Sharon Simon doubts she will ever forget Oct. 24, 1998, the day she stood in the kitchen where a sniper’s bullet killed Dr. Barnett Slepian, an Amherst doctor who performed abortions.
Simon remembers staring at a bullet hole in the window and looking at the spot where Slepian stood the night before when the sniper in the woods behind his home killed him.
“All I could think of was his wife and his four sons,” said Simon, who retired Friday from the Erie County District Attorney’s office after serving 26 years as an advocate for the families of homicide victims. “I kept thinking that Lynne Slepian and her sons would be walking through that kitchen every day, getting reminded every day of what happened there…It still makes me sad when I think about that.”
The Slepian assassination, which attracted international headlines, was the most famous case in which Simon consoled survivors, but there were hundreds of other less famous slayings that touched her during her long career.
She spent countless hours in courtrooms with families whose loved ones were brutally murdered. She accompanied police as they notified parents that sons or daughters had been slain. She accompanied those same horrified parents to the Erie County Morgue as they identified the victims.
Sometimes, she got caught in the middle of near-riot situations when tempers flared during court proceedings.
During her career, Simon assisted the families of 1,463 homicide victims, according to records she kept.
“I am sure there is no other person in Erie County who spent so much time with the families of homicide victims over the past 26 years,” District Attorney John J. Flynn said. “Sharon has been a tremendous asset to this office. She gave people someone to lean on during the most difficult moments of their lives.”
“Listening” was her most important job skill, Simon told The Buffalo News.
She said the families of homicide victims can get “emotional, upset and sometimes angry…and who could blame them?”
“Sometimes they were angry at the police, angry at the killers, angry at the system. They needed to vent, and sometimes I would become the target of that anger,” Simon said. “Sometimes they would ask questions that were impossible to answer. The most common questions were ‘why was my son killed, why was my daughter killed?’ How do you explain why someone pulls out a gun and kills someone, instead of just punching them in the nose? You can try to answer, but it’s never an acceptable answer. So you just listen. You try to help them deal with the system as best you can.”
Praise from Slepian's wife
Lynne Slepian, widow of the doctor slain more than 20 years ago, said she appreciated Simon’s efforts.
Slepian said Simon and John Culhane – an FBI agent who has since retired – spent many hours accompanying her and her family to court proceedings and meetings with state and federal prosecutors.
It took authorities almost nine years to capture, convict and sentence James C. Kopp, a fierce opponent of abortion who fled to France after shooting the doctor. He was sentenced to at least 25 years in state prison and life in federal prison.
After the assassination, the Slepian family not only had to deal with the trauma of losing a beloved husband and father, but controversy and hate mail from people who supported Kopp’s actions, Lynne Slepian said. She said she and her family went through “hell” and got through the ordeal with Simon’s help.
“Sharon and John Culhane were very important to me and my family during that whole time,” Lynne Slepian told The News on Friday. “Sharon was a big help. She was with us in court, all the time. Sharon has compassion, she has patience and she knows how the system works. I’m happy for her that she’s retiring.”
Simon also talked Friday about two other major cases – the City Grill restaurant shootings in August 2010 and the Bike Path rape and murder cases, which began in the 1980s and ended in 2006.
Eight people were shot – five of them fatally – when a Buffalo gangster named Riccardo “Murder Matt” McCray opened fire on people attending a party at City Grill, a downtown Buffalo restaurant. Simon got a call from a prosecutor asking her to hurry to Buffalo Police Headquarters to counsel relatives of some of the victims.
Simon described the day after the shootings as a chaotic and emotional scene.
“Some of the victims’ parents hadn’t been notified yet, and I went with police to notify them,” she said. “Then, it was a very heartbreaking scene at the morgue when the parents went there to ID the victims. These parents kept hoping, ‘No, it can’t be my son, it can’t be my daughter,’ but then at the morgue, when they actually see the victim, the reality hits them. It was a difficult day.”
Simon spent 13 years working with Buffalo Crisis Services, helping rape and sexual assault victims, before the DA’s office hired her. While working for Crisis Services in the 1980s, she counseled some of the victims of a disturbing series of sexual attacks on Buffalo area bike and hiking paths. When police arrested Altemio Sanchez in 2007, victims who survived the earliest attacks had to be interviewed again.
“Suddenly these people who had been trying so hard to put all this behind them had to tell their stories again, remember the details,” Simon said. “Some of them really didn’t want to do that.”
She got punched
Over the years, Simon said, she was assaulted six times in courthouses when people reacted angrily to proceedings or verdicts.
In one incident at City Court, she was “punched in the back, “knocked to the floor and stepped on” during a melee that began in a courtroom and spilled into a hallway.
“I never pressed charges in any of these incidents,” Simon said. “These were parents who were reacting emotionally to something that happened in court. They never meant to hurt me.”
In retirement, Simon said she plans to do some volunteer work “in the field of helping people in crisis.”
Flynn said Simon will be replaced in her job by Nicole Haffa, who has worked seven years for the DA’s office, helping victims of sexual assault.
Simon will be tough to replace, Flynn said. “For the past 26 years, she’s been on call 24/7. It’s been difficult work. We’re really proud of her,” Flynn said.