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Police officer's killer sues New York State over parole reversal

Nearly 50 years have passed since New York City police officer John E. Varecha died during a routine traffic stop that turned quickly into a shootout.

And it's been more than 17 years since Albert Victory, one of the men who killed the rookie officer, was granted parole and then, when the word got out, rejected.

Victory still won his release but now, after all that time, his lawsuit against the state – he claims parole officials fabricated a reason to try and keep him in prison – may be going to trial in Buffalo federal court.

Filed in 2002, Victory's civil suit claims the parole board reversed itself when then Gov. George E. Pataki, who was publicly opposed to violent felons getting parole, learned of his release and pressured the board to stop it.

In moving the suit to trial, U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny denied the state's motion to dismiss the 15-year-old case. He also set the stage for a possible out-of-court resolution.

"This case will either be tried or settled," said Norman P. Effman, Victory's lead attorney. "For everyone's sake, I hope it's settled."

Victory's suit stems from his time at Attica Correctional Facility, which is why the suit was filed in Buffalo, and his 1999 appeal to the parole board. The two-member panel, after reviewing the case, including letters of support from eight corrections officers, ordered him released.

By some accounts, it was not a popular decision among high-ranking parole officials or Pataki. It also set in motion what Victory claims was an orchestrated and illegal effort to reverse the board's decision.

"It's history, history that should be looked at," Effman said. "It's an example of how politically powerful people can influence the justice system."

To understand the politically volatile nature of Victory's release, all you have to do is look at the media coverage that followed him from Varecha's murder in 1968 to the parole board's decision in 1999 to Victory's arrest for driving while intoxicated in 2009, well after his release.

"Cop killer must rot," said a New York Daily News headline after his DWI arrest. "Time for the cell door to slam for good on Albert Victory."

Victory's story begins in October 1968 when Officer Varecha stopped him and Robert Bornholdt after their vehicle ran a red light in Manhattan. The traffic stop escalated into a struggle and then a gun battle that left Varecha with four fatal gunshot wounds.

At the time, Varecha was 25 years old and still two months away from his one-year anniversary with the force.

Convicted of murder in 1970, Victory and Bornholdt were sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison. Eight years later, Victory escaped from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County by bribing two prison guards. He spent the next three years on the run in California.

Recaptured near San Francisco, Victory returned to prison and, by most accounts, was a model inmate until 1999 when a two-member parole board ordered his release.

When news of the board's decision became public, New York City's police union reacted with outrage and called for an end to discretionary parole. The board also found itself under pressure from the governor's office and high-level parole officials.

In the end, another three-member board voted to rescind Victory's parole.

But he sued and a Wyoming County judge – Victory was in Attica at the time – rejected the board's revised decision and gave Victory his freedom. But he didn't get out until 2005.

For years, Victory was represented by Myron Beldock, a prominent civil rights lawyer known for taking on difficult cases, most notably the conviction of former boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Beldock died last year at the age of 86.

Effman wouldn't comment on what type of cash settlement Victory wants but he did voice concern that, given his client's age, a quick resolution to the suit would be preferable.

"He's in his mid 70s," said Effman, "and even though he's relatively healthy, he's worried this litigation might become moot."

Lawyers for the parole board declined to comment on Skretny's ruling. The two sides are expected to meet next month to possibly set a trial date.

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