Kenneth P. Achtyl, an Erie County sheriff's deputy whose bloody 2017 arrest of a Buffalo Bills fan was caught on camera — drawing wide attention when the video went viral one year later — pleaded not guilty Thursday evening to four misdemeanors stemming from the incident.
Nearly two dozen of Achtyl's fellow deputies stood silently in two lines outside Orchard Park Town Court in a show of support for Achtyl as he entered the courtroom to be arraigned on two counts of assault, one count of falsifying business records and one count of official misconduct.
Achtyl did not speak in court during the appearance that lasted several minutes. He was released on his own recognizance.
His co-workers, who were not in uniform, surrounded Achtyl and prevented the media from approaching him as he left the courthouse.
Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard had previously declined to take disciplinary action against Achtyl. But in a statement Thursday morning, Howard said the deputy now is on administrative leave.
“When he is formally charged, his status will change to ‘suspended without pay’ until the conclusion of the court proceedings," Howard said.
Achtyl's arrest of Nicholas H. Belsito in December 2017 on three charges, which were later dropped, was caught on a deputy's body camera. The Buffalo News first reported the incident in December 2018.
At one point, the deputy holds Belsito in a bear hug from behind and demands that Belsito place his arms behind his back to be handcuffed. Belsito objects, asking that he first be allowed to take his cellphone out of his hand. But the deputy has already used force at that point. Another fan's cellphone video shows Achtyl hitting Belsito with his baton seconds into the arrest.
Achtyl, 46, became a deputy in 2000. His attorney, Rodney O. Personius, said an internal sheriff's probe determined that Achtyl's actions at the stadium required "no disciplinary action."
Outside the courtroom, his attorney said media coverage of the case has been "woefully inadequate."
"This gentleman was interfering with another arrest," Personius said, referring to the prior arrest of Belsito's friend. "He stood in the way of officers when they attempted to take away this other individual who was arrested."
"When this case goes to trial it's going to be noteworthy who the defense witnesses are because it will be some of these deputies who were present out there," Personius said, referring to the sheriff's deputies at the courthouse.
Personius told The News, “This is a police officer who has received many commendations and awards for his work. He’s wanted to serve in law enforcement since he was a little kid. On the day of this incident, he was dealing with a belligerent individual who kept interfering with the arrest of his friend, actually sticking his hand in to try to stop police from putting handcuffs on his friend. And the friend was being arrested for throwing beer cans at the police.”
Belsito's lawyer Aaron Glazer late Thursday disputed Personius' characterization of the incident, and said there was no evidence his client committed a crime of any kind.
The News also learned on Thursday that Achtyl recently got some good news in a police shooting case from last summer.
District Attorney John J. Flynn said investigators found "no wrongdoing of any kind" on the part of Achtyl and another deputy who both shot at an armed man exhibiting bizarre behavior outside a Springville convenience store on Aug. 5.
According to police reports, Achytl and Deputy John Dunn both shot at Nicholas Krencik, 35, of West Valley, as Krencik stood with a sawed-off shotgun outside the County Fair Store. The deputies shot at Krencik after he repeatedly refused to drop the weapon and pointed it in their direction, Flynn said, adding it is not certain that Dunn's shot struck Krencik. Krencik, who suffered injuries described by authorities as "non-life-threatening," recently pleaded guilty to felony charges of menacing a police officer and possessing an illegal weapon. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 19.
In that case, store security videotape helped to exonerate both Achtyl and Dunn, Flynn said.
"From everything we could see in the videotape, both deputies showed remarkable restraint," Flynn said.
That incident involving Krencik has "no connection" to the incident outside the Bills' stadium, Flynn said.
In December 2017, outside New Era Field, Achtyl and other deputies arrested a man in his 20s for throwing beer cans into a crowd during the tailgating revelry that precedes every Bills home game. One of the cans reportedly hit Achtyl in the elbow.
With the suspect handcuffed and in the back seat of a parked patrol car, his friend — Belsito — approached to ask where Achtyl intended to take him. Belsito is from the Hudson Valley and was in his first year at the University at Buffalo. He explained to Achtyl that he wanted to pick up his friend once he was released from custody.
The body camera video shows Belsito apologizing as he begins to speak with Achtyl. But from the start, the deputy fended off questions by telling Belsito to "beat it" or he, too, could land in jail. After Achtyl told Belsito three times to "beat it," a frustrated Belsito started to walk off. But then he turned to swear at the deputy, saying words to the effect of: "This is [expletive], do your [expletive] job," according to Glazer, Belsito's lawyer.
The state Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, has held that swearing at a police officer is not, in itself, illegal. Still, Achtyl burst from the passenger seat to arrest Belsito for swearing at him. Cellphone video taken by another Bills fan shows Achtyl clubbing the much taller Belsito with his police baton and Belsito doing little to defend himself.
Video from a camera worn by Deputy James W. Flowers shows Achtyl putting Belsito in a bear hug from behind and forcing him to the ground. Blood seeps from Belsito's nose and smears across one side of his face as he, too, is placed in the patrol car.
When they charged Belsito with resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and criminal mischief, Achtyl and Flowers wrote in court documents that Belsito swung his arms to resist arrest. Flowers' body camera video doesn't show this. Nor does the cellphone video that partly fills a gap in time when Belsito was out of view of Flowers' camera. The cellphone video shows Belsito trying to push the baton away from his neck, but Achtyl was already using force.
When county prosecutors saw the video, they dropped all counts against Belsito.
Glazer noted that the District Attorney's Office has reviewed videos of the incident.
"There is no basis for the deputy to have detained or arrested Mr. Belsito, let alone subject him to a vicious assault," Glazer said.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz issued a statement about Achtyl's arrest, saying the deputy should not be "wearing a badge representing the people of our county."
“While there are many good deputies in the Erie County Sheriff’s office, unfortunately the bad actions of one deputy can harm the reputation of all," Poloncarz said. "If a deputy lies to create an evidentiary premise for an arrest, that deputy is breaking the law and should not be wearing a badge representing the people of our county. Deputy Achtyl’s behavior in this matter has been unacceptable, inappropriate, and not representative of the honorable men and women who wear the uniform.”