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Evans police chief who defied DA in fatal hit-and-run prepares to retire

Ernest P. Masullo much flew under the radar in his first five years as the Town of Evans police chief.

He was the chief of police in a town of 16,000 people, where drunk drivers and fist fights in Lake Erie beach bars provided most of the fireworks, and Masullo was not one to seek publicity.

Then, a few days before Christmas in 2013, handyman Barry Moss was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. The police investigation that followed propelled Masullo into a major battle with Frank A. Sedita III, then Erie County’s district attorney.

Sedita insisted Evans police did not have enough evidence to charge the driver. Masullo disagreed, and he made his feelings public. He made no secret of the fact that his department had confiscated a sport utility vehicle from the prime suspect in the case, Gabrielle Ballowe of Angola.

Masullo later was outraged when he learned that Sedita ordered an underling to convince a grand jury to rescind its indictment of Ballowe.

At another point, Sedita sent a letter directing Masullo to return the SUV to Ballowe. Masullo refused.

[Related: The Barry Moss fatal hit-and-run case, from the handyman's death to the filing of charges]

He told the DA that his department would hold on to the SUV as evidence in a fatal hit-and-run until a judge ordered him otherwise.

With a new district attorney in office, Ballowe finally pleaded guilty in October to a felony crime of leaving the scene of an injury accident.

And now, Masullo feels he can retire.

“I’m not a publicity hound. I’ve had disagreements with DAs before, but never in public,” Masullo said last week. “I respected Frank Sedita as a very smart man, and I still do. But in this case, there was too much evidence. I was not going to let this go. A man was killed and his family deserved to have justice…

I’m glad we didn’t let it go.”

Four decades

After four decades of police work, Masullo said he still enjoys his job. But at 64, he wants to retire while he is healthy to enjoy time with his wife, Kathleen, and their four grandchildren, ages 5 through 10. He also wants to spend more time building and driving drag racing cars, a hobby he has enjoyed since age 15.

“I’m proud of the work I’ve done in this department, but it’s time for me to collect my pension, my Social Security and let a new pair of eyes take over,” Masullo said.

He will retire Dec. 9.

Maria Wrafter, the sister of Barry Moss, says she will be sad to see him leave. There is “absolutely no way” her brother’s case would have been solved without the persistence of Masullo and his detective lieutenant, Douglas Czora, she said.

“He and Doug refused to give up,” she said. “It was a bold thing for him to refuse to return that SUV and to keep pursing our case after everything else that happened.“

One reason Masullo did not want to let go of the Moss case was that, earlier in his police career, he investigated a fatal hit-and-run crime that never did get solved.

“I know that bothered him, and I know he didn’t want to see it happen again in my brother’s situation,” Wrafter said.

In fact, there are two hit-and-run cases that haunt Masullo.

Susan T. Mazur, 34, a school teacher and Red Cross volunteer, was struck and fatally injured by a truck as she walked along Delameter Road Feb. 17, 1986. Despite thousands of hours of investigation and several leads, Evans Police have never been close to an arrest.

Philip Ernst, 41, was hit by a car and left to die on Lakeshore Road early on the morning of Aug. 1, 2001. Police believe two men were drag racing on the road, and that one struck Ernst.

“We believe we know who the two men were, but they both lawyered up shortly after this happened,” Masullo said. “I knew Phil. He was a nice guy. Someone from his family calls me once a year to ask how things are going. I know one of the guys we believe was involved. I see him around town, and he just stares at me and says, ‘Hello Ernie.’”

Masullo keeps both the Mazur and Ernst files close to his desk in his office at the Evans Police building.

Every once in awhile, he pulls them out and pages through him, wondering if there is anything he and his department can do.

“I inherited these cases when I became chief. I was determined to solve them, and we still haven’t,” Masullo said. “That will bother me when I leave.”

South Buffalo native

Masullo grew up in South Buffalo, the son of a steel worker and a school cafeteria worker.

He said he was inspired to become a police officer by watching Jerry Wright, a hard-working patrolman at the old South Park Police Station.

“Jerry walked a beat on South Park Avenue. He knew me, knew my father and watched out for me. He kept me out of trouble,” Masullo recalled. “If he saw me out late, he’d say, ‘Ernie, time to get home, or I’ll have to mention something to your father.’ I had a lot of respect for Jerry.”

After graduating from high school, Masullo was determined that he, too, would become a policeman. He applied at several different departments and worked briefly as an Erie County Sheriff’s deputy before getting hired by the Evans Police in April 1978. He spent his early years as a patrolman, working the night shift.

In those days, Evans had more than 30 bars – it now has about seven – and Masullo spent much of his time breaking up bar fights, arresting drunks and investigating accidents. He said he will never forget the first of many fatal accidents he investigated, in the summer of 1978.

“Two young men were killed in a car on Lakeshore Road after leaving one of the beach bars,” Masullo recalled. “They still had their hands stamped from being at the bar. I found out that one of the guys was 26 years old, and that he had a son and daughter. He was the same age as me, and I also had a son and daughter. That really hit me.”

Over the years, he estimates that he had to visit at least a dozen families to inform parents or spouses that a loved one had been killed.

“It is one of the hardest things you ever have to do in your life,” Masullo said.

Masullo became a detective in 2000, a lieutenant in 2007 and police chief a year later. He also spent close to 30 years as a peer advisor in the department, and as president of the Evans Police Benevolent Association, the union representing the town’s police officers. His son, Michael, is now a lieutenant in the department.

Masullo said he is proud of his efforts to modernize the small, 29-officer force, including technical upgrades in the dispatch center, enhanced training programs, participation in drug prevention programs, and purchases of a new boat, jet ski and new gear for officers.

Grants paid for much of the high tech equipment.

“So it was at no cost to the town taxpayers,” he said.

Although he said he is proud of the outcome of the Barry Moss investigation, Masullo said he won’t miss being in the spotlight of controversy.

His oldest granddaughter – Kennedy Masullo, 10 – apparently does not agree.

“When I told her I am retiring,” Masullo said, “Kennedy asked me, ‘Does that mean we’re not going to be famous anymore?’”


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