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Famous names, infamous crimes on DA's office 'History Wall'

As the Civil War was coming to an end in 1865, a Buffalo lawyer named Lyman K. Bass reached a decision. He would run as a Republican for Erie County district attorney, seeking to become the county's chief criminal prosecutor.

His opponent in the race was a man Bass knew well – his best friend and roommate, Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland was then the county's one and only assistant DA.

The two men agreed that they would not let the election battle affect their friendship. They also agreed that, during the campaign, they would each limit their  alcohol consumption to no more than four beers a day.

Bass won the hard-fought election, 11,547 to 10,945, defeating his drinking buddy by 602 votes. But Cleveland did well for himself after that, winning the offices of Erie County sheriff, Buffalo mayor, New York governor and eventually president of the United States.

"Cleveland had a meteoric rise, and it all began here in the Erie County DA's office," said David A. Heraty, a current assistant DA and historian. "In his early days, Cleveland was also a partner in the law firm that is now known as Philips, Lytle."

The Bass vs. Cleveland race from 152  years ago is just one of many interesting tidbits of history that Heraty learned while researching the History Wall project in the DA's office on Delaware Avenue.

Heraty also learned that the office:

  • Prosecuted three serial killers
  • Is the only county DA's office in the nation to convict a presidential assassin
  • Convicted in 1890 the first person ever to be executed in an electric chair.

After about nine months of research, Heraty recently completed the wall, which contains photographs and information about the 41 individuals – all of them white males – who have held the office of district attorney since the office was established in 1821. The display also includes information about some of the people who served as assistants, including Cleveland, and some of the most notorious crimes  prosecuted in Erie County.

Heraty, 35, said he has been fascinated by American history – especially Buffalo history – all his life. He said his idea for a historical wall in the DA's office grew from a conversation he had about five years ago with the late Kevin M. Dillon. Dillon, who served as DA from 1988 to 1997, later became a State Supreme Court judge. He died in January 2016.

"Kevin Dillon used to teach at UB Law School, and he was my favorite Law School professor. His father, Mike Dillon, was also the DA in Erie County," Heraty said. "Michael and Kevin Dillon were the only father and son ever to run this office. I had lunch one day with Kevin Dillon. After talking with him, I thought it would be great to do something to preserve the history of this office, all the interesting people who have served here, all the important cases and the impact the office has had on this community."

Heraty said he did most of his research – an estimated 600 hours – on his own time.

One  of the district attorneys who most fascinated him was Leo J. Hagerty.

Hagerty, who grew up on the city's West Side,  was a newspaper reporter before he was elected district attorney in 1938. As a newspaper man, he investigated and wrote about many violent crimes connected to Buffalo's then-powerful Mafia organization.

"He saw how these crimes affected victims and their families, and he was inspired to become DA by his desire to fight the power of the mob," Heraty said.

One of the mobsters Hagerty prosecuted was the Mafia leader Joseph DiCarlo, then known as "the Al Capone of Buffalo."

"DiCarlo once made the remark about Leo Hagerty, 'There goes a one-term DA,'" Heraty said. "But Hagerty was re-elected by voters two more times, and after that, he was elected as a State Supreme Court judge. While he was DA, Hagerty was the first in the history of Erie County to appoint a woman and a black man as assistant DAs."

But Hagerty's prosecution of DiCarlo in a bookmaking case was unsuccessful.

Another DA of interest was Thomas Penney. He grew up in London, England, came to America to attend Yale Law School, moved to Buffalo and became district attorney in 1899.

In 1901, Penney became the only local DA in American history to prosecute and convict a presidential assassin. He and his assistant, Frederick Haller, prosecuted Leon Czolgosz, who shot and killed President William B. McKinley during the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.

In those days, the justice system – for better or worse – moved much more quickly than it does today. After his arrest in September 1901, Czolgosz was convicted, imprisoned and executed in the state's electric chair, all within 53 days.

"Today, we have low-level felony cases that can take two or three years before all the appeals are exhausted," said Heraty, who works in the appeals bureau at the DA's office.

The researcher also found that the DA's office in Erie County has prosecuted three known serial killers.

The most recent was Altemio Sanchez, the "Bike Path killer," who ambushed, raped and murdered at least three women between 1990 and 2006. Convicted of murder in 2007, he is believed to have raped other victims. He is serving a 75 year-to-life sentence in state prison.

Joseph G. Christopher, a mentally disturbed soldier known as "the .22-caliber killer," terrorized the local black community in 1980, when he murdered four men over a period of three days. Police believe Christopher also may have killed two black taxi cab drivers, cutting out their hearts. He died in state prison in 1993.

The third was J. Frank Hickey, the sadistic murderer known as the "postcard killer." He was convicted of murder in 1915 and is known to have killed at least three people, including two young boys. Hickey sent a cruel postcard to the family of one of his victims. He died in state prison in 1922.

"When you do research like this, you learn about some unspeakably evil crimes," Heraty said. "Without a doubt, Hickey was one of the most despicable criminals this office has ever prosecuted."

The first person ever legally executed in an electric chair was William Kemmler, who was put to death in 1890 after then-DA George T. Quinby convicted him of using a hatchet to kill his common-law wife, Matilda Ziegler. The electric chair was invented by a Buffalo dentist, Alfred Southwick.

Heraty used dozens of historical books about Buffalo, old newspaper files, the website and several other stories to do his research. He also interviewed former DAs and their ancestors, including U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara and Edward C. Cosgrove, now a Buffalo attorney in private practice.

One of the items posted on the DA History Wall is a quote from the late Robert H. Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court justice for whom Buffalo's federal courthouse is named.

"The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America," Jackson wrote. "The citizens' safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility."

The current DA, John J. Flynn Jr., said Jackson's words form a valuable guide for any prosecutor to work by.

"I love that quote, and I'm glad it's included as part of this exhibit," Flynn said.

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