City Patrolman Michael J. Stover confirmed Monday that he gave the Niagara County district attorney's office a statement in the Wilson High School hazing case last year, reporting an alleged conversation he had with varsity baseball coach Thomas J. Baia about the bullying of a junior varsity player in 2007.
Baia and junior varsity coach William M. Atlas last week filed a notice of their intent to sue Stover and the Lockport Police Department over the statement. The notice announced plans to sue for unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution or both.
The coaches' spokesman, Mike Paul, released copies Monday of a nearly identical claim filed against the State Police. Each coach demands $2 million in damages from the state.
A figure on damages was not included with the Lockport claim. State law prohibits listing a figure in a suit against a local government.
The coaches were charged with endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly failing to stop an assault on JV players by varsity players on a Wilson High School baseball team bus ride home from a game in Niagara Falls on April 17, 2008.
The case against the players originally was charged by state police as aggravated sexual abuse, but that was eventually dropped by prosecutors.
One varsity player pleaded guilty to child endangerment, while two others were acquitted in a nonjury trial conducted outside public view, because of the players' ages, by Wilson Town Justice George R. Berger. The district attorney's office dropped the charges against the coaches July 6, the day their jury trial was to have begun.
In the lead-up to the trial, prosecutors sought information about alleged hazing of Wilson baseball players in previous seasons, although Berger eventually ruled such material would not have been allowed to be introduced at the trial.
Stover said he gave a statement to an investigator for the district attorney's office in August 2008. That was three months after charges were filed against Atlas and Baia.
A source with knowledge of Stover's statement told The Buffalo News last week that Stover said he learned during the 2007 season of an incident of punching, shoving and pushing by varsity players against a JV player who was the son of Stover's girlfriend.
Stover said he advised the woman to call Baia about the matter. A couple of weeks later, Stover, who has been umpiring baseball locally for 21 years, was in Wilson to umpire a game and discussed the matter with Baia.
"He advised me he addressed the situation and there would be no more problems," the statement said.
"That pretty much was the gist of the conversation," Stover confirmed in an interview Monday. "We had a conversation about it and [Baia] said he was going to address it."
If it's true, Stover's statement would show that, as prosecutors alleged, there was harassment of at least one younger player by older ones before 2008, when the criminal charges arose, and that the coaches knew it.
But is it true? Baia and Paul would not say.
"I'm not going to answer that. Those are situations that are going to be very valid in a court of law," Paul said.
Paul added that "we said all along that law enforcement was the problem."
Paul asserted that the Lockport Police Department is legally liable because Stover identified himself in the statement as a Lockport police officer.
Stover acknowledged doing that, but he also said he never contacted the State Police, the investigating agency in the 2008 case. "I was only asked to give a statement to the district attorney," he said.
Lockport Police Chief Lawrence M. Eggert said last week that his department played no role in probing the case. Sgt. Kern Swoboda, a spokesman for the State Police, confirmed that.
"I never investigated it. I know, in 15 years of police work, that I had no jurisdiction," Stover said.
"The coaches are not thinking money first in this case," Paul said. "They want the truth to come out and to make sure this doesn't happen to other people."
The parents of three JV players who allegedly were hazed last year are suing the Wilson Central School District. Their cases have been consolidated into one in a State Supreme Court order filed at the district's request, which pointed out that the allegations are similar and the list of witnesses practically identical in all three suits.