Friday, November 30, 2018

What Happened Right after the 911 Call?

Recent posts have looked more closely at the circumstances surrounding my brother Mark’s truck fire that are unclear or confusing in the report of the N.Y. State Police investigation and related documents (see posts of July 30, August 30, September 29, and October 30, 2018, and official documents attached to this blog).  As is clear from those posts, there are a number of significant unanswered questions that the State Police investigation should have either probed or probed more fully.  This post considers what happened in the time between the 911 call and the arrival of the first emergency worker.

According to her witness statement, my brother's wife Susan was on the phone when she saw Mark’s truck on fire in the field across from their house.  As she explains, she “immediately called 911” and “then went out to the fire.”  She continues as follows: “I saw Mark crawling away from the truck, and I tried to put the flames on him out.”  She then says that she asked him, “‘What did you do?’ and he said, ‘I did nothing.’”  N.Y. State Trooper Chandler, who took Susan’s statement, began it at 11:30 p.m. (about thirty-five minutes after the 911 call) and ended it at 11:45 p.m.

It would appear that only a few minutes elapsed between Susan’s 911 call and the arrival of the first emergency worker, Cheryl Simcox, an EMT and a neighbor living on Cross Road, which intersects Whalen Rd. and is also located across from the field where Mark lay.  In her witness statement, Cheryl indicates that she heard Killbuck VFD being toned out for a vehicle fire on Whalen Rd. at 10:55 (presumably immediately after the 911 call was made) and that after getting dressed, she was “on the scene within two minutes.”  She goes on to say that Susan “was at the end of the driveway.”  Cheryl adds that Susan exclaimed, “Come on, we have to go put him out, that’s him on fire in the field.”

Susan does not mention in her witness statement that she discontinued her attempt to put the flames out on Mark and her query to him about what had happened (“What did you do?”) and then withdrew to the driveway.  As is evident from Cheryl’s statement quoted above, Susan wanted the two of them to go and extinguish the flames on Mark.  Susan clearly had already seen the truck burning while she was on the phone inside the house.

Had something further occurred while Susan herself went out to Mark on the scene of the fire?  When I asked Cheryl about her experience on the scene that night, she mentioned that she was surprised to see Susan standing at the end of the driveway.  N.Y.S.P. Inv. Edward Kalfas, however, makes no reference to this matter in his narrative in the police report.

Neither Susan nor Cheryl mentions in her witness statement how high the flames on my brother actually were.  But Cheryl told me that Mark was engulfed in flames two-feet high when she arrived on the scene (see also post of September 22, 2012).  According to Cheryl’s witness statement, Susan told her that she had tried to bat the flames out on Mark “with the white sweatshirt she was holding.”  Cheryl mentions that Susan also repeated that same thing to Trooper Chandler in her presence (“I tried to put him out with that sweatshirt.”).

Yet in her witness statement, Cheryl observes that the white sweatshirt, which Susan had put on a counter close by, “had a very light scent of smoke but was clean, no soot or skin on it.”  One would like some explanation for this considerable discrepancy.  But, once again, N.Y.S.P. Inv. Edward Kalfas makes no reference to this matter in his narrative in the police report.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Problem of the Gas Can

The previous post (September 29, 2018) raised the issue of the time frame in which my brother arrived home, received injuries to his head, left a pool of blood in his driveway, and finally ended up lying on fire in the field across from his house, with his truck engulfed in flames sixty feet away and a gas can on the floor of the passenger’s side.  As noted in that post, my brother's wife Susan mentions the gas can in her witness statement, indicating that Mark himself took it out of the garage that night.  This post takes another look at the evidence for the gas can the night of the truck fire.

How and why that gas can suspiciously ended up in the cab of Mark's truck was cavalierly brushed off by the State Police investigators.  They assumed without hesitation that my brother had put it there.  But Mark never put gas cans in the cab of his truck (see posts of September 22, 2010, and August 11, 2014).  Here are the explanations they offered me: (a) my brother fell asleep in the truck after driving it into the field and then lit up a cigarette with the gas can open in the cab; (b) he accidentally spilled gas on himself in a drunken state; or (c) he deliberately poured gasoline on himself in the truck as a way of committing suicide there (see post of February 2, 2012).  However, those scenarios are absurd in light of these facts: the pool of blood in his driveway (see post of May 29, 2012) and the head wounds my brother suffered (see post of September 24, 2016) in themselves contradict the sleep (whether from intoxication or not) and suicide theories posited by the State Police.

