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A bar fight, a 'sucker punch,' and the video that got a Buffalo officer fired

It wasn't just any bar fight. It involved an off-duty Buffalo police officer. He had been stabbed in the arm but was going to be OK, news outlets reported.

A suspect was in jail and would stay there for six days. He faced prison time if convicted.

In time, Erie County prosecutors looked at the videotape.

All charges were dropped. And Police Officer Andrew Rechin became a fired police officer, and a defendant.

Rechin faces a harassment count that, at worst, could jail him for up to 15 days. He's fighting it and hopes to get his job back if found not guilty, his lawyer said.

On the video, prosecutors saw a sequence of events unlike the one described in the police reports, District Attorney John J. Flynn said.

In short, Rechin wasn't stabbed. The video, Flynn said, shows he threw the first punch.

Video sometimes backs up the police and helps convict a defendant, Flynn said.

This time, the tape freed a man.

The altercation erupted outside Coles, the well-known bar on Elmwood Avenue. It has a camera just inside the door.

Early on Oct. 31, Rechin was there with other off-duty Buffalo cops. Also in the bar was Denzel Fuller of Buffalo.

When Buffalo police announced Fuller's arrest, they said Fuller was being ejected from the bar as Rechin, who had been outside, was turning to go back in.

Here's the department's Facebook post from October: "The suspect (Fuller) engaged the officer (Rechin) and began scuffling with him, at which point he slashed the officer in the arm with a knife and fled the scene."

Flynn said the tape showed Rechin and Fuller indeed were arguing just outside the bar. But Fuller had no knife in his hand. Rechin held a drink in one of his.

Suddenly, Rechin took a swing at Fuller and connected, Flynn said. The two grappled and went to the ground. They rolled around in broken glass, because the glass in the off-duty officer's hand had fallen and shattered.

The other off-duty cops hurried out of the bar. Fuller and Rechin separated, and Fuller found himself surrounded. He pulled a knife, Flynn said, but never used it on anyone. Then he ran into Louie's Texas Red Hots next door.

Someone called Buffalo police and officers from D District arrived. Rechin had a cut on his left forearm. It was from broken glass, Flynn said. But the Buffalo police report said Fuller had stabbed him with his knife.

Officer Matthew E. Serafini completed the paperwork and two criminal complaints charging Fuller with second-degree assault, a felony, and criminal possession of a weapon, a misdemeanor.

"The defendant did square up with the complainant (Rechin) and displayed a knife and an altercation ensued," both documents said. "The defendant did stab the complainant in the left forearm causing a deep laceration."

The arresting officer wrote that his information came from Rechin's "direct knowledge."

Police investigators lacked access to the video on the night of the fight because the Coles employee responsible for the camera system was not at work, said Capt. Jeffrey D. Rinaldo, a Buffalo police spokesman. But it was eventually collected as evidence against Fuller and viewed by prosecutors weeks into the case. Flynn declined to provide a copy to The Buffalo News because it is now evidence against Rechin.

Fuller wants to say little about that night. For some reason, Rechin just punched him, Fuller told The News. Both the district attorney and Fuller's civil attorney used the same term for it: a "sucker punch."

Attorney Brittany Penberthy has filed a notice of claim on Fuller's behalf against the city, the police department, Serafini and other officers who responded to Coles, including William Lis. He drove Rechin to Erie County Medical Center for stitches.

"At what point do the police drive a victim to a hospital?" said Penberthy, who went on to suggest Rechin should face serious charges, not just the violation of harassment. "I find this whole thing quite suspect," she said.

People, including police, who knowingly make false statements in court documents can face a misdemeanor that can lead to jail time. Currently, Flynn is assessing whether two Erie County Sheriff's deputies, Kenneth P. Achtyl and James W. Flowers, should be charged for their  statements documenting the arrest of a Buffalo Bills fan outside New Era Stadium in December 2017. While the deputies wrote that Nicholas H. Belsito fought with them, body camera video of most of the incident does not show Belsito fighting. Still, he was left with a bloody and a broken nose when hit in the face by Achtyl's baton and taken to the ground.

Body-camera video turns against deputies after bloody arrest at Bills game

In the Coles matter, Rechin signed no documents in which he says Fuller stabbed him, Flynn said. Further, when Rechin testified at a felony hearing, he said he had not seen a knife, Flynn added. Referring to the investigating officers, he said "it was a logical assumption that the knife caused the cut."

Rechin faces only the violation of harassment – for throwing the punch, Flynn explained. Because the punch did not injure Fuller, Rechin was not charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor that requires the victim to have suffered an injury.

"I was punched in the left side of my face by a person I did not know," Fuller says in the complaint, which he signed Feb. 8. "I did nothing to provoke the attack."

Rechin was already off the force as of Feb. 8. His last day was Jan. 17. Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood let him go after prosecutors called the video to his attention, Flynn said. As an officer still in his first 18 months, Rechin was on probation and could be fired for myriad reasons. Rinaldo, the police department spokesman, confirmed Rechin failed to "successfully complete the probationary period."

Rechin had been an officer for more than a year. He wants his job back, said his attorney, Thomas Eoannou.

"We believe that, while off-duty, Andrew absolutely acted in self-defense," Eoannou said. "And once we resolve this criminal matter, we will do everything we can to try to get his job back."

But what about Rechin's willingness to go along with a story that was untrue?

"My client," Eoannou said, "was cut. He had a cut on his arm and indicated he believed he was stabbed."

Police write down the comments they hear from a criminal defendant they have in custody in a report called a 710.30. They did so with Fuller. Any of his words could have been used against him.

According to the 710.30, Fuller said a number of things after learning he was being charged with stabbing an off-duty officer.

Among them: "Did you check the cameras?"

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