An unmarked sheriff’s car slammed last month into the back of a parked SUV.
The hood of the county-issued Impala folded like a gum wrapper, and the engine compartment crunched inward, yet the impact pushed the two-ton Dodge Nitro into a utility pole 100 feet away.
The pole was just feet from Gene McCarthy’s pub at Hamburg and Republic streets in Buffalo’s Old First Ward. When the pub’s lights flickered, the handful of patrons inside at 1:37 a.m. April 2 ventured out to find littered car parts, the SUV pressed against the pole, and a tall man in his 30s emerging unhurt from the Impala.
Unknown to the patrons, the driver was an undercover detective assigned to the Erie County Sheriff’s Narcotics and Intelligence Unit. It investigates drug trafficking on its own and with other agencies. It also controls the sheriff’s Stingray, a device that lets the team eavesdrop on cellphone conversations.
The detective crashed on a clear, dry evening on a straight and flat road with good visibility. There was no indication that he braked before the impact. In fact, he later wrote that he did not see the parked SUV until he hit it, and the SUV was less than 100 feet from a stop sign.
He told the Buffalo police officers who responded that deer had bounded into his path. They gave no sobriety test and issued no traffic tickets to their partner in law enforcement. The detective then kept the crash under his employer’s official radar for several more hours. For example:
• The detective never alerted the sheriff’s watch commander, as internal policies mandate. The commander would have hurried to the scene and notified the sheriff’s own crash investigators. Those personnel likely would have determined if the detective was on or off duty, which would make a big difference in the internal penalties he might face for totaling his government-owned take-home car.
• According to a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, the detective telephoned only one person, Senior Detective Alan Rozansky, chief of the narcotics unit and one of Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s most visible officials. Yet when his detective told him of the crash, the off-duty Rozansky didn’t call the watch commander either.
• Had the sheriff’s crash-investigation unit responded, it would have had the Impala towed to the sheriff’s garage in Alden. But with no sheriff’s officials at the scene on the morning of April 2, Buffalo police ordered the wreck hauled to the city’s impound lot. Two days later, the detective, without using a county towing contractor, arranged for a truck to ferry the Impala to Alden.
Supervisors at the Alden garage on April 4 saw the shattered, gaping front end and insisted the detective report the crash through official channels.
He did so in a memorandum dated that day. He described the accident and explained he had been on duty.
A handwritten time sheet vouched for him. It showed that he and his co-workers had worked through a full day, then the evening and finally into the next morning – 19 hours in all. They had been assigned to a special multiagency operation, said John W. Greenan, the sheriff’s chief of administration.
Blamed on deer
Greenan and the sheriff’s prime spokesman, Scott Zylka, asked The News not to name the undercover detective. Anyone could find out where he lives and drive past his house for a glimpse of him, perhaps cutting his lawn, which would shatter his undercover usefulness, they said. The News agreed not to name him for this article. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The detective, who with overtime made around $74,000 last year, came into the job five years ago, county records show. The sheriff hired him for one of the few detective posts that do not require a civil service exam.
He is 37 and has a brother who is a sheriff’s detective. Their father is an official for a labor union that has endorsed the sheriff. Over the years the three have donated to Howard’s campaign fund more than three dozen times, for a total of more than $6,000, according to State Board of Elections records.
In his memo, submitted to Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman, the detective said he swerved to avoid deer.
“I observed several deer running into my lane of travel from the field adjacent to Republic Street,” he wrote. “I accelerated slightly in an attempt to drive around them within my lane of travel. While I was successful in maneuvering around the deer I did not see the vehicle parked in my lane of travel and struck that vehicle.”
In fact, deer from the Tifft Nature Preserve often migrate at night into the Old First Ward, residents said.
But in the detective’s explanation, he sped up, rather than slowed down, when he saw deer moving onto the road. And while the deer were coming from his right, he had swerved to the right, not his left.
Buffalo Police Officer James T. Reese noted in the accident report that aside from the deer, the driver’s fatigue and drowsiness might have played a role in the crash.
The detective mentioned nothing in his memo to Wipperman about being tired.
Nor did he mention that he had been driving fast enough to push the SUV into a pole 100 feet away.
On or off duty?
