Long before “hands up, don’t shoot” became a rallying cry against police violence, Jeffrey J. Edwards put his hands up, hoping police in West Seneca would not shoot. But they did.
One of the bullets hit behind his left ear, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down and in a bed for the rest of his life. He died of heart failure four years later, in June 2014. He was 46.
After several rounds of mediation, insurers for the Town of West Seneca have agreed to pay $4.65 million to settle a lawsuit Edwards filed before his death. After his lawyers collect their share and reimburse Medicaid and Medicare for the medical bills, the Edwards estate will net nearly $2.4 million.
While the lawsuit alleged that West Seneca police were negligent, careless and reckless, out-of-court settlements do not confirm wrongdoing on anyone’s part. Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan said the town did everything it could to protect its interests, and she noted that a grand jury cleared its officers of criminal wrongdoing.
“This was a very unfortunate incident given the injury and death of Mr. Edwards,” Meegan said. “However, we were very, very blessed that none of our officers were shot when this incident occurred.”
Richard P. Weisbeck Jr., of the law firm Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria, represented Edwards.
“I know Jeff was extremely upset that he was only acting as a good friend to someone in need and believed he should not have been harmed in any way,” Weisbeck said. “He posed no threat to anyone, including the police officer who shot him.”
Before his death, Edwards was seeking a sum large enough to buy and outfit a home where a quadriplegic could live with some degree of independence, and to remain supported for the rest of his life.
Such an amount threatened to exceed the town’s $6 million in insurance coverage. But Edwards’ death changed the negotiations.
Still, the $4.65 million reflected the grievous wounds that Edwards suffered, said Thomas H. Burton, one of the lawyers who represented the town in the matter.
“This is different than a fender-bender,” Burton said. “Unfortunately, when the guns come out, the injuries can be catastrophic, even though there is no criminality on the part of the police.”
It’s unclear now who will collect the money bound for Edwards’ estate: Will it be his half brother, Gary Refermat, or the woman who married Edwards in his hospital room, longtime friend Karen Stayer?
Stayer, who took the Edwards name, spent her days with Edwards as he lay near death soon after the shooting, recovered to become aware of his surroundings, then went into a coma and died. Refermat is challenging the marriage.
“Jeff was a guy you could count on if you needed him for anything,” Stayer said. “It was his chivalrous nature that brought him to this horrible fate when he answered his fragile friend’s plea for help. His unnecessary injury, suffering and subsequent death have shattered many lives, including my own.”
She said Edwards would have preferred a trial to an out-of-court settlement, to allow a public airing of the police decisions of April 25, 2010.
Police fired dozens of times
Edwards fired at no one and only wanted to surrender. Yet police unleashed dozens of shots, one of which changed his life.
The swirl of events was set in motion not by Edwards, but by his mercurial friend, Jerome Brylski, 56, a struggling businessman who employed Edwards in the winter for his plowing business and served as a father figure.
But Brylski was a handful. Erratic and paranoid, he had been in a downward spiral for days because of his schizophrenia. Family members tried several times to steer Brylski into effective treatment, but he resisted. By the time that rainy Sunday in April rolled around, Brylski was threatening to shoot anyone who came to his door.
A team from Erie County Crisis Services wanted to call on Brylski, but first reached out to West Seneca police, who knew that Brylski was unstable. Hearing that Brylski was threatening to shoot people, police mobilized. They set up a command post a half a block away, instructed tenants in the other half of the Brylski duplex to leave and stayed in contact with an off-duty officer who lived across the street from Brylski and was watching the house.
Friend shot twice at officers
Unaware of all this attention, Brylski called Edwards, hoping he would bring over an order of fast food and give him a ride to another friend’s house. Brylski, always suspicious of law enforcement, figured the West Seneca police were plotting to seize his computer. To him, it contained his proof of their corruption, and he wanted the device out of his house.
Edwards knew that Brylski was prone to flights of paranoia. He arrived at 102 Leydecker Road with beef and cheddar sandwiches from Arby’s. His girlfriend at the time, also concerned about Brylski, came with him.
None of the three knew that police were in position nearby. While police were watching Brylski and considered him dangerous, they had not sealed off access to the home.
When officers realized that a maroon Pontiac Grand Prix had pulled into the Brylski driveway, they turned to one of Brylski’s daughters, who was with them to answer their questions. She told them that Edwards was a friend who might calm her father. Police allowed Edwards’ visit to play out.
When Brylski finished his sandwiches, he and Edwards packed the computer into Edwards’ car. Then Brylski did something that put them all in danger.
Months earlier, Edwards had given him a deer rifle, intending to trade it for Brylski’s Ford Bronco with a plow mounted on the front. The idea was that Edwards would start his own plowing business.
Edwards never did get the Bronco. Instead, he received the worst wounds of anyone involved in the ugly scene about to unfold.
Without telling Edwards, Brylski hid the Marlin rifle under a blanket in the back seat before they drove off. Brylski then sat low in the back as the Grand Prix rolled out of the driveway. Officers could not be certain that Brylski was inside. Even if he wasn’t, they intended to question Edwards about Brylski’s state of mind.
With lights flashing, officers sped up to the Grand Prix on East and West Road. Edwards immediately braked to a stop. A dashboard camera recorded the mayhem that erupted.
Brylski burst from the back seat, planted a foot on the pavement and aimed his gun at the cops. Pop. Pop. He squeezed off two shots, sat back and fussed with the rifle. Then he threw it to the pavement and disappeared into the vehicle.
Edwards lowered his window to display his empty hands. Then he opened his door to crawl feetfirst out of his car, showing his hands the whole way.
A quiet moment followed Brylski’s shots. Then the two cops started firing. Other police cars sped in, and two more officers joined the barrage. Many of the shots went at the car, and Edwards was not fired upon, even though the rifle lay within his reach.
Then one of the later-arriving officers, Donald W. Driscoll, ran up, bent his knees and, with both hands, aimed his Glock right at Edwards as he lay on the street.
Tried to kill Edwards? ‘Yes’
“Were you trying to kill him?” Driscoll was asked in a deposition.
“Yes,” he answered.
The first shot hit Edwards’ flank. He cried out and flipped onto his back, away from the rifle. As Edwards lay face-up, it was clear he had no gun.
The next shot hit behind his left ear. Edwards’ left leg kicked up in the air, then lowered slowly, as if on a string. From that moment on, he was paralyzed from the neck down.
As for Brylski, a bullet hit him in the abdomen while he hid in the Grand Prix’s back seat. He recovered and is serving a 20-year prison sentence for attempted murder.
Throughout the barrage, Edwards’ girlfriend at the time, Dianna D’Angelo of West Seneca, remained in the front passenger seat. She was not hit. She, too, sued West Seneca for the dangers she faced in the ordeal. She and her lawyer are to share $100,000, according to the settlement agreement.