When Niagara Falls attorney James “Jimmy” LiBrize was murdered nearly 50 years ago, one of the rumors flying around was that the Mafia killed him.
But according to one of LiBrize’s daughters, the most powerful Mafia leader in Western New York history – Stefano Magaddino – assured her that the mob had nothing to do with it.
“My dad’s wake was at Magaddino’s funeral home. Before the wake, I saw him outside the funeral home," Anne M. Rice told The Buffalo News in a recent interview. “He told me, ‘Your father’s family and mine came from the same village. We would never do anything to harm your father. We're burying him here in honor of our village.’ ”
Magaddino died in 1974. No one ever was arrested in connection with the 1969 murder of LiBrize, a colorful and popular attorney who was killed in the building that housed his storefront law office.
A former singer, pianist and dancer in burlesque shows, LiBrize had the gift of gab and a long list of clients. He was active in Republican Party politics and many charitable organizations. He was well-known to many of the city’s cops, judges and criminals.
“Jimmy was a character, a very animated guy, one of those Type A personalities, always talking and running from one place to another,” recalled former Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John Chella. “Everybody knew Jimmy.”
Those who remember him said LiBrize had friends in all walks of life. But he also had at least one enemy.
Early on the morning of Dec. 29, 1969, someone tortured and killed LiBrize in the 1927 Niagara St. building where he lived and worked.
LiBrize was 58. His pajama-clad body was found in his living quarters behind his modest office by a 14-year-old girl who worked as LiBrize's office assistant. She found his body when she reported to work around 10 a.m., police said.
Niagara Falls police found a hammer, a knife and a can opener carefully laid out next to the body. Police said the killer repeatedly clobbered LiBrize over the head and slashed his throat.
A Niagara County coroner estimated that LiBrize was murdered at around 3 a.m.
The ferocious slaying shocked the community.
“Jimmy was so well-known that everybody was talking about it,” remembered Bill Gallagher, 72, of Lewiston, a former Niagara Falls councilman who later became a television reporter. “It was horrible.”
In those days, Gallagher was a young laborer for the city. His boss sent him to the murder scene one day after LiBrize was killed to remove a door that police wanted to examine for fingerprints.
“I’d never seen anything like that in my life,” Gallagher said. He found spatters of blood all over the place, with big puddles of blood on the floor and a pair of rubber boots sitting in one of the puddles.
“It looked like there had been a struggle, and Jimmy had been moving from place to place, possibly trying to get away,” Gallagher said. “From the get-go, the police seemed to know who did it.”
Retired Detective Frank J. Coney spent much of his 42-year career trying to prove that LiBrize was killed by one of his law clients, a Niagara Falls man whom LiBrize had represented in a lawsuit.
Police said the suspected killer was upset over LiBrize's handling of his divorce case.
"We had a pretty strong ID" from a witness who believed he saw the man leaving LiBrize's building after the murder, Coney said. "We felt we had strong evidence, but the district attorney said we didn't have enough."
The suspect was in his 80s when Coney tried to get him to confess as he lay near death in a hospital bed.
"I tried one last time to get him to talk about it," Coney said. "He looked up and told me, 'I'm not gonna make you a hero.' "
The suspect died of an illness in 2006.
"That was a real disappointment," said Coney, who retired in 2009.
LiBrize's daughter does not agree with the police theory on who killed her father.
“I knew him, he was a handyman who did work for my dad,” Rice, a Buffalo resident, said of the suspect. “I do not believe it was in that man’s makeup to kill someone. I believe my father was killed by someone who had a personal grudge against him, but I do not believe it was the man the police suspect. I also do not believe it was the Mafia.”
Rice said her usually upbeat father seemed "really depressed" in the last few days of his life. She now wonders if he knew something bad was about to happen.
Another individual questioned by detectives was a Niagara Falls man who pleaded guilty to assault and criminal possession of a weapon after a 1961 incident at the home where LiBrize lived with his wife and children. Police said the man assaulted LiBrize’s wife, Cora, and a “private policeman” who had been hired to protect the LiBrize home.
According to police, the man had an alibi for the murder – he was in Florida at the time.
The list of people in Niagara Falls who knew Jimmy LiBrize is a short one these days. One person who does remember him is another of Niagara Falls’ most legendary figures, plumbing contractor John Gross, now 83.
Gross is beloved by many people in the Falls for his acts of charity, but he’s also known as a politically connected businessman who served three federal prison terms for bribery, fraud, racketeering and other crimes.
Gross’ plumbing business – now run by his grandson – is across Niagara Street and a few doors away from the site where LiBrize was murdered, which is now a vacant lot.
“Jimmy was active and well-known in the community … a good guy,” Gross recalled. “The word on the street has always been that the police knew who did it.”
Why was LiBrize murdered? Current Niagara Falls police officials declined to speculate or comment on the case.
Gallagher said he heard that LiBrize had so many cases going at one time that clients sometimes felt he did not properly follow through on their cases.
“Jimmy was a hustler, always dashing from one place to another,” remembered Don Glynn, 82, a longtime Niagara Gazette reporter and columnist who retired last year. “I remember one time Jimmy rushed into a courtroom and began talking to the judge in a loud voice. The judge told him, ‘Jimmy, hold it, you’re in the wrong courtroom. Your case is next door.’ ”
But LiBrize was also known as a community activist who devoted many hours to good causes, including the Niagara County Easterseals drive, which he headed for several years. He served as an administrative aide to the late Earl W. Brydges, a state senator from Wilson. He ran unsuccessfully for Niagara Falls city judge and state assemblyman. He earned a degree in chemistry from Niagara University, a law degree and a doctorate in philosophy at the University at Buffalo.
Rice, now 68, remembers her father as “a good man, the most important person in my life.” She said he was a strong believer in education and protecting civil rights.
“I think about my father every single day. He would sometimes take me with him to the homes of clients. Some of them were the poorest people on the face of the earth,” Rice said. “He cared about these people.”
At the time of the murder, LiBrize was married with four children, but was “living apart from his family,” The News reported at the time. According to Rice, her father and mother were estranged and separated, but not divorced.
Cora LiBrize died in Colorado last year at age 89.
Chella, the former police commissioner who retired in 2012, said he does not believe the Mafia had anything to do with the murder. He added that he feels badly that LiBrize’s surviving family members will probably never know who killed him or why.
“For us, it’s an unfinished assignment,” Chella said. “Unfinished business. Very frustrating.”
Story topics: Cold Case Files