An on-duty Cheektowaga police officer fatally shot a 34-year-old man late Saturday outside the Best Western Hotel across the street from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport after the man confronted the officer with a weapon, authorities said Sunday.
The suspect, a white male from Java, Wyoming County, was wanted by State Police on suspicion of stealing a handgun from a relative who legally owned it, a law enforcement source said.
Troopers notified Cheektowaga officers around 10 p.m. that they believed that the suspect was in the town, and officers responded to the hotel. Officials did not say how they narrowed their search to that location.
The shooting occurred at about 11 p.m. in the front parking lot of the hotel at 4630 Genesee St.
The officer, who faced the armed suspect immediately upon arrival at the Best Western, was reacting to a life-threatening situation when he shot the man, according to his lawyer, as well as a Cheektowaga police spokesman, who said the officer was “required to use deadly force.”
“The officer involved was very fortunate he’s alive,” said attorney Thomas H. Burton, who works with the police union.
The suspect was rushed to Sisters Hospital, St. Joseph Campus, but died of his wounds “a short time later,” said Cheektowaga Assistant Police Chief James J. Speyer Jr. A weapon that fell from the suspect’s hand was recovered at the scene, and “it does appear that weapon was the one that was stolen in Wyoming County,” Speyer added.
Police did not identify the suspect, citing both the ongoing investigation and a chance for the family to grieve, but Speyer acknowledged that “we have information that we’re not about to release at this point.” However, he said, there is no indication of drug or gang activity, and police believe that the suspect was alone.
“This is an obvious tragedy to all involved,” Speyer said. “We are looking into the incident, and the investigation will continue throughout the day.”
The officer also has not been identified, but at a news conference Sunday, he was described as a 16-year veteran of the Cheektowaga police force. He was alone in his marked police vehicle and was not hurt in Saturday night’s shooting.
“Thankfully, he went home to his family,” Speyer said. “He just suffered a traumatic experience.”
A law enforcement source said that the officer is a former SWAT team member who was “highly trained in close-quarters, deadly force combat such as this,” but that this was the first time he has had to use deadly force.
In accordance with Police Department policy, the officer is on paid administrative leave and is cooperating with the investigation, which will include an examination of the dashboard camera in the police car.
“They’ve been investigating the incident all night with great thoroughness,” Burton said of Cheektowaga investigators.
He said that it was “near-miraculous” that the officer wasn’t shot.
Speyer said the state Attorney General’s Office, which is now responsible for reviewing police shootings of unarmed people under a state executive order, has already determined that this incident – in which the victim was armed – “is not in their jurisdiction.” The Erie County District Attorney’s Office was notified Saturday night and is involved in the case.
Speyer said he can recall only one other incident involving the use of deadly force by police in his 29 years on the force.
Burton said that the district attorney will decide whether to convene a grand jury to review the case and that there will be a separate administrative review.
“So far, from what I’ve seen, this shooting, while tragic, is clean as a whistle with respect to the law,” Burton said. “I see absolutely nothing that this officer has to worry about.”
Cheektowaga police will reveal more information at a follow-up news conference at 11 a.m. Monday. “We hope to be able to release names and things like that,” Speyer said.
At the hotel, the yellow chalk tracing of the body could still be seen late Sunday morning on the parking lot pavement near the lobby entrance. Four red chalk marks were separately circled and numbered around the body outline, possibly indicating the location of other evidence that was collected.
Several guests at the hotel said they didn’t hear anything, but a college student from Maryland, who was on her way back to St. Bonaventure University and had stayed overnight, said she saw officers in the hallways on the first and second floors Saturday night, at the far end closest to the shooting.
The site of the shooting is near where a Cheektowaga police officer was killed nearly 40 years ago in what officials say is still an emotional event.
Officer David J. Tolsma, father of two young children, was shot to death Oct. 20, 1977, when he and his partner responded to an alarm when a gunman forced the night clerk to open the cash register of the Holiday Inn at 4600 Genesee.
Dwight Battles, then 25, shot Tolsma in the head and exchanged fire with the officer’s partner before escaping with about $500. He was found sleeping in an abandoned car about 14 hours later. He was convicted of second-degree murder, robbery and other charges and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Michael Burris, then 30, the getaway car driver, fled when he heard the gunshots but was later stopped for a traffic violation. He was convicted of felony murder, robbery and other charges and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for his role in the Holiday Inn slaying.
Tolsma wasn’t the only Cheektowaga police officer to die by gunfire in 1977. Just three months before Tolsma was killed, Officer Robert Burgess, 27, was shot to death in a drugstore as he and partner William Belz tried to help a man who was acting erratically and drinking rubbing alcohol. As they tried to get Harold Pointer, a diabetic, out of the store, Pointer grabbed Belz’s gun and shot Burgess in the chest, firing all six rounds from the revolver.
Pointer was sentenced to 16 to 50 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter in the slaying of Burgess and attempted second-degree murder for firing at Belz.
Tolsma’s son, Jason, who was 2 years old at the time his father was killed, is now a dispatcher for the Cheektowaga police.
“We’re human, and our hearts go out to all families involved,” said Speyer, who mentioned the Tolsma shooting during his news conference.