James H. Gilchriese was released from jail Friday with a sentence of "time served" for his alcohol-fueled suicide stunt that caused a massive traffic jam on the Niagara Thruway last spring.
The Vietnam War veteran was spared a possible prison term of up to seven years, as State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski gave him credit for his continuing work with a half-dozen veterans organizations nationwide.
"I let the veterans down. I let myself down," 66-year-old Gilchriese said following release after almost five months in jail.
The judge barred him from consuming alcohol or using drugs for the next five years of court-supervised probation in Florida, where he now lives.
Gilchriese said he believes his suicide standoff with police on the Niagara Thruway on May 12 was sparked by his years of alcohol dependency and a Vietnam War flashback.
Michalski invoked his authority under state law to cite Gilchriese's years of efforts on behalf of hospitalized veterans and his work with Missing in Action organizations as a proper mitigating factor to spare him an otherwise mandatory jail or prison term. The judge imposed a "time-served" sentence on Gilchriese's guilty plea to a felony weapons count and misdemeanor drunken driving. Gilchriese was also fined $1,270, ordered to submit to substance abuse testing and counseling.
Gilchriese, who has a disabled veterans pension because of a war-caused hearing impairment, told the judge he was "very remorseful" for his actions.
During the mid-morning sentencing proceeding, Michalski lauded what he called the "excellent work" of the Buffalo police and state police in dealing with the Thruway incident.
Noting that a court-ordered psychiatric examination showed "alcohol played a large part" in the "public spectacle" staged by "an otherwise stable individual," the judge rebuked Gilchriese for having become in recent years "alcohol dependent."
At the request of Gilchriese's lawyers, Joel L. Daniels and Daniel J. Henry Jr., the judge gave Gilchriese 20 days to drive back to his home in Central Florida and gave him time to register with Florida probation officials before his mandatory one-year driving suspension takes effect.
Gilchriese is a South Buffalo native and former Cheektowaga resident and local General Motors worker.
He stopped his pickup truck on the Niagara Thruway near Ontario Street at about 6 p.m. May 12 during an argument with his girlfriend and kept police at bay for almost three hours until a SWAT team overpowered him. The Thruway around the scene was closed during the incident.
During the standoff, Gilchriese held a cell phone to his hear and put a pistol to his head. He has a valid Florida permit for the pistol.
Gilchriese, who left the Army as a staff sergeant after six years that included combat in Vietnam, said he believes the Thruway incident was a flashback to the day three of his friends in the Army's Fourth Infantry Division were killed by a land mine.
He said he and his girlfriend were driving from Florida to vacation in Niagara Falls.
Thomas Magee, Gilchriese's South Buffalo boyhood friend, took him from the courthouse Friday. Magee said Gilchriese will likely spend time with his family to "decompress" before he drives back to his own home in Hernando, Fla., between Tampa and Orlando.
"The guy on the TV was not the James Gilchriese I know," Magee said. Magee said he is sure Gilchriese will be going through "a period of adjustment now, but he'll work this out."
At the request of prosecutor Sarah A. Filocamo, the judge also issued two orders of protection, barring Gilchriese from harassing his estranged wife, who still lives in Cheektowaga, or having any "offensive contact" with his estranged girlfriend.