Steven A. Nigrelli was working undercover for the State Police’s narcotics unit, doing drug buys on the streets of Buffalo in the height of the 1990s crack cocaine scourge, when a dealer handed him an unexpected freebie – a small glassine bag of heroin.
He was surprised.
“We never saw heroin. We never even saw powder cocaine,” he said. “We saw crack.”
Over the next two decades, as he rose through the ranks of the State Police, he watched as the proliferation of prescription painkillers led to an alarming rise in heroin use and fatal overdoses of both pills and heroin.
As the newly promoted major overseeing Troop A, which includes Buffalo, Niagara Falls and the surrounding eight counties, Nigrelli knows heroin and opioids are the No. 1 problem the region faces.
“It is an epidemic,” he said. “This is by far – 10 times worse – than the crack epidemic,” he said.
Nigrelli, long a proponent of collaborative police work, knows law enforcement alone cannot end the heroin and prescription drug problem.
It will take collaboration among police – including troopers and State Police investigators, the court system, treatment programs and families to break the hold that drugs have on addicts and to prevent drugs from getting into the hands of young people.
Nigrelli said he is committed to tackling opiate addiction from multiple angles “to rid our communities of these drugs, and thus save lives.”
Nigrelli comes from a law enforcement family. “There are 21 of us,” he said, starting with his grandfather, Michael McCarthy Sr., who was a lieutenant with the Buffalo Police.
As a college student at SUNY Buffalo State, Nigrelli initially thought that he would take a different path. He majored in business and was enjoying an internship doing financial forecasting for local utility company when he was at a Christmas Eve party with his family. He listened as his relatives traded stories about their latest cases.
“It was so much more interesting,” Nigrelli said.
The next three months of his internship were excruciating. He soon was working for the Buffalo Housing Police. He joined the State Police in 1990. Starting as a trooper in Central New York, he later worked for the State Police’s Community Narcotics Enforcement Team. He became a sergeant and investigator with Troop A’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation which he later supervised as lieutenant. In 2007, he was promoted to captain of the bureau.
He has taken part in many high-profile cases, from the task force that caught Bike Path Killer Altemio Sanchez to the hunt for escaped convict Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, who shot three troopers while on the run, killing one, Trooper Joseph Longobardo.
While Nigrelli has loved his time with the State Police, he’s seen some sorrow. His good friend, Trooper Kevin Dobson, was killed in 2011 when a pickup truck struck him during a traffic stop on the Youngmann Memorial Highway, Route 290, in the Town of Tonawanda.
Nigrelli, 49, replaces Maj. Michael J. Cerretto, who has been tapped to be the state’s director of counter-terrorism.
His first day as major was Thursday when he joined a slate of local law enforcement officials to announce the arrests of four men in connection with a string of more than 30 burglaries across Erie, Niagara and Genesee counties.
Members of those counties’ law enforcement agencies gathered at Troop A headquarters in Batavia to discuss the burglaries in their areas in October. Over the next two months, they worked together, devoting hundreds of hours in investigative work, to break the case.
“These crimes happened in three counties and 15 townships,” Nigrelli said at the news conference, alongside Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour, Erie County Sheriff’s Detective Capt. Gregory Savage and Lancaster Police Capt. William Karn. “It’s refreshing to see people open up their case files and share what they have. That’s how connections are made. Criminals don’t pay attention to jurisdictional boundaries.”
That kind of collaboration solves cases, Nigrelli said.
He learned that early in his career working with the State Police narcotics unit and later with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, both of which often were brought in to lend support to local police departments.
But there’s probably no better example of what collaborative work among law enforcement agencies can accomplish in Nigrelli’s career, and perhaps even Western New York history, than the task force that caught the Bike Path Killer. Sanchez murdered three women and raped at least 15 in Erie County over more than two decades.
Nigrelli and several of his investigators were part of the multi-agency task force that Sheriff Tim Howard formed in 2006, after Joan Diver, a Clarence mother of four, was killed on a bike path and DNA tests confirmed that the long dormant killer had resurfaced.
The task force brought together Buffalo and Amherst police, the Sheriff’s Office and State Police, who shared old case files and arrest records which eventually led them to Sanchez, a married Cheektowaga factory worker.
“The Bike Path Rapist case was solved because agencies came to the table,” Nigrelli said.
He said he hopes to encourage more collaborative efforts to tackle specific cases and issues, which he believes is key in a region that has many separate police departments.
“That’s what the public wants,” Nigrelli said. “They don’t care who gets the credit. They want the results.”