The night his body was pulled from the Niagara River, Buffalo police Officer Craig E. Lehner had planned to attend a gathering he organized to memorialize one of his best friends, Army National Guard Spec. Michael "Mikey" Williams.
Williams had died 14 years earlier, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on that same date, Oct. 17.
Williams, who was Lehner's mentor in the Guard, had been deployed to Iraq in 2003 because Lehner was too sick at the time to go to Iraq, recalled his Guard commander, Major Mark Sorrentino, as he eulogized Lehner Wednesday in front of thousands of police officers and other mourners at Lehner's funeral service at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo.
"...We all felt that Mikey was going to help bring Craig home to us on the 17th," Sorrentino said of the five-day search in the swift currents of the Niagara River for Lehner's body.
The flag-draped casket carrying the body of Lehner, 34, who died in a police dive team training exercise, was saluted by thousands of police officers from across North America during its final journey Wednesday, as a Harley Davidson motorcycle hearse carried him to the KeyBank Center for one of the largest funerals in Western New York history.
The casket and relatives of the officer arrived outside the arena at 10:30 a.m., escorted by police and the Patriot Guard riders from New York, Pennsylvania and Syracuse on 11 motorcycles and in dozens of police cruisers.
Thousands of law enforcement officers lined up 20 rows deep on both sides of Perry Street, from Washington Street to Michigan Avenue, to pay tribute to Lehner, 34, a 9-year veteran of the police department.
Police estimated 8,000 people, including officers from across the U.S. and Canada, were at the service in the arena, where the crowds are usually cheering for the Buffalo Sabres, not mourning a fallen hero.
Lehner's K-9 dog, Shield, who Lehner named after Officer James A. Shields, who died in a 2002 auto accident while on duty, rode to the arena in a police SUV right behind the hearse, followed the casket into the arena, led by Officer John Kujawa. The sounds of other police K-9s barking could be heard.
The Greater Buffalo Firefighters Pipe and Drum Band played "Going Home" as Lehner's mother and siblings were escorted to their seats in the arena. The service was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., but there were so many officers filing into the arena that it did not begin until 11:14 a.m. Doug Allen, who sings the national anthem at Buffalo Sabres home games, began the service by singing the "Star Spangled Banner."
"We are here to celebrate the life of an American hero," said Buffalo police Chief of Detectives Dennis Richards. He thanked Kathy Lehner, who was burying her third son Wednesday, for giving Lehner to the world. "Craig's name will soon be engraved on the wall of the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington DC., forever remembered as paying the ultimate price in service to his profession."
The 1 1/2-hour funeral in the KeyBank Center ended just after 12:40 p.m. Officers lined up on Perry Street again as the funeral procession formed to take Lehner to Forest Lawn cemetery, where a couple hundred officers and other mourners stood in the rain as Lehner's casket arrived at the grave site shortly after 2 p.m. After prayers were recited, a 21-gun salute was fired, a bugler played "Taps" and a Mercy Flight helicopter flew overhead. The flag covering Lehner's casket was presented to his family, as Shield stood in the grass a few feet away.
A flock of doves were released as the graveside ceremony ended just after 2:30 p.m.
About 15 minutes later, as the crowd thinned, Shield approached the grave and put his paws on the casket.
The Buffalo News has more than a dozen reporters and five photographers providing live coverage of the funeral, the flag-waving Buffalonians lining the route of the funeral procession from the arena to Forest Lawn cemetery, and at the graveside services there.
Officers drive Officer Craig Lehner’s casket down Scott Street on their way to Forest Lawn cemetery: http://buffalonews.com/2017/10/25/live-coverage-buffalo-police-officer-craig-lehners-funeral/Map of the procession route: http://buffalonews.com/2017/10/23/live-coverage-buffalo-police-unveil-details-road-closures-parking-officer-craig-lehners-funeral/
Posted by The Buffalo News on Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Shield lay on the ground near the casket in front of the stage in the arena as the eulogies were delivered.
Commissioner Daniel Derenda said Lehner's dog was taken to every Buffalo police office in the past week to comfort Lehner's fellow officers.
"He brought both smiles and tears to the faces of the officers he encountered. When you see Shield, you can't help think of Craig," Derenda said. He said his own 12-year-old daughter was among the dozens who wanted to adopt Shield after Lehner's body was recovered Oct. 17 from the Niagara River.
"K-9 43, rest in peace," Derenda concluded, mentioning Lehner's radio call sign.
Mayor Byron Brown also celebrated Lehner's life at the funeral service.
"We gather here today under the worst circumstances, in a collective state of profound and overwhelming sadness and loss," Brown said.
He said Lehner was the truest example of the selfless bravery that uniformed officers are called upon to demonstrate every day.
