Sunday, June 30, 2019
Previous posts have pointed out disturbing similarities between the deaths of my brother Mark and a young pharmacist named Dale Tarapacki in Great Valley, N.Y. (see posts of July 23, 2106; February 26, June 13, November 30, and December 31, 2017; and February 28, 2018). This post considers the specific issue of the assumption by the investigating authorities that Mark and Tarapacki had both been operating their vehicles and were in the driver’s seat when their respective truck fires began.
In my brother’s case, the N.Y. State Police investigators had no reasonable explanation for why Mark’s truck would have been parked in the field across from his house at 11 p.m. He himself was found about sixty feet from the truck when the first emergency workers arrived. The location of the truck is especially troublesome because not long before the fire Mark had obviously pulled into his driveway and parked as usual in a paved section off his driveway where a pool of his blood was found shortly after police arrived. In addition, at least two emergency workers saw a wound on Mark’s forehead, and his attending physician at the burn unit of the Erie County Medical Center was concerned about deep soft-tissue swelling in that very area. Furthermore, Mark had no reason to put a gas can in his truck that night because his gas tank was three-quarters full (on the gas can, see esp. October 30, 2018). The State Police investigators, then, should have questioned how my brother could have driven his truck into the field and why he would have done so.
Since the Cattaraugus County District Attorney determined that there was no evidence of suicide or homicide, Mark’s death was declared accidental. Nevertheless, the State Police have insisted that Mark himself caused the truck fire by spilling gasoline while sitting in the driver’s seat, either accidentally or deliberately. Yet after being told by my brother’s attending physician at the burn unit that even Mark’s head had been doused with a flammable liquid, I questioned how Mark could have been sitting in the driver’s seat and spilled gasoline on that part of his body.
N.Y.S.P. Lt. Allen simply denied that the doctor could have known that Mark’s head had been doused with gasoline, insisting that only microscopic analysis of tissue would produce that conclusion. However, a forensics expert whom I consulted stated that the extreme nature of my brother’s burns—almost all third, but even some fourth, degree—would indicate that he had been doused with gasoline. He explained that when a person is doused with gasoline, even if his clothes are removed, the skin continues to burn. Mark, then, was clearly not sitting in the driver’s seat when gasoline was poured on his head.
In Dale Tarapacki’s case, the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s investigators apparently had no explanation for the strange location of his truck off an unpaved stretch of remote Hardscrabble Road or for his presence in the driver’s seat after the truck caught on fire. Although the Sheriff’s office denied my FOIL request for the police report on the investigation, I later received a copy from someone who had obtained it through a FOIL request (see post of April 30, 2018). Tarapacki, who was only twenty-seven years old, was “burned beyond recognition,” according to the police report. So why didn’t he get out of his truck well before that point?
According to an entry in the police report dated April 11, 2005 (the day of Tarapacki's truck fire), “Fire Investigators collected a sample of clothing and a piece of shoe and turn[ed] it over to Sgt. Bryant.” Another entry dated April 13 states, “Investigator Malak also turned over to me one quart can with pieces of clothing from the body of Dale S. Tarapacki which was placed into the evidence room for safekeeping.” It would appear that “me” refers to Capt. Robert Yehl, who co-signed the document with Sgt. Bruce Bryant. The police report, however, never indicates if those two items were tested for gasoline.
A possible explanation for why Tarapacki did not get out of the truck to save his life may be implied by a fact mentioned in the police report. An entry dated April 12 states that during the autopsy x-rays revealed a bullet which “appeared to be in the right rear thigh” and that the bullet was found “on the autopsy table underneath the body.” The police reportedly claimed that one of the two rifles found in the truck may have gone off in the extreme heat of the fire and hit Tarapacki (see post of April 30, 2017). Yet, if he was sitting in the driver’s seat, how could such a rifle shot have hit him in the rear side of his thigh? Tarapacki was presumably shot outside of his truck. Did he go back into the truck in an attempt to flee? Or was he forced back into the truck before it was set on fire?
Friday, May 31, 2019
This post considers the extent to which my brother was saturated with gasoline. As Dr. Edward Piotrowski, Mark’s attending physician at the burn unit of the Erie County Medical Center, mentioned to me in a phone conversation, he could not understand how my brother could have come in with such severe burns (third degree over nearly 90% of his body) and indicated that he had been saturated with a flammable substance. In an entry for September 24, 2003, of his narrative in the police report on Mark’s death, N. Y. S. P. Inv. Edward Kalfas notes that “portions of burnt clothing from the victim” were sent to the Western Regional Crime Lab in Albany. An entry for November 4, 2003, states that the melted gasoline can found on the passenger’s side floor of Mark’s truck and the burnt clothing “tested positive for gasoline.”