It is obvious that the State Police investigators simply took at face value what Susan says in her witness statement.  First, she states, “I heard a noise in the garage and I thought it was the cats,” but at the end adds, “After the fire, I realized that Mark had taken a plastic 5 gal. can of gas out of the garage but I don't know what he did with it.”  In addition, when Atty. Mike Kelly asked about the gas can in his meeting with Inv. Kalfas and Sr. Inv. Wolfe in 2005, Kalfas told Kelly that Susan stated she had bought the can of gas and at the time of the fire it was half-full because she had used it for mowing the lawn.  Susan’s assumption that Mark had taken that gas can out of the garage is odd since she states that she was waiting for him to return home that evening and obviously did not see him.

It is also unclear why Susan, as indicated in her witness statement, immediately assumed that the fire in the truck was ignited by gasoline from that can.  There are in fact numerous recognized causes for vehicle fires, including fuel system leaks, electrical system failures, and overheated engines or catalytic converters.  If my brother’s truck had had a fuel system leak the night of the fire, lighting up a cigarette would presumably have been disastrous.

But that is not what happened.  Examination of the truck by the fire investigation team determined that there were no mechanical problems leading to a fire (see fire investigator’s report through the link on this blog).  An accelerant (presumably the gasoline from the can) was used; the fire appears to have started in the driver’s seat area, where the heaviest damage was; and a gas can (presumably open) was found on the passenger’s side floor.

It does not appear from the police report that the investigators ever considered any other explanation for the appearance of the gas can in the cab of the truck other than that Mark himself had put it there (see esp. post of July 22, 2012).  They do not seem to have questioned Susan’s view that Mark had taken that gas can out of the garage.  However, her confident assumption should have been examined more thoroughly.  For one, she had no opportunity to check for the gas can in the garage, according to neighbor and EMT Cheryl Simcox, who remained with Susan from her arrival about 11:05 until 1 a.m.

Furthermore, in a conversation with an emergency worker who had been on the scene of the fire, I asked if the gas can had been common knowledge early on that night, for instance, through shouts about a gas can in the truck.  The emergency worker heard nothing about a gas can from others on the scene, and that individual learned of it only after the fire investigation team, which arrived at 11:30 [erroneously noted as 22:30 in the fire investigator’s report], finished its work.

It is thus very unclear how Susan was so certain about the gas can between 11:30 and 11:45, when she gave her witness statement to the State Police official then on the scene. The State Police should have considered other possibilities rather than assume that Mark had taken that gas can and put it in the cab of his truck.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

When Did Mark Return Home the Night of His Truck Fire?

The previous two posts (July 30 and August 30, 2018) dealt with the problem of the 911 call made by my brother’s wife Susan and the alleged phone call that reportedly took place for about half an hour between Susan and a man named Pete Rapacioli right before Mark’s truck fire.  Both of these calls also raise issues related to the actual time frame of the entire incident, which included injuries inflicted to my brother’s forehead and the left side of his face, a pool of his blood left in his driveway, his truck backed down from the driveway and parked around fifty feet into the field across the road, the driver’s seat area doused with gasoline from a gas can found in the cab of the truck, and Mark himself lying about sixty feet from the truck, with two-foot flames shooting from his entire body (see esp. posts of February 2, March 27, May 29, July 22, August 22, September 22, and November 22, 2012).

How long did all this take from the time my brother returned home that night and ended up with the fatal third-degree burns over most of his body?  Presumably more than a few minutes.  Since they insisted that Mark himself in a highly inebriated state somehow had caused everything that happened to him, the New York State Police should have thought hard about the time line but apparently did not.  The time frame, however, seems very unclear, as presented in Susan’s witness statement in the police report.  But since the State Police refused both to review the 911 call and to retrieve the phone records for the alleged phone call, the only information on the time frame disclosed by the police what Mark’s wife says in her witness statement.

The events obviously began after Mark’s arrival home, but nothing in the police report clarifies that point.  Here is Susan’s information on the issue: “At around 10:30 p.m. I was on the phone and waiting for Mark to return home.”  All one can gather from this statement is that, according to Susan, my brother had not returned home by 10:30. Susan does not make any direct reference in her witness statement to Mark’s actual return home but instead says, “I heard a noise in the garage and I thought it was the cats.”  Since she does not indicate anything unusual about the cats making some disturbance in their attached garage, this noise she mentions might well have been from the cats.

The terminus of the time frame, however, is clear in Susan’s witness statement.  After referring to the noise, she mentions that she noticed the fire in the field, called 911, went out to the fire, and tried to put the flames out on Mark.  All that, she indicates, happened by 10:55 p.m. She adds that after the fire she realized Mark had taken a five-gallon gas can from the garage.

