Officer Craig E. Lehner's death was unlike any other the Buffalo Police Department has endured.
His funeral will not be like any other, either.
The 34-year-old officer's funeral Wednesday in KeyBank Center may be the largest police funeral in Western New York history.
The arena, home of the Buffalo Sabres, seats more than 19,000, so it should be able to accommodate all the police officers, first responders, soldiers, elected officials and members of the public expected to attend.
"The KeyBank Center is a venue that lends itself to the large anticipated crowd of mourners," said Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards, the department's protocol officer for the funeral.
Police are working to set up bus transportation for mourners from the arena to Forest Lawn and back, Richards said. That will help shorten what is expected to be a long procession, he said.
Past funerals for first responders who have died in the line of duty have been held at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral, the Chapel at CrossPoint and smaller churches in the area.
In those cases, mourners at times spilled outside the buildings. That happened at the two police funerals in the Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 7,000, in 1997 and 1998, and at the funerals for two Buffalo firefighters at St. Joseph Cathedral, which seats about 1,100, in 2009.
Law enforcement agencies from as far away as New Mexico have contacted Buffalo Police to let them know they will attend the funeral of the police officer at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Numerous Canadian police departments also plan to attend.
And, with large contingents from regional agencies expected, Buffalo Police said it's impossible to estimate how many police and first responders will be present.
At past police funerals, Richards said, the number has been about 5,000.
Many first responders who came here to assist in the five-day search for Lehner may return for the funeral. Estimates ranged from in the hundreds to as many as 1,000 for the people who helped in one way or another with the search after Lehner disappeared during an underwater recovery practice off Bird Island pier a week ago Friday. His body was recovered from the Niagara River Tuesday afternoon.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda expressed gratitude to the Buffalo Sabres for making the center available for the Lehner service. "I contacted Mike Gilbert and Stan Makowski, and they graciously donated their building to allow us to have the funeral there," Derenda said, of the two Sabres executives.
Divers, K-9 teams coming from around the United States
Police dive teams from around the country are planning to be here for Lehner's funeral. So are police K-9 teams.
Besides serving on the department's underwater recovery team, Lehner worked as a K-9 officer with his partner, Shield, a 4-year-old German shepherd. Shield will be present for the funeral, as well.
Military personnel also are expected that day.
Lehner served as an Army National Guard military police officer for 16 years, assigned to the 105th Military Police Company at Masten Armory in Buffalo. A staff sergeant, he was deployed to Iraq in 2011 and served at Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, starting in 2014 and ending that deployment in 2015.
During his time in the service, he was awarded more than a dozen medals, including the Army Commendation Medal, Air Assault Badge, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and five Army Achievement Medals. He left the service in 2016.
An Army National Guard honor guard will be present, along with a Buffalo Police honor guard and honor guards from numerous other agencies, according to Buffalo Police.
Richards and other department members have worked closely with Lehner's family in making the funeral arrangements.
Lehner is survived by his mother, Kathleen Lehner; sisters Donna Wilson, Linda Iannuzzi, Kerry Koch, Cherelyn Hughes; and a brother, Michael Lehner. He was predeceased by his father, Donald Lehner, and two other brothers, Thomas Lehner and Jeffrey Latka.
Many elected officials are planning to attend the funeral and some are making special arrangements to pay tribute to Lehner. State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and State Sen. Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, are introducing a joint resolution to honor Lehner for his life and service. The State Legislature is also expected to approve a Liberty Medal that will be presented to his family at the funeral.
Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul, State Senator Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, are among those planning to attend.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has reached out to Mayor Byron W. Brown and the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association to offer his condolences to Lehner's family, police officers and the city.
Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, also plans to attend.
"‘There is no greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for another,’ Officer Craig Lehner made the ultimate sacrifice, and we will be forever grateful,” Kearns said, in a statement Friday on the officer's death.
Following a wake set for Monday and Tuesday at Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home in Hamburg, a private prayer service will held Wednesday morning.
After that, Lehner's body will be transported in a Harley-Davidson motorcycle hearse to KeyBank Center, with an escort provided by the Buffalo Police Department, which has invited the Patriot Guard Riders to participate.
"We want people to understand that this is not a parade; it is a solemn and dignified escort," said Don Higgins, senior ride captain for the Patriot Guard, which provides escorts for veterans. "To stand along the route with a flag or your hand across your heart – that would be wonderful."
That procession will travel along Route 5 into downtown Buffalo, where streets around KeyBank Center will be closed.
Following the funeral, more streets will be temporarily closed to accommodate what is anticipated to be a lengthy procession.
The procession route to Forest Lawn will be as follows:
North on Michigan Avenue to Scott Street, heading west to Upper Terrace and veering onto Franklin Street, heading north past Buffalo Police headquarters. The procession will continue to Niagara Street, passing the former Michael J. Dillon U.S. Courthouse, which is the future home of Buffalo Police headquarters.
In Niagara Square, the procession will head north on Delaware Avenue to Forest Lawn at Delaware and West Delavan avenues.
"We are asking that downtown workers and others avoid these areas and use alternate routes if they are not attending the funeral," Richards said.
Basics of the wake and funeral
Here are some key details about the services for Lehner.
The wake: Will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday in Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home, 4199 Lake Shore Road, Hamburg. Off-site parking is available at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, 4263 St. Francis Drive, Hamburg, and in the parking lot at Woodlawn Beach, 3580 Lake Shore Road, Hamburg.
Also after 3:30 p.m. both days, parking will be available at St. Francis High School, 4129 Lake Shore Road.
Shuttle bus service: Will be available at the auxiliary parking lots, according to Charles A. Castiglia, president of Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home.
With about 100 parking spots on the funeral home property, he said, there will be a total of 650 parking spots.
Flag lines: Patriot Guard Riders will surround the funeral home with American flags.
The service: Presiding over the funeral service will be the Rev. David Beutel, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, North Tonawanda.