An earlier post (February 2, 2012) raised the issue of what clothing specifically is meant. It suggested that Mark's underpants were the likely item, since a neighbor of Mark’s named Dan Smith had told me that when he rushed to the scene, all my brother's clothes had been burned off except for his underpants. In addition, in his witness statement Gary Wind, the first firefighter on the scene, refers to Mark lying on the ground with “almost all his clothing burned off” and mentions two small spots close to where Mark lay burning in the field. In a meeting with me in 2012, Wind, then Salamanca police chief, clarified his reference to those spots by revealing that they were in fact some of Mark’s clothing, which he had presumably removed from his burning body.
No actual clarification about the specific clothing tested for gasoline was revealed to me until Capt. Steven Nigrelli mentioned in a phone conversation in 2014 that the items consisted of Mark’s shoes (presumably the boot-style shoes that my brother regularly wore) and burnt pieces of clothing, specifically from his jeans. The police investigators adamantly insisted that my brother was in the driver’s seat of the truck when the fire started and that he himself caused the fire by spilling gasoline from the can on himself, either accidentally or deliberately, and then by lighting a match or a cigarette lighter. Yet how, then, did Mark get a significant amount of gasoline on his shoes? If he was sitting in the driver’s seat, his legs presumably would have been stretched out, and it would have been highly unlikely that his shoes, or boots, would have been received any splash from spilled gasoline.
How much gasoline had actually been in that melted red plastic can? When Atty. Michael 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. There was presumably enough to be poured on Mark’s head, given what his attending physician told me about the severity of the burns to his head (see post of November 1, 2012). Yet my brother obviously would not have easily poured gasoline on his head if he sat inside his truck. But, then, Mark had no reason to have put a gas can into his truck late that night, in spite of his wife’s claim in her witness statement that she “realized that Mark had taken a plastic 5 gal. can of gas out of the garage.” The truck’s tank, as the fire investigator’s report makes clear, was three-quarters full.
The shoes that tested positive for gasoline are but one more indication of how poorly the New York State Police investigators thought through the evidence in the case of my brother’s death.
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
As previous posts (December 27, 2012; May 13, 2013; October 25, 2016; and February 28, 2019) have pointed out, the phone records for the night of my brother’s truck fire should have been examined. It is standard investigative procedure to check phone records, especially when a person is killed under suspicious circumstances and when the victim’s marriage is known to have been in trouble. In Mark’s case, the circumstances of his truck fire were suspicious: a pool of his blood was found in his driveway that night; the truck was parked fifty feet into the field across from his driveway; and a gas can was found in the cab of his truck, where he never put gas cans. The New York State Police also acknowledged that Mark and his wife Susan had serious marriage problems and were clearly approaching a divorce.
The State Police, then, should have obtained the phone records to verify Susan’s claim in her witness statement that she was on the phone for approximately half an hour prior to the fire. They should also have checked to determine if Pete Rapacioli initiated that alleged call, supposedly to speak with Mark about a football pool. If that call took place, the State Police should also have determined whether it was made by landline or cell phone (on both ends) and how long it lasted. By checking the phone records, they could also have learned how many times Rapacioli had called Mark’s house that day and how many calls had actually been received.
In addition, the landline records for Mark’s house might have indicated if other calls had actually been made or received by Mark himself that day (unlike his wife, Mark to my knowledge did not have a cell phone). Although Susan says in her witness statement that Mark was at home during the day, at least two acquaintances said that they had not been able to reach him, and one had expected a return call from him but did not receive it.
During the investigation, the State Police also did not check to learn if Mark’s wife went to work the day of the truck fire. If she did go to her job that day, Susan would not have known for certain whether Mark remained at home through the late afternoon. If she did not go to work, cell phone and landline calls could possibly have been made or answered by Mark as well as Susan. Susan could then have explained why Mark had not answered calls to his house made by friends that morning or afternoon. In 2005, Atty. Michael Kelly urged Sr. Inv. John Wolfe to find out if Susan went to work that day, but Wolfe apparently did not follow up on that request.
Rapacioli’s inconsistent statements to me about calling Mark’s house that day are also a matter of concern. Just weeks after my brother’s death, a friend of Mark’s encouraged me to call Rapacioli, whom I did not know, because he thought that Rapacioli might have seen Mark that day. Rapacioli then told me that he had tried to reach my brother early in the day, but made no reference to any call around 11 p.m. However, in 2013, when he called me to complain angrily about being mentioned on this blog (see post of June 26, 2013), he claimed to have tried to reach Mark numerous times throughout the day. When reminded of his failure to mention that (alleged) phone call around 11 p.m. back in 2003, Rapacioli did not deny it but retorted, “You knew about the call anyway.” In fact, I had known nothing about any such phone call in the period immediately after my brother’s death.