However, neighbor and EMT Cheryl Simcox, who was the first person after Susan on the scene and who remained with her until around 1 a.m., reported something else to me.  According to Cheryl, the night of the fire Susan also told her that she knew Mark had been on the property right before the fire and thought that he had been going after gas.  To comprehend how that horrific series of events took place, one would certainly want to know how and precisely when Susan knew that Mark had returned home that night.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

More on the Alleged Phone Call Just before Mark’s Truck Fire

This post follows up on the previous post (July 30, 2018), which deals with the problem of both the 911 call made by my brother’s wife Susan and the alleged phone call that reportedly took place for about half an hour between Susan and an acquaintance of Mark’s named Pete Rapacioli.  Focusing on the alleged phone call, the current post discusses comments made both by former N.Y. State Police Senior Investigator John Ensell, who was lead investigator Edward Kalfas’s immediate superior, and by Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Rieman during my face-to-face interview with them in May 2010.

Michael Kelly, an experienced criminal attorney from Buffalo and former Assistant District Attorney in Erie County, emphasized that checking the phone records should have been a routine part of the investigation into my brother’s death, especially given the very poor state of Mark’s and Susan’s marriage, the pool of Mark’s blood found in the area off the driveway where he normally parked his truck, the wounds observed on Mark’s head, and the gas can suspiciously located in the cab of his burned-out truck.  Atty. Kelly thought it important not only to verify the call but also to determine if land lines or cell phones were involved, since individuals using the latter could potentially have been right on the scene.  Although Kelly tried to persuade Ensell’s replacement Sr. Inv. John Wolfe to retrieve the phone records, Wolfe ultimately refused to do it (see esp. posts of December 27, 2012; May 15, 2013; and April 19, 2014).

In my meeting with Rieman and Ensell (on which, see post of March 23, 2011), I pressed the issue of the phone records.  However, D. A. Rieman simply dismissed the facts that in Atty. Kelly's opinion made a compelling case for reviewing those phone records.  Instead, she provided two reasons why the phone records were not checked.  According to Rieman, there was no reason to believe that Susan had not been on the phone since Pete Rapacioli confirmed the call in his interview with the State Police investigator.  Rieman also insisted that “serious evidence of criminal activity” would have been necessary for requesting a subpoena for the records.

At this meeting, Rieman thus reversed an earlier statement to me in a phone conversation that it would be very interesting to know if that phone call really took place.  Furthermore, her reasons for rejecting the importance of those phone records seem illogical or arbitrary.  First, serious police investigators as a rule do not automatically take statements by witnesses, especially potential persons of interest, at face value and assume that those individuals are telling the truth but rather try to verify information given by them.

Second, one must wonder what in Rieman’s view would constitute “serious evidence of criminal activity.”  The following facts hardly seem trivial: a heated personal argument with a Salamanca policeman that ended with the police officer arranging for Mark to be arrested for DWI the very day before the truck fire; Mark’s truck found backed into the field across the road from his house, with a gas can inside the cab (where he never put gas cans); wounds to Mark’s forehead and the left side of his face observed by his attending physician at the burn unit; and the pool of Mark’s blood found in his driveway the night of the fire.  In the matter of the police officer who got into the argument with Mark and called in to have him arrested for DWI, a letter sent to me anonymously reported that the officer had been having an affair with my brother’s wife (see esp. post of August 11, 2014).  

During the meeting with Rieman and Ensell, I drew special attention to that pool of my brother’s blood.  Without considering all the suspicious facts, they both simply insisted that the blood was no evidence of a crime.  After mentioning “loose change” found in the same area as the blood (which seemed irrelevant and which he later acknowledged was a mistake on his part; see post of April 20, 2011), Ensell immediately took another tack.  He stated that his wife was the friend of a friend of a friend of Susan’s and that down the chain they all felt that Susan would never be capable of doing anything violent.

How are such subjective impressions even relevant to a serious police investigation?  At best, they should simply be peripheral information in the context of rigorous fact-finding.  Why, then, didn’t the State Police investigate the phone records to verify the existence and timing of the alleged phone call and, beyond that, inquire into its content?  They could thus have learned if the facts supported the feelings of Mr. Ensell’s wife and her friends.

It was very clear from my entire meeting with Rieman and Ensell how little had been done in the investigation to get to the truth about Mark’s death.  As one informed local official put it, “They didn’t do anything.”

