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A life of an eccentric ends amid flames as Town of Tonawanda endures day of drama

Joe Hollywood always loved the spotlight, usually from the inside of his Santa Claus suit.

Monday, the last day of his life, he attracted intense scrutiny for more than seven hours, as Town of Tonawanda police tried to determine whether he had killed himself in his burning home, died in the fire he set or somehow managed to escape.

The mystery of Joe Hollywood’s fate throughout the day Monday forced the Ken-Ton schools to go into lockdown twice, prevented firefighters from getting near the burning home and caused neighbors concerned for their safety to hide in their basements for hours until the crisis passed.

Between 4 and 5 p.m., town police and fire investigators found his body in the basement of the home.

“At this time,” Police Lt. Nicholas A. Bado stated, “it is not known whether his death was caused by the fire or the result of some other self-inflicted act.”

Hollywood’s suicide was just another example of his staging a public spectacle.

From all indications, Hollywood was a complex character, an unabashed Buffalo Bills and Sabres die-hard, who legally changed his name to Joe Hollywood, had multiple scrapes with the law, loved public attention, had an arsenal of firearms in his basement and dressed up as Santa Claus for public events. He also didn’t shy away from being known as “Drunken Santa.”

The 60-year-old Hollywood threw much of the town into gridlock Monday morning. Police say he threatened his domestic partner with a gun, let her leave their Fries Road home, started the house on fire and then might have shot himself to death in the basement of the burning home.

Late Monday morning, even before Hollywood’s body had been found, Bado told the media, “From the initial call, it seemed as if he was just determined to die today.”

Until the body was found, police were conducting parallel investigations, searching for his body while also looking for him in case he had managed to escape.

Monday wasn’t the first time that Joe Hollywood grabbed the public’s attention, although previous incidents carried much less fanfare and less serious consequences, including:

• On Jan. 2, 2000, Joe Hollywood – dressed as Santa Claus – was charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct after he ran onto the Ralph Wilson Stadium field and was tackled in the end zone during a Bills-Colts game.

In an odd twist, a Buffalo News report after his arrest listed his name as Joseph Bryniarski, of Fries Road, Town of Tonawanda, saying that he also went by the name of Joe Hollywood. Two days later, after he apparently complained about being called Bryniarski, The News ran a clarification that he legally had changed his name to Joe Hollywood years earlier.

• During the Buffalo Sabres’ appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in June 1999, Hollywood ran an ad in The News classified section, saying, “Drunken Santa with Sabres animal shirt jersey on is looking for home-game Sabres tickets. Will remember you at Christmas, big time. Call North Pole. … P.S. Thank you, God and Mr. Rigas, sirs, for the Sabres. Game on, party on, Buffalo! Because Buffalo is on fire!”

• In 2001, two days before Sept. 11, Hollywood was photographed inside Ralph Wilson Stadium on a bright, sunny Bills game day, in full Santa Claus regalia and holding a small fan.

• Then, in April 2004, Hollywood – again dressed as Santa – appeared at a demonstration protesting then-President George W. Bush’s appearance at Kleinhans Music Hall. This time, he was political, lobbying for the government to fund Kevlar trousers for soldiers in Iraq.

Police said Joe Hollywood had drawn a lot of police attention over the years. A quick check of police records Monday showed that town police have had at least 18 contacts with him since 2003, they said. Those included more nuisance-type, rather than violent, crimes, including complaints for harassment, disorderly conduct, reckless driving and larceny.

Monday, police snipers used the rear windows of the Eggert Road home of John Burns, 83, to keep watch on Hollywood’s home as it burned.

“He’s always been the wild card in the neighborhood,” Burns’ son, Tom, said of Hollywood. “My parents have always been afraid of the guy.”

Hollywood was proud of his reputation as “Drunken Santa,” said the younger Burns, and even kept his customized license plate – DRNKNSANTA – in the front window of his blue conversion van.

Asked if he was surprised about Monday’s incident, Burns replied, “That he burned the house? Yeah. That there was trouble? No. This is the guy voted most likely to be crazy.

“We’ve always known something like this was going to happen,” Burns added, citing incidents in which Hollywood carved obscene messages in their wooden fence and cut their trees. “He’s been a thorn in our sides.”

A neighbor on Eggert Road who watched Monday morning’s events unfold remembered an incident on a Sunday afternoon about a year ago, when he saw police surround Hollywood’s home with their weapons drawn. Following that incident, there was regularly a police car parked around the corner from the home, the neighbor said.

An old friend, who knew Joe Hollywood from old roofing and construction projects they worked on, went to the scene Monday and recalled several incidents the man had with police.

“There were times he would tell the cops to come on in and get him,” said the City of Tonawanda man, who declined to give his name. He also said Hollywood was a gun collector who had a large arsenal of firearms and ammunition in his basement.

The apparent domestic confrontation that fueled the incident became public at about 9:15 a.m., when a woman at 163 Fries Road called 911.

“He is going to kill me, and he has a gun,” the woman screamed, according to police. The 911 operator also heard a man screaming in the background, and the woman claimed that the man had started the house on fire.

The phone call then ended, and the woman, believed to be his wife or girlfriend, fled from the home, near Eggert Road, four blocks east of Parker Boulevard.

Almost half an hour later, responding volunteer firefighters still hadn’t been able to attack the fire, which had engulfed the home.

After receiving the original call, town police focused on setting up a perimeter, looking for the man and helping neighbors evacuate or get to a safe place. At least some of the closest neighbors were asked to go into their basements.

As firefighters managed to keep the blaze from spreading next door, the Ken-Ton schools went into lockdown, citing a “possibly deranged individual” who may have been involved in a house fire.

Shortly after 1 p.m., Mark P. Mondanaro, Ken-Ton school superintendent, said the lockdown had been lifted. But a couple hours later, school officials were advised not to release students from Kenmore East High, Franklin Middle and Edison Elementary schools, after a police SWAT Team searched a nearby home on Mayfield Avenue belonging to a possible acquaintance of Hollywood’s.

When that house was cleared, Ken-Ton officials began releasing the last students, at about 4 p.m.

Less than an hour later, the day’s drama ended with the discovery of Joe Hollywood’s body.

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