
Why didn't police dust the SUV for fingerprints? Granted, such steps aren't the norm in a stolen-car probe. But with Gipson involved, this wasn't a run-of-the-mill auto investigation.
"[The youth's] fingerprints would have been on the driver's side, the passenger side. It would have been of no investigative value to fingerprint the vehicle," he said.
Gipson's response surprised some reporters, because if anyone other than Byron Jr. had taken the vehicle, then fingerprint evidence could have been crucial. Gipson responded that other people had already "touched the vehicle," including investigators at the scene.
In one videotape, the teen appears to be driving erratically. Is it possible the mayor's son was drunk at the time?
"We're convinced that there was absolutely no drinking," said Daniels, who dispelled theories that the youth may have sneaked out much earlier than 5 a.m., which is when Byron Jr. told police he left.
So why was he driving so erratically as he struck the third vehicle in one tape? Gipson said the youth was "rattled" by the second earlier accident.
It came out only after Byron Jr.'s confession that he had taken the family vehicle once before without permission. Should the mayor have mentioned that to police officers earlier in the probe?
"It's possible," Gipson said.