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Probation officer who stole drugs from criminals gets probation

The former Niagara County probation officer who stole prescription painkillers from criminals offenders under his supervision was placed on probation Friday for three years.

Matthew V. Fender, a Lockport resident, suffers from an incurable disease, Lewy body dementia, which erodes his mental and physical capacities.

"He's having a real difficult time speaking, so he really wasn't able to say a whole lot," said P. Andrew Vona, Fender's attorney. "He just apologized to the court for taking up their time."

Buffalo City Court Judge James A.W. McLeod, who was assigned the case after Niagara County judges recused themselves, had said when Fender pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors June 19 that he didn't intend to send Fender to jail.

"He doesn't seem to be getting better, that's for sure," Vona said. "My understanding of the nature of the disease is that it's progressive."

Fender was arrested Jan. 10 after a four-month investigation into complaints from four Lockport-area people, all of whom were on probation after pleading guilty to drug possession charges. All had their own problems with addiction to opiates.

Matthew V. Fender. (Photo courtesy of the Niagara County Sheriff's Office)

They told investigators that between 2015 and 2017, they discovered that some of their prescription drugs had disappeared after Fender counted their pills and strips to make sure they hadn't sold any of them.

The stolen drugs included Suboxone strips and Subutex and Zubsolv pills, 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.

Asked whether the disease contributed to Fender's decision to steal the drugs, Vona said he didn't know when the symptoms of Fender's disease surfaced. He was diagnosed about three months before his guilty plea.

Fender, who had worked for the county since 1998, resigned from his $73,000-a-year job in March. He had been placed on administrative leave after his Jan. 10 arrest.

Fender originally was charged with one felony count of tampering with public records and 17 misdemeanors.

It's standard practice for probation officers to count pills to try to make sure the convicts haven't been selling any, Niagara County Probation Director John Cicchetti said at the time of Fender's arrest.

The accusers noted that Fender counted their pills or strips where they couldn't see him do it, and one of the probationers told an investigator that he actually saw two of what appeared to be his pills fall out of Fender's pocket.

All of the accusers said in their sworn statements that they were reluctant to come forward.

They said they didn't think police would believe them, because of their criminal records, and they also feared retribution from Fender. But eventually, one called his attorney and another spoke to a county corrections officer, leading to the investigation.

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