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A murder in their midst: Stunned North Collins residents attempt to grasp tragedy of Laura Cummings' death

The digital photos on Terrie Prime's computer screen recall happier times in North Collins.

In the pictures, Richard and Eddie Cummings wear wide smiles as they admire elaborate birthday cakes baked by Prime, who hosted annual celebrations for the brothers in her home.

Prime wasn't alone in lending a generous hand to members of the impoverished Cummings household. Over the years, neighbors donated furniture, clothes and plenty of food to Eva Cummings and her six children.

"We all did things," said Barb Chandler, who sent dishes of pasta over to the family and invited Eva Cummings into her home. "It's a nice, friendly town. All of us helped them."

Village residents said they're devastated by the horrifying abuse and death of Laura Cummings, 23, who was killed Jan. 21 in the Sherman Avenue apartment where the Cummings family lived for the past 18 years.

Eva Cummings, Laura's mother, and Luke J. Wright, Laura's half-brother, were charged in connection with the abuse and homicide. The two were indicted Feb. 26 on a total of 15 charges and are being held without bail in the Erie County Holding Center.

The North Collins community faces its own indictment in the grand jury of public opinion -- especially after sheriff's investigators and the Erie County District Attorney's Office questioned whether residents could have done more to assist Laura Cummings.

The remarks struck a sensitive chord with members of this tightly knit community of 1,000 people -- many of whom are part of generations of families that have spent their entire lives within the village's one square mile.

Residents have been sifting through their own histories with the Cummings family to see if they missed warning signs about the mistreatment of Laura, who struggled with disabilities and had the mental capacity of an 8-year-old.

"It is one of those tragedies that really has asked each and every one of us to look at ourselves and ask, 'How could this have possibly occurred?' " said John Mrozek, the village mayor.

At the same time, villagers believe law enforcement authorities and out-of-town commentators who know little about North Collins have unfairly maligned their well-meaning community as indifferent and uncaring.

"We're torn, we're hurt, and then to read on the Internet what bad people we are and things like that -- it's even more hurtful," said Lynn Maciejewski, a member of the North Collins Emergency Squad.

Maciejewski is helping to organize an event on April 9 called "Laura's Legacy" as the village's community response to Laura's death.

A candlelight vigil and short march, followed by guest speakers, is planned. In addition, residents are trying to set up a "safe house" for teenagers in memory of Laura.

Thanks to its productive farms and proximity to a railroad line, the village of North Collins was a center for the canning industry decades ago. It's now primarily a quiet bedroom community for professionals, employees of two nearby state prisons and a smattering of migrant workers.

>Shattered tranquility

But the tranquility has been shattered over the years by a few high-profile crimes.

In 1977, Sheriff's Deputy William R. Dils, 52, was fatally shot when he went to a migrant worker's Sherman Avenue apartment as part of a routine stolen-property investigation.

The apartment building was located a few doors away from the Cummings apartment. It has since been torn down.

The building where the Cummings family lived was the site of an earlier homicide. Jose Fontanes, 67, was found beaten to death in a 2003 robbery; two men are in state prison serving sentences in connection with the crime. Residents said a young man committed suicide in one of the apartments within the past couple of years, as well.

"It's like there's ghosts in that house killing people," said Kathy Bauer, who owns a pizzeria on Main Street in the village.

The condition of the building, owned by Mark Engler of Angola, has irked residents for years.

"The house now is the issue," said Thomas O'Boyle, supervisor of the town of North Collins, who lives nearby on Sherman Avenue, an otherwise quaint village street of mostly older homes. "It needs to cleared out and it needs to be fixed up. It's a dump."

The two homicides inside the house, along with its outward appearance, have overshadowed the village's true character as a community of neighbors committed to helping each other, O'Boyle said.

"I believe the whole town is tainted because of one house," he said.

O'Boyle and others also objected to District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III's characterization that "there were a lot of people who knew what was going on and said nothing."

"If I had known or any of my neighbors would have known, something would have been done," he said.

One neighbor, Kimberly Lee, said she observed some rough treatment of Laura by her mother, but not enough to be classified as abuse.

>Rumors of mistreatment

Eva Cummings, said Lee, rarely let her daughter out of her sight. The mother claimed that her daughter had been molested in the past, and she feared it would happen again, Lee said.

"She used to snatch [Laura] up by her hair every so often if she was outside and not supposed to be outside," said Lee.

Lee and other village residents said Laura received daily visits from two women, Joyce Landahl and Susan Williams, who would have had a much closer look at how the young woman was being treated.

Rumors of Laura's mistreatment circulated at the town food pantry, one of the few places where she was seen in public.

But Margaret Mackey, who volunteers at the pantry, said the young woman rarely spoke and usually wore long sleeves and mittens when she came to pick up food with her mother.

Whatever neighbors saw of the family outside, none of them had an inside view of what was happening -- a responsibility of Adult Protective Services, which didn't follow through, said O'Boyle.

The county agency was contacted by Laura's brother, Richard, who lives in North Carolina and pleaded with investigators to check on his sister after he heard she was not being cared for properly.

"They should've gone in there. I blame them more than anyone in North Collins for that woman's death," O'Boyle said.

>Through the cracks

Few people in the village even realized Laura lived in the house until after her death.

More than 100 people showed up for her wake -- with most saying they had never seen Laura before, according to Gary Wentland, who owns a funeral home on Main Street.

"Most people that walked through here said they never knew she existed, but they came," Wentland said. "I had never seen her before. How she fell through the cracks of the system, I have no idea."

Wentland handled arrangements for the wake, funeral and cremation, even though he isn't sure he'll get reimbursed for the work.

Another North Collins resident donated an outfit so that Laura's body could be properly viewed.

The North Collins American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts donated money to help Richard Cummings, a member of the Navy, fly home from his base in North Carolina for his sister's funeral.

"While we were all aware of the limitations of the family, we didn't know about the violence that was happening," said Lloyd Quiter, a Vietnam War veteran who helped arrange the donation. "Inside the village, we're just as shocked as anyone, probably more so. It's hard to fathom how something like that could happen in this town."

>Just a 'poor family'

While Laura wasn't well known, most of the village was familiar with siblings Richard and Edward, who mowed lawns, shoveled walks and driveways and did other odd jobs for cash since they were boys.

Authorities have said they found evidence of abuse inside the apartment at 2052 Sherman Ave. going as far back as 1995.

But residents said the Cummings boys always were hardworking and respectful, and their interactions with people gave no indication something was amiss at home.

"The kids were fine. They never complained. They looked healthy. They never smelled bad," said Prime.

Prime and some other village residents knew Richard especially well, because he was so outgoing and friendly.

"He never let on, never was sad, always had a smile," said Prime, who regularly cooked breakfast for Richard on Saturday mornings over a four- or five-year period.

Prime's neighbor, Judy Stevens, said the community always looked out for the Cummings household.

"We saw a very poor family and we saw children who were extremely respectful and well behaved," said Stevens. "We saw things that were family-like with them. We never saw anything evil going on."

"We reacted as a community based on what we saw. I never saw anything but a poor family," she said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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