Leo McGrath, the Buffalo police dive team commander who spotted Lehner's body in the river, said the Lehner's nickname was "Superman."
"He had a superman physique as well as two full sleeves of tattoos," McGrath said. "He was always calm, cool and collected. He had so much confidence you would have thought he was on the (dive) team for years. "
Sorrentino, the Army National Guard major, said soldiers in Lehner's unit also called him Superman.
"They believed in him, believed he could fly," Sorrentino said from the stage of the arena.
— Joe Pops (@ByJoePops) October 25, 2017
The procession past old County Hall met with people paying respect along both sides of the block. pic.twitter.com/0U98w15At4
— Sandra Tan (@SandraTanBN) October 25, 2017
Officer Tommy Champion, who joined the force with Lehner and was his partner for awhile, said Lehner was suffering from a hernia when he was going through the grueling police academy with him. But he toughed it out.
He said Lehner was always respectful to citizens he encountered in Buffalo's inner city, a trait Champion appreciated because he grew up there. Champion remembered patrolling with Lehner when they rolled up on a car playing loud music. Instead of becoming confrontational, Lehner looked over and started dancing, Champion said.
"I refuse to say goodbye," Champion said. "Love you, Craig."
The audience gave Champion a standing ovation.
The police who came to mourn Lehner came from all over. In addition to about 600 Buffalo police officeres, there were Royal Canadian Mounted Police and officers from police forces in Detroit, Ottawa, Toronto, Pittsburgh, St. Catharines, as well as about 150 New York State Police.
“Craig epitomized what a K-9 officer was. He was true professional,” said Sgt. Scott Johnstone, head of the Niagara Regional Police Service’s K-9 unit, as he waited outside the arena for the Harley Davidson motorcycle hearse carrying Lehner.
Johnstone helped train Lehner and Shield, his police dog. His entire 7-officer unit joined him for the funeral. Johnstone said he felt a range of emotions this morning: happy memories of working with Lehner but sadness over his death.
“Being police officers, we think we are pretty tough,” Johnstone said. “But it gets to you.”
As the procession passed Ridge Road in Lackawanna enroute to the KeyBank Center, motorists got out of their vehicles on the outbound side of Route 5 and stood at attention to pay tribute to the fallen officer.
Bob Grande, an 80-year-old grandfather of a new Buffalo police officer by the same name, was among the members of the public who went into the arena to watch the funeral service. "It's good to see," Grande said of the outpouring of support for Lehner. "Especially the way police officers are treated today. It's a scary profession today."
Michol Lavelle, a friend of Officer Lehner, wept quietly as Lehner’s flag-draped casket trailed a Harley-Davidson in procession on Route 5. pic.twitter.com/8xTtovtNkr
— Jay Tokasz (@JayTokasz) October 25, 2017
About 300 people were sitting in the 300 level of the KeyBank Center, where the public was directed to sit, at the start of the ceremony.
The weather during Officer Craig Lehner's funeral is expected to be cooler with possible showers. A light rain was falling as the casket arrived at 10:30 a.m. and the temperature was 48 degrees. Showers are forecast to fall most of the day through 7 p.m.
Lehner disappeared in the Niagara River shortly before 1 p.m. Oct. 13 during a training exercise for the Buffalo Police Department's Underwater Recovery Team. His body was recovered in the river Oct. 17. Lehner was a K-9 officer as well as a dive team member.
Lehner was alone in the river during the training session when the tender cable that connected him to colleagues on land became snagged on an unknown object, The Buffalo News reported. Team members on the Bird Island pier knew they had a serious problem when the line suddenly tightened.
Lehner was the 51st Buffalo police officer to die in the line of duty or from injuries suffered in the line of duty.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not attend the funeral service. He was scheduled to be in Glens Falls Wednesday morning. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul attended.
"Police face a lot of criticism these days," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a retired Buffalo Police detective. But “at times like this (people) come out and rally and show their support for us.”
The service at KeyBank Center concluded shortly after 12:40 p.m. after a video montage of photos of Lehner was shown as the classic rock band Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son" was played. Then the crowd of mourners sang "Amazing Grace" as Shield chewed on a dog toy.
— Joe Pops (@ByJoePops) October 25, 2017
Streets around the arena were closed, including Main, Washington, Perry and Scott streets, as well as Erie Avenue into Erie Basin Marina. Ohio Street, between Ganson Street and Michigan, will be closed and used for a staging area and parking.
Here's the route the procession will take from the KeyBank Center to Forest Lawn.
Two streets near the cemetery will be closed – Main Street between Canisius College and Delavan Avenue, and West Delavan between Delaware and Main. They will be closed by about 9 a.m.