Deputies using take-home vehicles for unauthorized off-duty purposes face penalties, especially if they damage the auto. In 2012, the head of Howard’s jail management division, Robert A. Koch Jr., drove his county car to moonlight on a security detail for a downtown concert. A melee erupted when organizers ended the concert because of severe weather, and someone smashed a window on Koch’s Impala. To avoid trouble for himself, Koch reported that the damage was inflicted by unknown vandals in his own Hamburg driveway.
The falsehood unraveled, and Koch was forced to resign. While he was later hired back into an entry-level job, the downfall of such a high-ranking official, who commanded some 700 employees, still resonates. Deputies know they face severe discipline if they wreck a take-home vehicle while out for personal reasons.
Rank-and-file deputies told The News it is unusual for the narcotics unit to be at work early on a Saturday morning, especially after working through the previous day. But the time sheet showed that the detective and seven others in the narcotics unit had been at work at 1:37 a.m. April 2.
The sheet was completed after the crash and signed by Chief Rozansky.
Lots of overtime
According to the time sheet, April 1-2 was a long shift. Ten of the unit’s members reported to work at 6:45 a.m. April 1. Two finished at 10 p.m. Eight others, including the driver, finished at 2 a.m. April 2. With their rates of pay, their collective overtime for the 19-hour marathon reached around $4,000.
Greenan, the sheriff’s administrative chief, said the detectives were assigned to a daylong operation. That’s why they reported to work so early, he said, after reading a summary of the detectives’ involvement in the operation. But the summary doesn’t indicate when their duties ended, he said. The News was unable to find another agency whose personnel were still involved in the work into the morning hours.
Where was the driver going when he crashed?
That remains an internal secret.
“The deputy’s activities were related to an ongoing investigation, and he was following up for the case,” is all sheriff’s spokesman Zylka would say.
But Zylka said the detective called only Rozansky and none of his on-duty coworkers in the immediate aftermath. A Buffalo police officer gave the detective a ride home, according to archived radio chatter from that morning.
The detective hadn’t even called 911. A Gene McCarthy’s witness reported phoning in the crash.
Alan Rozansky’s 45-year career has involved some of the region’s most historic and high-profile cases and made him well known within law-enforcement circles. He also occupies a special position within the sheriff’s command. On the payroll, Rozansky is a senior detective, a union-protected job. But Howard also made him a unit chief, a management post. The odd combination lets Rozansky collect management pay and draw overtime.
The union that represents patrol personnel has sued the Sheriff’s Office and Rozansky, arguing he can’t be both.
Rozansky assured The News that the hours for April 1-2 are genuine.
“The time sheet for that day is correct,” he said.
The News viewed internal computer records that show no recorded activity from the narcotics unit after 5:37 p.m. April 1, when it completes the impounding of a BMW. The next entry doesn’t come until April 4.
Why are there no other entries on April 1 or the morning of April 2?
Though the computer system doesn’t show it, the detectives were busy after 5:37 p.m., Rozansky said. The BMW led to a spinoff investigation that “the unit worked into the night,” he explained.
Rozansky wasn’t part of the spinoff because of a family obligation, he said.
As for the telephone call he took from his detective early the next morning: “All he said to me was he was involved in a crash with the vehicle and no one else was hurt. I don’t know if he was expecting me to do anything. He just said he was in an accident.”
While Rozansky did not call the watch commander, he also did not tell the detective that the watch commander had to be notified.
“Policies do not require me to tell him to call the watch commander,” Rozansky said. “It is incumbent on him to make that call.”
At 10 Delaware Ave., headquarters personnel say Rozansky did nothing wrong.
“Although the deputy did notify his supervisor, he did not follow the procedure,” Zylka said. “It is not the responsibility of the chief.”
The detective was suspended seven days without pay, Zylka said. The suspension began April 25, three weeks after the accident and four days after The News began inquiring about the matter.
In response to queries from The News, the sheriff’s high command told its professional standards team to begin another round of internal investigation. So far, it has uncovered nothing new, Greenan said.
Meanwhile, the Erie County Attorney’s Office agreed to have the county pay the $500 insurance deductible billed to the SUV’s owner and expects his insurance company, State Farm, to seek payment for the full cost of the damage. The News couldn’t determine the amount of the loss. But the accident report indicates it exceeds $1,000.
The vehicle owner, a Buffalo schoolteacher, now knows it was a sheriff’s detective who rammed into his Dodge Nitro. He will not reveal what he saw in the detective’s manner in the moments after the collision, or describe the aftermath in any way.
“I don’t need to have a target on my back,” he said.