A Buffalo police officer has been cleared of accusations that she helped facilitate heroin use by two addicts for the sake of making a movie and that she overstepped her role in law enforcement by recruiting the pair for an anti-opiate film after they were arrested.
City Court Judge Joseph A. Fiorella ruled Friday that the fact the officer recruited the addicts for the movie at the time of their arrest did not constitute a valid reason to dismiss drug charges against the two.
That means the drug possession case against Robin Sagliani, 63, and her son, Robert A. Sagliani, 37, returns to court Nov. 2.
The Saglianis were arrested in December after Officer Elizabeth Baker stopped a car they were in and ordered them to turn over any drugs they had. The Saglianis said that a short time later Baker offered to “deal with” the criminal charges against them if they agreed to contact local filmmaker Greg Robbins about an anti-opiate movie he was working on for the city.
“Officer Baker did nothing wrong at all,” District Attorney John J. Flynn said after Fiorella issued his ruling.
Flynn said there is no evidence from a court hearing held regarding the arrests or from the internal police investigation that show that Baker was aware of any authentic drug use by anyone for the movie. Baker also denied under oath in court that she promised to help get their charges dropped.
She acknowledged she put the Saglianis in touch with Robbins, at the request of her supervisor.
Robbins had the support of the Police Department and the Mayor’s Office to make a short, “public service” film that he wrote highlighting the dangers of opiate use and addiction. “Blink of an Eye” was pitched as the story of a fictional suburban teenager who becomes addicted to painkillers and ends up overdosing on heroin under a highway overpass. A young actress plays the high school girl, but Robbins also asked police for help in finding “real people” to bolster the movie’s message.
In a previous interview with The News, Robbins said he didn’t want “normal PSA, all fluff, with everybody living happily ever after .... It needed to be raw and real and disturbing.”
That led to what defense attorney Mark Sacha calls the “casting call” arrest of Robin Sagliani and her son.
At Baker's urging, the two contacted Robbins, and they met with him after the New Year about being in the movie. They have photos of a January session in a Main Place Mall restaurant showing them with Robbins, other film crew members and Baker.
A scene filmed that day in the restaurant’s restroom wound up in the movie, a scene in which Robert Sagliani snorts a small amount of heroin and then prepares more to inject. He is stopped at the last second before he pushes the needle into his arm.
While authorities now say they have no idea whether what they saw on screen was real, Robbins said in an interview, “I filmed a real drug addict doing drugs.”
Sacha, the defense attorney, argued that Baker must have known what was happening at the restaurant. But Flynn said he believes Baker’s version, that she was on her regular beat and only stopped by the restaurant to say hello because she knew the film crew was there.
Robbins himself did not testify at the hearing on Sacha’s motion to dismiss the charges, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Sacha said he felt the judge should have considered Robbins' refusal in weighing the credibility of the other witnesses at the hearing.
In his ruling, Fiorella wrote there is no proof that any officer did anything more than pass along Robbins’ information, meaning that whatever happened in the restaurant in January was not relevant to the December arrest.
“It was not shown that the police urged the defendants to participate in the film, nor was it shown that the police procured drugs for the film and arranged for Robert Sagliani to use them,” the judge wrote.
He also said there is no evidence that any promises were made to the Saglianis about dropping the charges.
“The fact that these scandalous allegations were made, loudly and emphatically, does not mean that they are true,” Fiorella wrote.
He concluded with a short scold to the defense, noting that, even though defense attorneys say there was no reasonable reason to stop the car the Saglianis were in, they “elected to pursue a baseless motion to dismiss in the interest of justice rather than a motion to suppress the evidence.”
Sacha said after the ruling that he is disappointed by the judge’s decision. Mostly, he said, the entire situation frustrates him.
“They endangered this woman’s life by encouraging her and her son to use heroin in the City of Buffalo,” Sacha said. “They were being ‘cute,’ and apparently being cute and using heroin addicts for whatever we want to use them for ... it’s dead wrong.”
Sacha also called the entire premise of the movie ridiculous, and even the district attorney has called it “a stupid way to make a movie.”
As for the defendants, Robin Sagliani was visibly shaken after the judge’s decision. She has been clean since her last time in rehab, going to counseling and attending church regularly for support.
She also is trying to find a job, but says the publicity over her case has worked against her.
“Everyone knows I’m a heroin addict,” she said. “It’s hard. It’s so hard.”
And she is worried about losing her son, who, she said, has come close to overdosing. He was arrested again in July in the Town of Collins on drug charges and is currently in rehab in Pennsylvania. He is expected to be there for perhaps two more months, but the case will move forward in his absence.
According to both sides, considering the minor level of the December 2016 charges, it is likely that neither Robin nor Robert Sagliani will be sentenced to jail time if convicted, as long as they stop using.
Flynn wouldn't be specific but said, “I’m going to do the right thing and not turn this into a federal case.”
As for “Blink of an Eye,” it was posted online for a short time after it premiered in Buffalo in May, but was taken down shortly after news of the legal battle over the Saglianis became public.
And Robbins, who had many good things to say about the Buffalo police and called Officer Baker “one of the biggest heroes I have ever met in my life” when he was interviewed, went on to his next project. He is the stunt coordinator for the movie “Sushi Tushi, or How Asia Broke Into American Pro Football,” a football comedy about sumo wrestlers on the gridiron, set for release in 2018.