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Two Problematic Phone Calls

This post considers the problem of both an alleged phone call and the 911 call in the investigation into the suspicious truck fire that claimed my brother Mark’s life.  It follows on the previous post (June 30, 2018), which raised concerns about the 911 call made by my brother’s wife Susan and also questioned the lack of any reference to a 911 call in the police report on Salamanca pharmacist Dale Tarapacki’s death in a similarly suspicious truck fire.

After assessing the police report, the fire investigator’s report, the autopsy report, and information gathered by me from individuals who were on the scene of Mark’s truck fire, attorney Michael Kelly thought it looked like a murder to him and wanted to get the investigation re-opened. He asked the N.Y. State Police investigators to review some of the evidence, including the 911 call, and to obtain the records for an alleged phone call between my brother’s wife and an acquaintance of Mark’s immediately prior to the truck fire.  As previously indicated (see posts of September 22, 2011, and June 30, 2018), senior investigator John Wolfe initially agreed but then changed his mind and refused to review the 911 call.  He also refused to check the records of the phone call Mark’s wife Susan and Pete Rapacioli claimed to have made for nearly half an hour just before my brother’s truck burst into flames in the field across from their house about 11 p.m. (on that call, see posts of December 27, 2012; May 15, 2013, April 19 and July 1, 2014; and October 25, 2016).

It is very unfortunate that the records for that alleged telephone call were not obtained and a review of the 911 call was not done, especially since further inconsistencies between the police report and other information relayed to me have come to light.  Pete Rapacioli telephoned me unexpectedly to complain that I had mentioned him in a post on the alleged phone call (see posts of May 15 and June 26, 2013).  According to Rapacioli, while he was on the phone with Susan, she told him that she “saw an orange glow in the distance” and was going to call 911.  Rapacioli insisted that he had not found out about Mark until the next day.  Here is what Susan, who mentions that she was on the phone at that time, says in her witness statement in the police report: “I saw fire out the front window of our house and after taking a closer look, I could see Mark’s truck across the street from our driveway on fire. I immediately called 911 and then I went out to the fire.  I saw Mark crawling away from the truck and I tried to put the flames on him out. I asked him what did you do [sic] and he said, ‘I did nothing.’”

Rather than referring to “an orange glow in the distance,” Susan clearly states that she saw a fire from the front window and quite quickly knew it was Mark’s truck across the street just before she called 911.  At any rate, one would presumably not rush to call 911 at the sight of a distant orange glow. Earlier posts have dealt with problems underlying Susan’s claim to have tried to dash the flames out on Mark (see September 22, 2010, and September 22, 2012) and with the issue of Mark’s ability to speak in the catastrophic condition of third-degree burns over virtually all of his body (see November 30, 2011). 

Furthermore, as mentioned in the immediately preceding post, an individual who heard the 911 tape not long after Mark’s truck fire referred to being troubled by the level of concern for Mark expressed by Susan in that 911 call.  According to my source, Susan also took quite a while in that same call before getting to the point about the truck fire.  Thus, there are important discrepancies between the account of my source and Susan’s account with respect to her interest in helping Mark and the time frame of her 911 call.  When specifically did she know that Mark had been so seriously burned?  Was it before or after she made the 911 call?

The failure of the N.Y. State Police investigators (a) to verify the existence and timing of the alleged phone call and its content and (b) to re-examine the 911 call seems to have been part of a pattern aimed at not finding out the truth about how my brother came to be burned to death.  Let us not forget that the investigators ignored the pool of Mark’s blood discovered that night right in the area where he normally parked his truck and discounted the wound on Mark’s forehead observed by his attending physician at the burn unit and by firefighter Wayne Frank when it was brought to their attention (see posts of September 22, 2010; May 29 and September 22, 2012).

Let us not forget that the investigators did nothing to determine (or rule out) a potential involvement in Mark’s death by Salamanca police officer Mark Marowski, who got into a personal argument with my brother the very day before the truck fire and then called in to have him arrested for DWI (see esp. posts of September 14 and October 17, 2014).  Let us also recall that, according to an anonymous letter sent to my home, my brother’s wife and Ofc. Marowski were having an affair (see post of August 11, 2014).  Is it merely coincidental that Pete Rapacioli’s son-in-law is the brother of a veteran Salamanca police officer (see post of December 24, 2013)?  Or was “the blue wall of silence” in full force?

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Problem of the 911 Calls in the Two Suspicious Truck Fires

This post considers the problem of the 911 calls in the investigation into the suspicious truck fires that claimed the lives of my brother Mark and the young pharmacist Dale Tarapacki.  The problems encountered in requesting the New York State police investigators to review the 911 call made by my brother’s wife Susan and in attempting to obtain a transcript and an audio of that 911 call were discussed in previous posts (September 22 and October 27, 2011), but the importance of that call needs clarification.

