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Niagara coroner, fire chief plead guilty in human remains case

A coroner and fire chief charged with illegally taking human remains -- a small amount of body tissue -- at a crash site April 13 pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon in Town Court.

Niagara County Fourth District Coroner Russell Jackman, 45, and Cambria Fire Chief E. Vincent Salerno, 50, pleaded guilty to obstruction of governmental administration before Town Justice Amel S. Jowdy Jr.

The charge could have carried a sentence of up to one year in jail, but by accepting a plea bargain, both men were granted a conditional discharge.

Both were ordered to resign their positions as of Tuesday night. Each must serve 100 hours of community service with the SPCA, pay fines and surcharges of $1,000, and write a letter of apology to the family of Richard Dunn, who died in the April 13 crash.

Jackman, who also serves as the Wilson No. 1 fire chief, resigned his elected coroner's post Monday, but resignation from his role as fire chief was not a condition of the bargain.

He is also, however, required to write a letter of apology to the public in Niagara County, and Salerno must write a similar letter to members of the Cambria Fire Company.

"I think it was an extremely fair disposition, given his lack of criminal history and the lack of criminal intent," said Jackman attorney James J. Faso Jr.

He said Jackman had passed a small amount of tissue to Salerno, which Salerno requested for training a cadaver dog.

"He wasn't even helping out a friend. He didn't know Salerno, but Salerno approached him a couple of weeks earlier and asked if he ever came across a scene and could provide him and his department with a tissue sample, a small amount of skin, to help with the training of the dog," Faso said.

"Russ obliged him, which he obviously shouldn't have," the lawyer said. "I don't think he really knew what he was doing. I don't think either man did."

Sheriff James R. Voutour credited Cambria fire volunteers at the crash site for alerting investigators of the exchange. Following an investigation, Jackman and Salerno were charged Friday.

Wilson No. 1 Fire Company President William McInerney said Tuesday evening he couldn't comment on Jackman's role as chief.

"It was a county issue. He was acting as coroner, not as a member of the fire department," McInerney said.

Village of Wilson Mayor Patrick Kelahan said he knows Jackman but cannot condone what happened that night.

Kelahan said that by law the Village Board must concur with any appointments made by the Wilson No. 1 Volunteer Fire Department.

Meanwhile, the Niagara County Legislature will be seeking applications to replace Jackman, Legislator Paul B. Wojtaszek said.

The appointment will last until the end of the year; the last three years of Jackman's unexpired term will be filled in the Nov. 6 election. The part-time post pays $17,500 a year.

News Niagara Reporter Thomas J. Prohaska contributed to this report.