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Varied accounts paint fuzzy picture of casino scuffle

Perhaps the craziest thing about the casino brawl that has left Sen. Mark J. Grisanti's political career in peril and his wife, Maria, with a concussion is that the couple had other plans that night.

But when Maria Grisanti's daughter, Ashlee Amoia, got a call on the afternoon of Feb. 10 asking her if she could substitute for a sick singer and perform with the Scintas at the Seneca Niagara Casino that night, the state senator and his wife changed their plans so they could watch her.

No one could have predicted the melee that would follow. The Grisantis, who gave their account to The Buffalo News last weekend, issued a statement Saturday saying they have decided to press charges against the women who attacked Maria Grisanti.

But during the week, several people involved claimed the Grisantis were the aggressors and that the media were biased against the Senecas, portraying them as "savages."

This is what is known about what happened that night, according to accounts from the Grisantis, interviews with people who were at the scene, police reports and information provided through several Seneca sources:

The Scintas had been hired to perform at the Seneca Diabetes Foundation's seventh annual Chairman's Ball, a 500-seat black tie gala at the Niagara Falls casino.

The Grisantis didn't attend the gala, but showed up after the dinner with passes the Scintas provided to watch their daughter sing, sources close to the Grisantis explained.

>Long-standing rivalry

Among those attending the black-tie party was Seth Snyder, grandson of former President Barry Snyder Sr., who is widely considered one of the most powerful people in the Seneca Nation. Snyder Sr. helped create the diabetes foundation that was holding the gala.

Also at the casino that night was Eric White, a prominent Seneca businessman, who has had a long-standing rivalry with the Snyder family. Seneca sources have described him as a critic of the current Seneca Nation leadership. White has declined to be interviewed.

White attended the event with his wife, Kristina, who is not Seneca, and other friends and family. Several sources said he was not invited to the gala but managed to acquire tickets at the last minute.

When the performance was over, sometime after 11 p.m., everyone headed down the escalators into the main lobby, where there's a bar.

Grisanti walked over to buy a round of drinks -- wine -- for his family to celebrate Amoia's performance.

He ended up in between Eric White and Snyder. Grisanti did not know White but he had been introduced to Snyder for the first time during the gala. Both Seneca men run cigarette businesses on reservations and were seen arguing. Many witnesses said the dispute appeared to be escalating.

Here's where the accounts begin to diverge:

Grisanti sources said that the state senator happened to end up standing in between the men by chance.

Others, including Kristina White and Sally Snow, a Seneca businesswoman who is a close friend of the Whites, and her husband, Willie Perry, said Grisanti deliberately tried to get involved.

Snow said she saw Grisanti "in between" White and Snyder, trying to break up the argument. She said she didn't see how Grisanti got between the two men.

"We were watching them, and if it got out of hand, we would have stepped in and broke it up," Perry said. "There were no punches, just angry words."

But that's not how the client of attorney Robert Ross Fogg, whom others have identified as Seth Snyder, saw things.

Grisanti had just had a casual conversation with the client when the argument began, according to Fogg's client.

White "took off his coat in an aggressive manner and attempts to engage that person in a physical manner," Fogg said.

White is described as a large man, over 6 feet tall, and Snyder is about 5 foot 5, sources said.

"Guys, guys, guys," Grisanti, who is a little under 6 feet, recalled saying to the two. "This was a great event. You guys are here with dates, and let's not start a scene."

At this point, White demanded to know who Grisanti was. Grisanti said that didn't matter, according to Grisanti and Fogg's client.

White asked again and this time, Grisanti identified himself by name and said he was a New York state senator.

"He looked at me and said: 'You haven't done [blank] for the Senecas,' and then punched me in the ribs,' " Grisanti told police and The News.

According to Grisanti and Fogg's client, Grisanti walked away from the bar, holding onto his chest where he'd been hit, when a woman hit Grisanti on the side of the head.

Snow gave a different account.

"Eric said, 'Who the [expletive] are you?' Grisanti kept saying, 'You don't know who I am? I'm a state senator,' " Snow recounted. "Eric told him, 'I don't care who you are, stay out of this What have you ever done for my people?' "

She said she then saw Grisanti and White get into a scuffle.

