A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted Buffalo Police Officer Robert E. Eloff Jr. on two counts alleging that he violated the civil rights of two individuals at Molly’s Pub on May 11, 2014.
Eloff, 40, was working as private security at Molly’s the night William Sager Jr. suffered fatal injuries at the hands of the bar’s manager, Jeffrey J. Basil.
The indictment charges Eloff with deprivation of rights under color of law and conspiracy to deprive an individual of rights under color of law, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Wednesday. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“We have wonderful police officers here in this area,” Hochul said during a news conference Wednesday evening. “But if it does come to our attention that an officer has violated the law, we haven’t hesitated to act.”
Sager, an Air National Guardsman who was pushed down a flight of stairs by Basil, suffered a devastating brain injury and died several weeks later.
A federal criminal complaint in April charged Eloff with using his position as a police officer to violate the civil rights of two victims from Molly’s Pub.
One of the charges dealt with Eloff’s handling of Sager’s friend, Donald Hall, outside of Molly’s, which has been closed since the incident.
Hall, a key witness at the murder trial that convicted Basil of second-degree murder, was trying to find out what had happened to Sager that night and, at one point, asked Eloff for his name and badge number, the FBI says. Eloff responded by falsely arresting and handcuffing Hall, investigators say.
Basil pleaded guilty in June to first-degree manslaughter, reaching an agreement with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office after his murder conviction was overturned because of juror misconduct.
An earlier incident took place at Molly’s on Feb. 14, 2014, when Eloff allegedly handcuffed a bar patron, took him to the side of the bar, and punched him in the face and kicked him in the head, according to the complaint.
The incident was witnessed by two people who say the patron, identified as “R.D.” in court papers, did not resist and screamed, “Stop.” One of the witnesses, according to the complaint, recorded the incident on his cellphone but was forced by another officer to delete the video.
Eloff’s defense attorney, Herbert L. Greenman, entered a not guilty plea in April on Eloff’s behalf.
Wednesday’s indictment concerns only the May 11 incident. The Feb. 14 incident remains under investigation, Hochul said.
The May 11 victims are identified only as “D.H.” and “W.S.” in the indictment. Eloff, acting as a police officer, arrested “D.H.” without probable cause and deprived him of his Constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and to due process of law, according to one of the counts.
The other count accuses Eloff of conspiring with an unnamed person to violate the Constitutional rights of “D.H. and W.S.”
Eloff, who remains suspended from the force with pay, is due to appear at 10 a.m. Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott. U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Guerra is handling the case.
Hochul wouldn’t speculate on any possible plea deal with Eloff. “This indictment does call for a trial,” he said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office revealed in June it will not be filing any charges against a second Buffalo police officer who also was working as private security at Molly’s Pub.
In a letter sent to attorneys for Officer Adam E. O’Shei, federal investigators said they determined that O’Shei did not commit any federal crime the night of May 10-11, 2014, with his actions. Hochul concluded the letter by saying O’Shei was not the subject or target of the federal investigation.
“At this point, no other officers are alleged to have committed any criminal civil rights violations, other than Robert Eloff in May 2014,” Hochul said Wednesday.
The indictment is the culmination of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Buffalo Police Department.
Hochul said Eloff is the 10th police officer he has prosecuted as U.S. attorney for alleged federal civil rights violations, with convictions in six of the cases and four still pending.
There are thousands of interactions locally between police officers and members of the community every day, Hochul said. “I would think the public could conclude that is a very small – in fact miniscule – percentage of times when the officer has violated their oath,” he said.