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Probationers feared no one would believe probation officer stole their drugs

Four people on probation suspected Niagara County Probation Officer Matthew V. Fender was stealing their medications when he counted their prescription pills in their homes or at a probation office.

But they were reluctant to report Fender to authorities.

"I did not report the issue of Probation Officer Fender taking my pills, as I did not believe that anyone would believe me, as I know I had my struggles with addiction," Amy Bragg of the City of Lockport said in a police statement.

They also feared retribution.

"I did not push the issue any further in fear of negative retribution and it being my word against his," said Dustin T. Peace of the City of Lockport, who reported actually seeing two pills fall out of Fender's pocket after Fender had counted his medication.

Eventually, officials heard of  their suspicions and investigated. Fender, 43, was arrested Jan. 10 on one felony charge and 17 misdemeanor counts covering eight alleged thefts of drugs from the four people he supervised on probation during 2016 and 2017.

Defense attorney P. Andrew Vona said Fender intends to plead not guilty. A scheduled arraignment Friday was called off when Niagara Falls City Judge James J. Faso Jr. said after reviewing the file that he needed to recuse himself. He is the third judge to do so, and another judge is being sought.

The drugs Fender allegedly stole included Suboxone strips and Subutex and Zubsolv pills, all of which are prescribed to help wean addicts off heroin or other opiates, and MYDAYIS capsules, used to counter the symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

Niagara County Probation Director John Cicchetti said he's never seen a case like this in his 24 years with the department, including seven years as director.

"None of the allegations in the complainants' statements are true," Vona said.

The four who submitted police statements said Fender counted pills in their prescriptions, but not where they could see him do it.

Often, there were fewer prescription pills in the containers when Fender returned them.

"I never reported what Officer Fender was doing because I didn't think anyone would believe me," wrote Wade Pratt of the Town of Lockport, who said Fender stole medications from him twice.

But Peace called his lawyer, and another client, Stefan Grabowski Jr., talked about Fender with a county corrections officer.

First Assistant District Attorney Holly E. Sloma said she couldn't discuss details of the investigation, but she said the probationers' statements "in the aggregate were credible given the totality of the circumstances."

After his arrest, Fender was placed on 30 days' unpaid leave from his job. In line with civil service rules, Fender's $73,000-a-year salary resumed this week, but he's still on leave.

The charges against Fender include eight counts each of petit larceny and official misconduct for the alleged thefts from Peace, Grabowski, Bragg and Pratt.

The four gave similar accounts of how their drugs allegedly were taken. Either at their homes or at the Probation Department office in Lockport, Fender would take their containers of medication from them and head into another room to count the pills or strips.

Frequently, this happened while the client went to the bathroom to give a urine sample for on-the-spot drug testing.

"We do that to verify that they're taking their medications as prescribed and they aren't being abused or finding their way back onto the street," said Cicchetti, the probation director.

Cicchetti declined to answer whether it is standard procedure to count drugs outside the probationer's presence, saying he did not want to comment on Fender's case.

But he addressed the probationers' belief that no one would believe their stories.

"Their thinking was flawed," Cicchetti said. "We take every complaint seriously here. If somebody brings a concern regarding probation staff, we will investigate that. We would reach out to the District Attorney's Office if it merited that level of investigation."

Bragg, in her statement, said Fender told her during an August 2016 home visit that her bottle of Subutex was one pill short, and he accused her husband of taking the pill.

Bragg replied she doubted that, because her husband was using heroin and taking Subutex would have stopped the high he was hoping to achieve.

At the probation office later that month, she said she had five pills when she arrived but only three when she left, and all three had been broken in half.

In September 2017, Bragg said Fender took her pill bottle to make a copy of the label, and the count when she left again was two pills short of what she brought to the office.

Peace said that in the fall of 2016, Fender called him to his office for a drug test and pill count. Peace said he happened to have a pocket knife with him, which Fender took away.

When Peace was ready to leave, Fender reached into his pocket to hand the knife back, and two Zubsolv pills fell onto the floor.

"Oh, those are not yours," Peace quoted Fender as saying.

In the hall outside the office, Peace counted his pills and found the bottle was two pills short. He said in his statement that he went back and told Fender, "I don't know if you are prescribed the same medication or not, but I believe that this is mine."

Fender denied taking the pills, and Peace didn't press the point. But when he got home, he called his attorney.

Peace also said in his statement that his MYDAYIS capsules hadn't always disappeared when Fender returned them, but he did notice at times that some of the medicine inside the capsules seemed to have been emptied out.

Peace said he obtained a new generic prescription for the ADHD medicine, and after an office visit Sept. 18, 2017, it was two pills short.

Pratt said that in the fall of 2015 and on four subsequent occasions, his supply of Suboxone strips had been reduced by one after a meeting with Fender.

"He would leave the wrapper, and it would appear it had been open," Pratt wrote in his statement.

In the fall of 2015, Pratt called his Rite Aid pharmacy, which denied shorting him on his medications.

"I didn't want to believe that Officer Fender would steal it, but he had to because I just filled the prescription," Pratt wrote.

Pratt admitted lying to Fender during a home visit last June or July, saying his Suboxone was not at home but in his girlfriend's possession, "because I didn't want him to steal from me again."

Grabowski, in his statement, said that on April 10, 2017, on a visit to Fender's office, Fender took Suboxone container into his office while Grabowski sat in the waiting room. He said he knew he had one unopened strip with him when he came to the office, but when Fender returned the container, all Grabowski had were empty sleeves.

Fender, who went to work for the county in 1998, is accused of a felony count of tampering with public records by writing a case note saying that another probation officer accompanied him to Pratt's home Sept. 19. Officer Leanne M. Durgan signed a sworn statement declaring she was not part of that visit.

Fender also was charged with falsifying business records for reporting that Bragg's husband, John Bragg, admitted taking one of his wife's pills during an August 2016 home visit. Fender contended that John Bragg made that statement in the presence of Probation Officer Ashley M. Kraska. Kraska signed a sworn statement saying that she heard John Bragg make no such admission.

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