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Buffalo cop faces federal charges in Molly’s Pub case

Robert E. Eloff’s criminal activity started long before the Buffalo police officer crossed paths with William C. Sager Jr. at Molly’s Pub, investigators say.

Months before, Eloff used his position as an off-duty cop working security to punch another bar patron in the eye, then knee and kick him in the head while he was in handcuffs, they allege.

The new allegations are part of a federal criminal complaint charging Eloff, 40, with using his position as a police officer to violate the civil rights of two victims from Molly’s Pub.

“When an officer crosses the line and engages in violence, we can and we will act,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Tuesday.

The charges against Eloff cover his encounter with Sager, an Air National Guardsman who died after an altercation at the University Heights bar in May, but go well beyond that one incident.

They also detail Eloff’s alleged encounter with a bar patron, identified only as “R.D.” in court papers, who says he was trying to enter Molly’s on Valentine’s Day last year when a bouncer noticed his fake driver’s license and ordered him out of the bar.

Court papers say Eloff, who was armed and wearing a shirt that said, “Police,” then approached R.D., placed him in handcuffs behind his back and took him to the side of the bar, where he got angry with R.D. and punched him in the face and kicked him in the head.

The FBI, which filed the complaint against Eloff, says the incident was witnessed by two people who say R.D. did not resist in any way. Investigators also say R.D. screamed, “Stop,” during the altercation.

One of the witnesses, according to the complaint, recorded the incident on his cellphone but was forced by another officer to delete the video. The FBI also says the witness took two photographs, one of which shows R.D. lying facedown on the ground with Eloff on top of him.

The charges against Eloff also deal with a second incident involving Sager and a friend identified in court papers as “D.H.” The friend is believed to be Donald Hall, a key witness in the murder trial that convicted bar manager Jeffrey J. Basil of second-degree murder. Hall, according to the complaint, was trying to find out what had happened to Sager and, when he asked for Eloff’s name and badge number, he was arrested and handcuffed by Eloff. Investigators say Eloff falsely arrested Hall for a crime he never committed.

Sager, who was pushed down a flight of stairs by Basil, suffered a devastating brain injury and died several weeks later.

“I talked to the Sager family this morning,” Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Buffalo office, said Tuesday. “They were very appreciative that the Department of Justice is putting forth the resources that they are.”

The charges against Eloff stem, in part, from witness accounts of what happened those two nights at Molly’s Pub. They include the allegation, already public, that Eloff placed handcuffs on Sager, who was unconscious at the time, and moved the 28-year off-duty Guardsmen outside the bar.

Eloff and Adam E. O’Shei, another off-duty police officer working security at the bar, also are accused of standing by while Basil tampered with the bar’s surveillance recordings. Hochul said O’Shei, who was granted immunity from state charges and testified at Basil’s trial, is unlikely to be charged by federal prosecutors because of the legal obstacles created by his immunity.

Eloff, meanwhile, is facing three charges – two felony and one misdemeanor – that could send him to prison for more than 20 years. He is one of five Buffalo police officers who have been charged or convicted in the past year of using excessive force.

Hochul said the number of officers accused of wrongdoing is too high but is not symptomatic of a larger problem within the Buffalo Police Department, a force of about 800 men and women. He also noted that several officers from outside the city have been charged with using excessive force. “It is rare when an officer in Western New York faces these type of charges,” he said.

The charges against Eloff, signed Tuesday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott, were filed two days after The Buffalo News reported that Eloff had a reputation for heavy-handed treatment of students while serving as a probationary University at Buffalo police officer.

Several sources familiar with Eloff’s career said that he was forced to resign from the UB police after his probationary period but that Buffalo police did not conduct an extensive background check when he was hired. Buffalo police officials said it was because Eloff was already an officer with the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority police.

Defense attorney Herbert L. Greenman declined to comment on the charges against his client but entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.

Eloff was placed on unpaid suspension after the Molly’s Pub incident but, because of state civil service law, is now receiving his salary while on suspension. He refused to testify at Basil’s murder trial, invoking his Fifth Amendment right.

Meanwhile, Basil, 36, could face a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.