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Molly’s Pub incident could be turning point for Buffalo police

The matter of William C. Sager Jr., who died Thursday after an attack inside Molly’s Pub on Mother’s Day, has become a landmark event in the Buffalo Police Department’s history.

It has unleashed an array of developments, including an FBI investigation into an officer who was present during the assault to examine whether he should be prosecuted for a pattern of civil rights violations.

The Police Department’s hierarchy says it wants to instill a more professional attitude among all of the approximately 750 officers. Sager’s case might serve as a turning point.

Back in May, the police force was already facing yet another unflattering spotlight as a cell- phone video surfaced of an officer slapping around a handcuffed suspect.

Then in the early morning of May 11, the manager of Molly’s Pub in University Heights allegedly threw Sager down a flight of stairs while the bar’s security team of two off-duty Buffalo police officers lingered nearby.

With Sager comatose in Erie County Medical Center and the public voicing its outrage, new efforts began to identify officers whose conduct indicates they should no longer carry a badge. For example:

• The FBI is investigating whether Officer Robert E. Eloff, one of the two officers inside Molly’s on May 11, has engaged in a yearslong pattern that merits prosecution for civil rights violations, according to a Police Department source. The FBI may examine other officers as well, the police source said.

• Stunned by what happened to Sager, citizens have come forward to tell Internal Affairs investigators, federal agents and news outlets about abuses they suffered at the hands of Buffalo cops. One such episode will lead to a lawsuit against the city. In that one, Eloff led a band of off-duty police in a by-the-throat take-down of a Chippewa Street bar patron on St. Patrick’s Day. The take-down, caught on video, left the patron’s face red and raw.

• Internal Affairs investigators have gone out to find possible victims. Among those contacted was Leonard Jacuzzo, of West Utica Street, an adjunct professor who was tackled by two police officers moonlighting for Toro Tapas Bar on Elmwood Avenue in June 2013. The investigators approached Jacuzzo after his story appeared in The Buffalo News. Jacuzzo later learned that Eloff was one of the officers who tackled him.

• Police have been reminded that citizens have the right to record their activities when they occur in a public place. Episodes in which Buffalo officers ordered citizens to delete cell- phone pictures and videos of police misdeeds created glaring examples of cops abusing their authority.

• The Common Council revived a dormant police oversight committee. While Council members were reluctant to criticize police officers in the initial meeting in June, the meetings could serve as a forum to assess the department’s reforms and to focus on police-related matters that capture public attention.

• Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda prohibited his officers from working off-duty security for bars, even if they remained outside to focus on crowd control, because it violates state law when bar owners pay the moonlighting cops directly. Such arrangements had led to bizarre cases of police using their array of powers to enforce the establishment’s rules – a dress code, for example. The arrangement also misled patrons into thinking that the officers were there to protect all citizens equally.

At Molly’s Pub on May 11, the actions of the two off-duty officers providing security were in line with those of a private police force serving at the will of their employer. In this case, the employer was bar manager Jeffrey J. Basil, a felon who began the evening by telling the off-duty cops that he was on a 24-hour bender and had taken two Xanax, according to testimony presented at Basil’s felony hearing.

Hours later, after Basil allegedly gave Sager an unprovoked two-handed shove down a flight of stairs, inflicting the severe brain injury from which Sager never recovered, Officers Eloff and Adam E. O’Shei hauled Sager outside the bar. They did so even though the medical protocols in which police are trained required them to keep Sager in place until medics arrived.

When ambulance dispatchers were called, they were not told the man was injured inside Molly’s. Judging by radio transmissions, the dispatchers were told that the caller “walked up on” an unconscious man at Main Street and Winspear Avenue, a nearby intersection in that part of University Heights.

At least one of the officers, Eloff, accompanied Basil into the office housing hardware for the bar’s surveillance system. Police said Basil lifted out a key piece of surveillance equipment and tried to dispose of it. He has been indicted on a charge of tampering with evidence, as well as first-degree assault and attempted murder.

District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said in the wake of Sager’s death that he will ask a grand jury to consider additional charges. There were no immediate efforts to raise Basil’s bail Friday, and he remained free.

The State Liquor Authority, meanwhile, has accused Norman Habib, who holds the liquor license for Molly’s, of a series of liquor law violations. Habib is one half of NHJB Inc., the entity that owns Molly’s. NHJB is believed to stand for Norman Habib and Jeffrey Basil, though Basil’s name appears on no key document. The SLA accuses Habib of failing to list Basil as a person with a financial interest in the bar.

All of the measures taken by the Buffalo police and the SLA came too late for Sager, an Air National guardsman who was to be married this summer and intended to pursue a career with the State Police. His family and his fiancée, Erika Webster, issued a statement Thursday thanking people for their expressions of comfort over recent weeks and saying there were no words to express their “sadness for this tremendous loss.”

Before Sager’s death at age 28, assorted friends were planning a benefit to help defray some of the family’s expenses. An organizer said Friday that the benefit will go on as scheduled at 1 p.m. Sunday in the Grand Island VFW Hall, 2121 Grand Island Blvd.

News Staff Reporters Susan Schulman and James Staas contributed to this report.