>A heated argument

Ross L. John Sr., an influential Seneca businessman and former member of Seneca Tribal Council said he saw the ruckus from the beginning, when White and Snyder became embroiled in a heated argument.

"I was watching him, wondering, 'Are we going to have to break this up?' when the senator came up from at least 20 feet away and got into the middle of it. Other people were already calming the situation down when [Grisanti] got involved," John said. "The thing that seemed to upset [Grisanti] the most is that these people didn't know who he was."

John said that, from his viewpoint, it appeared that both Mark Grisanti and White had been drinking heavily.

But that's not how Fogg's client recalls the incident.

The senator went over to a group of people including his wife and others to tell them about what happened, Fogg's client said.

In the meantime, Fogg's client said he saw Maria Grisanti walk over to the woman she believed had hit her husband and verbally confront her.

"He sees the woman pull her down to the ground and two more people jump on top of her," Fogg's client told him.

The client then turned to the senator and asked: "Does your wife have a blue dress on? She's on the ground.' "

Grisanti said he turned around to see his wife under a pile of people and ran over to try to pull her out. Fogg's client and at least one other bystander tried to help.

Repeatedly, casino security guards pulled Grisanti off the pile and tried to restrain him.

Grisanti has admitted he struggled with the guards because he wanted to help his wife.

Grisanti said he doesn't recall punching any of the guards but acknowledged doing a "clothesline" maneuver to get people off his wife.

"I went in there, and I was making these sweeping motions to move, clear people out," he told The News on Monday. "If somebody got hit in any circumstance whatsoever, it's too bad because my wife was on the bottom of that pile. And I would do it again."

John also accused Grisanti of using a racial epithet against one of the guards, but Niagara Falls police said they interviewed the guard and he refuted the accusation.

Simultaneously, White and Seth Snyder got into a physical altercation and the two wrestled for a short time on the ground until they were separated by security and bystanders.

Snow accused Maria Grisanti, who is about 5-foot-1 inch tall and weighs a little over 100 pounds, of starting the fight that left her injured.

"Mrs. Grisanti jumped on Eric's back and cracked him in the head," Snow said. "Eric's sister then pulled Grisanti and his wife off Eric Mrs. Grisanti scratched Ellie Heron in the face.

"From what I saw, everyone got their licks in. It was a barroom brawl. Eric had the right to defend himself. [Grisanti] went after him like a madman. [Grisanti] was not the victim. He had to be held off by security three times."

Sal December, who is not a Seneca, but is an executive with an asphalt company that does business with the Senecas, said he told the police "if [Grisanti] didn't keep trying to push his way into the situation, there wouldn't have been any fighting."

"Without a doubt, Grisanti was the aggressor, and his wife was, too I feel the Senecas have gotten a bad rap in this whole thing," December said.

"When the women were fighting, it happened right at my feet. Maria Grisanti was not assaulted. She and another woman were embracing each other, and they both fell to the ground. As far as [Maria Grisanti] having her head smashed repeatedly on the floor, that definitely did not happen."

>A shoving match

Then how did she suffer a concussion?

He said Maria Grisanti's head may have struck the floor when she and one of the women were wrestling.

December said he saw Grisanti "charging at Eric White with a clenched fist" at one point, but he said he never saw White hit the senator.

John said the only woman who fought with Maria Grisanti was Ellie Heron, who is Eric White's sister.

He said Maria Grisanti was in "a shoving match" with Eric White when "Ellie tried to pull her away from Eric."

John said Maria Grisanti was the first woman to throw a punch.

"She swung at Ellie and raked her across the face, scratching Ellie's face and chest Ellie threw a punch at Maria Grisanti then Ellie and Mrs. Grisanti were down on the floor, fighting. Eric tried to break that up."

Khristina White told The News Mark Grisanti punched Eric White in the head and hit her in the cheek in the same blow as she and her husband were leaving the casino.

Mark Grisanti denied punching them. A source said Grisanti explained that after his wife got out from under the pile but before he was able to get to her, he saw the Whites walking toward his wife and that's why he lunged toward them.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com

dherbeck@buffnews.com