In the case of Dale Tarapacki, the existence of a 911 call is itself an issue.  Tarapacki was found burned beyond recognition in his truck, which was still on fire, at the remote end of Hardscrabble Road in rural Great Valley, N. Y.  The fire investigator’s report records that the alarm time was 2:45 p.m. and that a request for the Cattaraugus County fire investigation team (Cattfit) was made at 3:12 p.m. on April 11, 2005.  According to the report by the Sheriff’s office, “On 04/11/05, Detective Baker was requested to respond to the scene of a vehicle fire located at the top of Hardscrable [sic] Road in the Town of Great Valley.  Shortly after the initial request, Detective Baker was notified that there was a badly burned body inside of the vehicle.”   Another section of the police report states, “April 11th 2005 Sgt. Bryant was called and requested to respond to the scene of truck fire located at the end of Hardscrabble Road in the town of Great Valley. Cattfit was on the scene and an unidentified body was inside the vehicle.”  The time of arrival by Dets. Baker and Bryant is not recorded in the police report.

Surprisingly, neither the fire investigator’s report nor the police report indicates who initially discovered the truck fire and notified authorities about it.  This is essential public information that should have been in the report.  One would assume that someone made a 911 call, which brought Cattaraugus County firefighters and members of the Sheriff’s office to the scene.  That information is presumably important to have on record as a case develops, especially in instances with strange or suspicious circumstances.  On the one hand, a 911 caller may have more information than was stated in the call, and on the other, there are certainly documented cases in which the 911 caller himself or herself is responsible for the situation at hand.

The odd, remote location of Tarapacki’s truck, the extensive mechanical damage to the truck not connected to the fire, the severely burned state of Tarapacki’s body, the bullet wound to his right thigh, and the report of a head wound are part of a cluster of suspicious circumstances (see esp. posts of July 23 and August 24, 2016; February 26, April 30, June 13, November 30, and December 31, 2017; and February 28, 2018).  Although Tarapacki’s death was ruled an accident, too many facts suggest otherwise.  As mentioned previously, in a comment sent to this blog (on July 20, 2014, to the post of September 23, 2013), Tarapacki’s mother states that she is “convinced his death was murder.”  More recently, another member of Tarapacki’s family, who contacted me privately, affirmed that his family believes that he was murdered.  Thus, it seems especially relevant in Tarapacki’s case for the Sheriff’s investigators to have recorded the identity of the person who discovered the fire and made the 911 call and to have indicated if that person was interviewed.

The circumstances of my brother’s truck fire have quite a lot in common with Tarapacki’s (see esp. post of July 23, 2016), but in Mark’s case the police report makes it clear that his wife made the 911 call.  However, as the State Police investigators acknowledged, the marriage was in serious trouble (see, for instance, post of May 26, 2014), and a divorce was said to be imminent.  In addition, some of Susan’s statements about events the night of the fire, as recorded in the police report, do not seem to conform to what is known about the timeline of events and conflict with comments she was reported to have made orally (see esp. post of September 22, 2012).  Therefore, since the primary investigator in Mark’s case, Edward Kalfas, claimed that he could not remember Susan’s 911 call, in September 2005 Atty. Michael Kelly tried to persuade N.Y. State Police senior investigator John Wolfe to review the 911 recording.  Although Wolfe initially said that he would do that, he later changed his mind and refused to review the 911 call (see post of September 22, 2011).

After making a FOIL request to the N.Y. State Police to obtain a transcript and an audio of the 911 call, I was informed that they had not been able to locate the requested materials (see post of September 22, 2011).  After being informed that the Sheriff’s office preserves 911 calls, I made a FOIL request to the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s office, but was told that because it was not their case, they had not kept it and that 911 calls prior to 2010 “not previously recovered” were no longer preserved (see post of October 27, 2011).

Why would the State Police refuse to comply with Atty. Kelly’s request to review the 911 call, something that would have required little effort on their part?  Is it really plausible that the 911 recording was missing?  If the responses by the State Police and the Sheriff’s office seemed problematic at the time, they were even more so after someone who had heard the 911 recording expressed concern about it to me.  This issue was alluded to in a previous post (see July 1, 2014).  But, more specifically, my source was troubled by the level of concern for Mark expressed by Susan in her 911 call.  Shouldn’t that have been a matter for Inv. Kalfas to look into when he was investigating Mark’s death?