Another problem of consistency concerns a statement Rapacioli reportedly made to Mark’s and my cousin Dennis Pavlock. In November 2004, Dennis mentioned that he had run into Rapacioli at the Holy Cross Club (the place where, the day before his truck fire, my brother had got into a personal argument with off-duty police officer Mark Marowski, who then called the Salamanca police to pick him up for DWI). According to Dennis, Rapacioli told him that he had in fact spoken to Mark on the day of the fire. If that is true, what was the need for a phone call to Mark’s house around 11 p.m.?
Along with their dismissal of the pool of Mark’s blood found in his driveway that night and the wound to his forehead, the failure by the New York State Police investigators to obtain and examine the phone records for the day of my brother’s truck fire contradicts their claim to have conducted a “thorough investigation.” Such negligence could not have been the result of mere inertia or even simple incompetence on the part of the New York State Police investigators.
Sunday, March 31, 2019
This post revisits an important issue that the New York State Police failed to pursue to any degree in their investigation into my brother’s death: the allegation by Mark’s then twenty-three year old daughter Christie that he had left her a suicide letter. Three previous posts have discussed this problem (see September 22, 2010; November 23, 2013; and January 31, 2018). This post reveals that further efforts on my part to discuss the matter with a senior official of the N.Y.S. Police met with an entirely unsatisfactory explanation.
As previously mentioned, the night of Mark’s death, Christie informed me her father had left her a suicide letter but that she was not telling anyone else about this letter, except for her mother and brother, because she wanted to protect the insurance money. After I reported the allegation, which for various reasons seemed incredible (see November 23, 2013), Inv. Edward Kalfas brought the issue up with Christie in October 2003. As his narrative in the police report states, Christie denied knowing anything about a suicide letter. He then raised the issue with Mark's wife in December 2003. Susan replied that Mark had left “no notes or letters.” The issue was pursued no further in the investigation. When Atty. Michael Kelly asked State Police officials in September 2005 why nothing had been done about this claim of a suicide letter, Kalfas simply said that when Christie denied any knowledge of a suicide letter, he did not know what to do about it.
Then District Attorney Edward Sharkey knew that the investigation had discovered no basis for a suicide in Mark’s death and makes that clear in a statement in the police report dated December 30, 2003. Yet while they officially rejected the possibility of a murder (in spite of the pool of Mark’s blood found in his driveway and, as made known in 2005, the head wounds my brother had suffered), both Sharkey and the State Police publicly classified Mark’s death as an accident.
Privately, however, the authorities continued to consider his death a suicide. In May 2004, just after the investigation ended, Sharkey told Atty. Tony Tanke in a telephone conversation that Mark's death was either an accident or a suicide but he thought it most likely a suicide. Sen. Inv. John Wolfe told Michael Kelly in 2005 that he thought Mark’s death was more likely a suicide than an accident. When I brought up the alleged suicide letter in 2008 with D.A. Sharkey's investigator at the time of my brother’s death, Michael Malak replied that such a thing seemed unlikely to have been made up.
More recently, in August 2014, I again raised the problem of the alleged suicide letter in a telephone conversation with N.Y.S. P. Capt. Steven Nigrelli. I not only referred to the dubious nature of Christie’s claim but also mentioned information reported by my nephew Tom McKenna. According to Tom, Mark’s wife Susan had recently told his mother that he had in fact left a suicide letter (on the latter see November 23, 2013). I asked Nigrelli how one could justify this change of story ten years or so later. He then defended it by stating that relatives often do not want a suicide letter to affect the insurance and therefore initially deny it but later admit it.
If Nigrelli’s statement is true, it might well explain the contradiction between Susan’s denial of a suicide letter to Inv. Kalfas and her reported acknowledgement of it to Carol McKenna. However, again, if Nigrelli’s statement is true, it still does not explain Christie’s claim to me the night of Mark’s death that he had left her a suicide letter and her subsequent denial of it to Kalfas. If family members deny an actual suicide letter for insurance purposes, why, then, did Christie tell me about a suicide letter left to her by Mark? I have never been one of Christie’s confidantes. By the logic of Nigrelli’s assertion, Christie should have said nothing at all to me about any suicide letter.
Other information also makes Christie’s claim of a suicide letter dubious. In the period prior to Mark’s death, how close was Christie with my brother? A few years ago, I happened to have a conversation with an acquaintance of Mark’s daughter who knew her well. That individual mentioned being shocked at a comment Christie had made, specifically that she was ashamed of Mark and did not even think of him as her father. Not long after my brother’s death, his friend Todd Lindell mentioned that Mark had not been happy about the way his children treated him. With this information in mind, does it really seem plausible that Mark would have left a suicide letter to his daughter Christie?