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Fatal hit-and-run brings indictment against Ballowe

Gabriele Ballowe said she had better places to be than in Erie County Court on Tuesday afternoon for her arraignment on felony charges that she fatally struck Barry T. “Bob” Moss while driving home drunk from a night of partying just before Christmas in 2013.

“This is going to be an inconvenience,” she told Evans police when they arrested her Tuesday morning, according to Erie County Assistant District Attorney Thomas M. Finnerty. “I have things to do today.”

For the relatives of Moss, the courtroom was exactly where they wanted to be, after waiting 30 months for justice for their son, brother and father. Moss, 52, of Angola, was found dead on Route 5 in Evans on the morning of Dec. 22, 2013. He was either walking or pedaling his bicycle home after drinking with friends when he was struck by a sport utility vehicle that didn’t stop.

“We’re glad and we just say amen,” Maria Wrafter, Moss’ sister, said after Ballowe pleaded not guilty before Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk.

Tuesday’s proceedings in court mark the beginning of what promises to be one of the most anticipated local trials in recent years. As both sides argued about whether Ballowe should be allowed to remain free, they revealed what will likely turn out to be some of the key elements of the case, including new evidence that led to the indictments.

Finnerty did not specify what the big break in the case was, but the prosecutor pointed to developments involving Lynne A. Laettner, a Hamburg resident and friend of Ballowe who was also indicted Tuesday. She was charged for allegedly lying to a 2014 grand jury to protect Ballowe.

“On April 11, 2014, she acted in collusion with others to cover up Ms. Ballowe’s actions. The defendant told Ms. Laettner that she knew she had hit something. In the grand jury, Ms. Laettner denied Gabriele Ballowe made that statement,” Finnerty said.

Ballowe, 50, of Evans, is charged with:

• First-degree vehicular manslaughter.

• Second-degree vehicular manslaughter.

• Leaving the scene of an incident without reporting resulting in death.

• Leaving the scene of an incident without reporting resulting in serious injury.

If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in prison.

For Laettner, the punishment could range from no prison to up to seven years if convicted of first-degree perjury.

Tuesday in court, Ballowe stood handcuffed, wearing a pink tie-dyed hoodie and dark shorts. On the back of the hoodie were the words “Dude Ranch” above an image of a horse-drawn stage coach with the words “Rough Rider” below it.

She frowned as Finnerty tried to make a case that she should be denied bail and in doing so, started to lay out the case the prosecution has built against her.

Finnerty started by pointing out that the evidence against Ballowe was “much stronger than two years ago.” He was referring to the 2014 grand jury, which had indicted her, but then reversed its decision when then-District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III directed a prosecutor to return to the grand jury and convince the grand jurors to take a second vote not to indict, which they did.

A second grand jury was convened this spring, after Sedita left to become a State Supreme Court justice and Michael J. Flaherty Jr. was named acting district attorney. This time around, Finnerty said, there was evidence that proved Ballowe’s SUV hit Moss, that she was driving it while intoxicated, that she knew she hit Moss and left him “on the side of the road to die.”

In arguing for no bail, he said that the possibility of long prison sentence could provide Ballowe with a “willingness to flee.” He also pointed out that she left the scene of the incident.

Franczyk interrupted Finnerty to ask if during the investigation there were any indications that Ballowe attempted to leave the area.

Finnerty said no.

The prosecutor also cited a previous alcohol-related conviction for driving while impaired against Ballowe and a pending charge against her in Chautauqua County from four months ago for unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. Her license had been revoked last year by Department of Motor Vehicle Law Judge Glenn E. Murray. He determined at a DMV hearing that there was “abundant evidence” Ballowe had been driving under the influence of alcohol and was driving the SUV that hit Moss.

Then there was the alleged collusion to hide her crime with Laettner lying to the first grand jury and Ballowe’s comment Tuesday morning to police about the inconvenience of being arrested when she had other things to do. Prior to that comment, Finnerty said, she had never cooperated with the Evans police by giving them a statement.

Franczyk asked: “Why should I penalize her for remaining silent? That is her right.”

Thomas J. Eoannou, defense attorney for Ballowe, also seemed to give a preview about how he would defend Ballowe should the case go to trial.

First, he denied making a statement to police that her arrest was an inconvenience. He also said that the unlicensed driving charge was settled with a plea to a non-moving violation.

Eoannou told the judge he was upset that he wasn’t given the chance to allow Ballowe to turn herself in. Instead, authorities arrested her and had her “brought into court in handcuffs.”

The lawyer went on to cite a past statement by then-District Attorney Sedita that if Ballowe were charged, the case would be thrown out of court because Moss had an exceptionally high blood-alcohol content of 0.38 percent, was wearing dark clothing and may have wandered into the street. “A senior prosecutor went back into the grand jury and told them to ‘no bill,’ ” Eoannou said.

Franczyk, who likely will not try this case, acknowledged the first grand jury’s reversal, but said that was not for him to consider in setting bai He eventually set bail at $50,000 for Ballowe and $25,000 for Laettner. Ballowe posted her bail Tuesday evening.

Wrafter, Moss’ sister, sat holding hands in court with her mother, Charlotte Moss, and several other relatives during the arraignment.

“We were nervous,” Wrafter said later. “We are all emotionally guarded because things have not gone our way. Until you actually hear the words formally stated in court, it’s hard for you to believe it is actually happening.”

Wrafter said she and her family are thankful to Evans police, especially Lt. Douglas J. Czora, State Police, the FBI, the District Attorney’s Office, and all the other people involved in the investigation.

“People worked really, really hard to make this happen,” she said, “and we appreciate it.”

email: lmichel@buffnews.com, dherbeck@buffnews.com and mmiller@buffnews.com