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Response to crash involving Town of Tonawanda officer raises questions

On Jan. 19, 2019, when a Chevrolet Suburban SUV slid through a stop sign and struck a sedan traveling on Englewood Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda, the air bags in both vehicles went off.

The sedan, which carried an Uber driver and her fare, suffered damage to its front driver's side and was towed from the scene. But the SUV, occupied by a town police officer and his wife, was not.

The officer, Howard M. Scholl III, is under investigation by the Erie County District Attorney's Office for initially claiming falsely that his wife was behind the wheel, and the town has moved to fire him.

However, the official accident report, a statement from police and interviews with people familiar with the incident raise other questions about what took place that night:

• Why did the responding officers allow Scholl and his wife, Aimee, to drive home after their driver's and passenger air bags had deployed?

• Officers conducted a field sobriety test on Aimee Scholl, identified as the SUV's driver, and the test indicated she was not intoxicated. But why wasn't she taken to police headquarters for a blood draw?

• Why wasn't Aimee Scholl ticketed that night – and why wasn't Howard Scholl ticketed after he confessed he was driving?

• Were any of the responding officers, like Scholl, members of the department's SWAT team? And did they treat the Scholls any differently because Howard Scholl was a colleague?

• And, finally, are the three officers, or any supervisors, facing departmental charges for their actions that evening?

Police Chief Jerome C. Uschold III has largely declined comment on the incident beyond saying an internal investigation revealed "violations of our professional standards of conduct and departmental rules and regulations did occur."

Uschold earlier this month temporarily shut down the town's SWAT team, saying a reconstituted version would return later this year. That move followed Scholl's accident and the arrest for driving while intoxicated of another SWAT team member in January.

The Tonawanda Town Board asked District Attorney John J. Flynn to investigate the Scholl crash and supported the move to terminate him, Supervisor Joseph Emminger said.

Scholl's attorney, Barry N. Covert, said his client is remorseful.

"He greatly regrets any mistake that he made," Covert said.

Town of Tonawanda wants to fire officer under investigation by DA

The crash

Scholl and his wife were driving home from a party for members of the SWAT team at Sinatra's Restaurant in the town earlier on the evening of Jan. 19.

They were heading north on St. John's Avenue, toward the intersection with Englewood, at 11:50 p.m. when their SUV rolled through the stop sign and struck a vehicle driving westbound on Englewood that had the right of way. An accident report notes icy conditions may have been a factor in the crash.

Both occupants of the other vehicle were taken to a hospital for treatment, with the passenger suffering a broken nose, officials said previously. The accident report indicates a tow truck was called for the Uber driver's vehicle.

The first accident report filed shortly after the crash stated Aimee Scholl was driving. Aimee Scholl was given a field sobriety test that found she was not intoxicated, Uschold said in an email. He did not comment on why she wasn't taken to headquarters for a blood-alcohol test.

Town officials previously told The News that Howard Scholl, who initially claimed he was the passenger, was not tested at the scene.

Both that initial accident report and a corrected report indicate the two front air bags in the Scholls' SUV deployed. The reports also make clear that no tow truck was called to tow their SUV, and Emminger earlier told The News that the Scholls were allowed to drive away.

Why was that? State Police spokesman Beau Duffy said no state law requires police agencies to call for a tow truck when an air bag deploys in a vehicle.

"I think it would just depend on the severity of the accident," Duffy said. "It would be up to the discretion of the law enforcement officer."

Uschold would not say what the town's policy is.

A state Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman did not respond to the question of whether someone is allowed to drive a vehicle after its air bag deploys. Laws across the country vary, with some states banning such travel and others giving police latitude.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website urges drivers, for safety reasons, to replace a used air bag before using the vehicle again.

Police did not issue any traffic tickets to Aimee or Howard Scholl. Uschold said in an email this is standard procedure whenever weather is a likely reason for the crash.

'Errors were made'

The second accident report stating Howard Scholl was behind the wheel was completed 2 1/2 weeks later on Feb. 7.

It's not clear precisely what prompted Scholl to tell department brass the truth, but a town employee who requested anonymity said video surveillance footage from Sinatra's shows the Scholls getting into their vehicle.

None of the three responding officers attended the SWAT team dinner earlier in the evening of Jan. 19. At least one of the three officers is a fellow member of the SWAT team with Scholl, the town employee said, though Uschold would not confirm that.

Asked whether he has concerns about the actions taken by the responding officers, Uschold said an internal investigation reviewed more than just Scholl's conduct that night and "procedural errors" were made.

He said he couldn't comment on whether the responding officers, or any supervisors, would face departmental discipline.

"The only public statement we can make would be about criminal conduct, and I am confident the officers investigating the accident were not guilty of any criminal conduct," Uschold said in an email.

Scholl is on unpaid leave and plans to contest the town's efforts to terminate him.

Covert is representing Scholl with Paul Weiss, the attorney for the Town of Tonawanda police union. He pointed to his client's long service as an officer and, previously, as a Marine, and said Scholl hopes to continue to serve his community honorably.

The District Attorney's Office continues its investigation into the crash and its aftermath.

Scholl's accident came several weeks after another SWAT team member, Lt. Corey Flatau, was charged with DWI following a crash in Niagara County. Flatau is on 30 days unpaid leave.

Uschold said in the email that he suspended the SWAT team because it is five members short of full strength.

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