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Driver in fatal hit-run was drinking Lawyer is charged with leaving scene

The Orchard Park lawyer who has been charged in Saturday's hit-and-run death of a 19-year-old Hilbert College student was drinking before the incident.

Both the police and his attorneys agree on that.

Whether John P. Duffy, 41, was driving while intoxicated will not be an issue in this case.

That doesn't mean, if the allegations are true, he will be treated lightly.

Duffy could face up to seven years in prison if convicted.

This heavy punishment is possible because another lawyer, from Amherst, served less than a year behind bars for striking and killing a 68-year-old car mechanic in 1999.

Under the law at that time, drunken drivers could leave the scene of an accident, turn themselves in when they sobered up and avoid a more serious felony charge. Amherst police had suspected former local lawyer Drew V. Tidwell had been drunk at the time but could never prove it. He was sentenced to one year in jail and served eight months.

The outrage over his sentence prompted the State Legislature to close the "hit, run and hide" loophole in state law.

So when Town of Hamburg police arrested Duffy early Wednesday and accused him of leaving the scene of the fatal accident early Saturday on South Park Avenue, he was charged with a Class D felony. Upon conviction, that is punishable by up to 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison.

That charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident is now just as serious as a vehicular manslaughter charge based on the person being intoxicated.

"Even if we were able to prove intoxication, we wouldn't be able to charge anything more serious than the felony he's charged with now," Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said of Duffy. "All we have to prove is that he knew or should have known that he struck someone."

Duffy was released without bail Wednesday but stripped of his driver's license and prohibited from leaving the area.

The accident, at about 1:35 a.m. Saturday, claimed the life of Meghan Sorbera, a Hilbert College sophomore from Burlington Flats, near Cooperstown.

She was walking on South Park Avenue with two friends after working at a haunted house at the Erie County Fairgrounds.

Witnesses told investigators that the vehicle that hit Sorbera slowed down but then kept going.

Hamburg police had just a few pieces of evidence to work with.

While witnesses were able to describe the vehicle -- they said it was a high-end 2002 or 2003 Ford Explorer or Mercury Mountaineer -- they had a hard time determining the color. No one got a look at the license plate.

But investigators found parts of the vehicle on the ground, including a black casing to the passenger side fog light, pieces of the headlight cover and a yellow marker light.

The detectives worked the case around the clock. Through the news media, they implored the driver to turn himself in. But they also knew that a forensic investigation could lead them to their driver as well.

The detectives began canvassing the area near the accident, collecting video from surveillance cameras at local businesses -- like banks, the gas station and the Pegasus Restaurant just a few feet from the hit-and-run scene.

Then, Detective Scott Kashino had the idea of going to fast-food restaurants in the area, said Capt. A. Daniel Shea.

"What if he stopped to have something to eat because he's out and about?" Kashino posed, Shea said.

That hunch proved to be the big break in the case the police were looking for.

Detectives found footage of an SUV that matched the description of the hit-and-run vehicle driving up to the drive-thru window of a fast-food restaurant just minutes before the accident.

"He could be seen leaving this fast-food place," Shea said. "Minutes later, we see the lights of our [police] cars responding to the scene."

In the meantime, detectives had also determined the color of the SUV. Initially, witnesses had said they thought it could be maroon. But then another witness was interviewed who said it was blue. Traces of paint found on Sorbera's body also indicated that the vehicle was blue.

Detectives traced the vehicle from the fast-food restaurant to Duffy, a lawyer with offices in Hamburg.

Detectives obtained a search warrant, and the search of his residence revealed a broken headlight buried deep in a bag of leaves and some glass fragments on the garage floor, police said.

Duffy went to the police station Tuesday night. When confronted with the evidence, Duffy confessed, according to police.

"When he finally confessed, he appeared remorseful," Town of Hamburg Lt. Kevin Trask said at a late-morning news conference.

The two sides in the case gave different versions of when Duffy knew he had struck someone and whether he was trying to get away with it.

Duffy didn't realize he had hit someone with his vehicle until a "couple of days later," his attorney, Daniel J. Chiacchia, said after Duffy's arraignment.

At the time of the accident, Duffy thought he had struck a trash can, because he looked behind him and saw some papers flying in the air, his attorney said.

"He indicated in his statement that he thought he struck something, but he didn't realize it was an individual until later," Kashino said.

Both Chiacchia and police have said Duffy was drinking that night, but no one could say how much and when. Police said Duffy had left a tavern before going to the fast-food restaurant.

"That really wasn't why this happened," Chiacchia said. "It was more driver inattention than anything."

Chiacchia also said his client remains "extremely remorseful" about what happened.

"He feels horrible for the family," he said. "This is everybody's worst nightmare. All you people out there pointing fingers, this could happen to any of us."

Chiacchia also pointed out that Duffy was driving around in the same vehicle the next day, suggesting that he wasn't trying to hide anything.

But police and prosecutors believe that Duffy knew, at least by Sunday morning when he talked with his mother, that his vehicle may have been involved in the fatal accident on South Park.

"He had ample opportunity to turn himself in, and he didn't until we closed in on him," Kashino said.

Trask agreed.

"He was attempting to destroy evidence, tamper with evidence," Trask said. "That shows me he was probably trying to get away with this."

During Wednesday's arraignment, Town Justice Walter Rooth released Duffy without bail but ordered that his driver's license be suspended, his passport be taken and he be prohibited from leaving the area.

Lynette M. Reda, chief of the district attorney's Vehicular Crimes Bureau, had asked for $25,000 bail, pointing out that Duffy had driven to Pennsylvania in the vehicle sometime before he was arrested and that some evidence had been destroyed.

News Staff Reporter Maki Becker contributed to this report.

-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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