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Drive-by paintballers vex West Side; police not amused

Daniel Flynn sat with a friend on the terrace of a Laundromat on Porter Avenue when he witnessed a shooting that knocked a bicyclist to the ground.

"I hear a pop that sounded like an air gun," said Flynn, who is 34. "It hit him in the head, knocked him off his bike, and I wondered if I just saw a drive-by shooting. The car lingered for a second and then took off fast."

He did see a drive-by shooting, but the gun the shooter used was loaded not with bullets, but with paintballs.

"We sat there in disbelief at what we saw," recalled Flynn. "He seemed fine and got back on his bike and rode away."

Reports of paintball shootings have circulated on the city's West Side since June, police confirmed. People and buildings are under fire from paintballers, residents reported to Buffalo police and on social media. Paintball shootings have been reported on Massachusetts, Connecticut, Amherst, Niagara and 15th streets, Military Road and Porter Avenue.

Police are monitoring the situation and made four arrests in connection with three separate incidents, the most recent occurring shortly after 7 p.m. Friday in Riverside.

Nafese J. Sanford, 26, was charged with criminal mischief after he and four others were observed shooting paintball guns near a Chevrolet Silverado parked on Tonawanda Street at Riverside Avenue, according to Capt. Jeffrey D. Rinaldo of the Buffalo Police Department.

The suspects, observed fleeing the scene in a gold Ford Explorer, were pulled over a short distance from the scene, said police.

Sanford, seated in the rear of the SUV, admitted paintballing the Silverado, and was arrested by police, who confiscated three paintball guns, two masks and two bags of paintballs, said Rinaldo.

"Unfortunately, these knuckleheads driving around think they are funny," said Rinaldo. "What they may think is harmless fun could end in tragedy. It could get someone killed. We don't have a magic device to tell us what is a real gun and what is a toy. It puts officers in a precarious position because we do not know what we're dealing with."

Arrests were also made in two incidents that occurred on June 7, said Rinaldo:

• A 13-year-old girl was shot in the face with a paintball near Niagara and Connecticut streets.

•  A man was shot in the neck outside the Remedy House coffee shop on Rhode Island Street.

Arrested after police pulled over a vehicle near West Utica Street and Norwood Avenue were: Rubbin Campbell, 18, Alexander Jones, 18, and Anthony Yanik, 17. Each faced two counts of third-degree assault, second-degree reckless endangerment, child endangerment, fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon and two counts of harassment.

A paintball gun and a large bag of paintballs were recovered from inside the vehicle, according to police reports.

"From time to time these incidents happen," said Rinaldo. "I remember when I was a patrol officer about 15 years ago, and they were shooting the statue of David in Delaware Park."

A 45-year old West Side woman noticed two vehicles with six paintballers parked on Lawrence Street around 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

"They got out and started to put on masks," recalled the woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. " 'Why is this guy getting dressed in the garden? And why are they taking guns out of their trunks?' I wondered. They all went in Massachusetts Park, where three different exits make it easy to get out."

The woman said all the paintballers were dressed in black, and when they returned two hours later, they had no paint on them.

"I don’t think they're shooting at each other so much," she said. "They are shooting houses, and they're not in a controlled environment so they're hurting passersby."

Paintball shootings have been reported in other cities, according to newspaper reports. Syracuse police in June charged a 19-year-old with paintballing his 20-year-old cousin and then stabbing him. In one five-day stretch in April, Milwaukee police investigated 65 reports of people – including two mail carriers – who were struck by paintballs, reported USA Today.

Deaths linked to paintball shootings were reported in Atlanta and Greensboro, N.C., according to the Washington Post.

Tournament-play limits paintball speeds to 200 mph, according to paintball gun manufacturer guidelines published online. When paintballs strike unprotected skin, they can leave welts, abrasions and bruises. Serious injuries to ears and eyes have also been reported.

"You cannot discharge them in public places in the city," Rinaldo said. "You will be charged. If property damage incurs, the charge is criminal mischief. Personal injury results in an assault or reckless endangerment charge, depending on the intent."

Residents who witness anyone firing a paintball gun in a public place are advised to call 911.

"It doesn't matter if you get a plate number or not," said Rinaldo.  "You need to report it."

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