Sunday, September 29, 2019

More on My Brother’s Whereabouts the Day of His Truck Fire

This post revisits the issue of my brother Mark’s whereabouts the day of his truck fire, considering specifically individuals who mentioned their failure reach him by phone or to see him that day.  The only formally documented information about Mark’s whereabouts the day of the truck fire is recorded in his wife Susan’s witness statement (see the link at the top right for “police report”).  There, Susan says that Mark was at home in the afternoon “slightly intoxicated,” that they had been watching television in the early evening, and that he left the house about 8:45 p.m. to go to “downtown Salamanca.”

Alexis Wright informed me that her husband Jim, a friend of my brother’s, could not reach Mark when he called that day but added that when they drove by about 5:30 p.m., they noticed his truck parked by the house (presumably in the usual area off the middle of the long driveway).  However, they did not see Mark himself or go to the house (see posts of August 22, 2012, and March 3, 2014, for Susan’s response to Mark when Alexis and Jim Wright drove him home from his DWI arrest the day before).

Mark’s friend Jim Poole informed me that my brother had returned a call from him the previous evening (the day of his DWI), leaving a message that he would explain why he hadn’t come over to help him paint that day, but he said that Mark never got back to him.  Jim explained that he then called my brother’s house the next day (the day of the fire) to speak with Mark directly, but again got no answer.

It is unclear why there was no answer when both Jim Wright and Jim Poole called Mark’s house that day.  It would certainly be very unusual for my brother not to answer the phone when he was home (see also post of March 3, 2014, on comments that Mark had been locked out of the house on several occasions).

Mark’s acquaintance Pete Rapacioli told me just weeks after Mark’s death that he had called, but failed to reach, Mark early on the day of the fire.  He indicated that he had been expecting to get Mark’s results from a football pool in order to determine the winner.  However, in a phone call to me in June 2013 to protest about being mentioned on this blog, he insisted that he had tried numerous times “throughout the day” to speak with Mark by phone but could not reach him.  Which was it: once or numerous times?

Furthermore, in that call to me in 2013, Rapacioli also stated that no one had seen Mark the entire day of the truck fire.  Yet he also said that he had been on the phone with my brother’s wife Susan, having a conversation that, according to her witness statement, lasted from about 10:30 to 11 p.m.  It seems very odd that Susan would not have mentioned that Mark had been at home with her for much of the afternoon and early evening, especially given Rapacioli’s stated insistence that he had tried to reach my brother so many times that day but could not reach him.

As mentioned previously on this blog (see esp. posts of December 27, 2012; May 13, 2013; and April 30, 2019), that alleged phone call between Mark’s wife and Pete Rapacioli was never verified by the N.Y. State Police investigators.  When later requested to check the phone records for that alleged call by Atty. Michael Kelly, Senior Investigator John Wolfe refused to do it.  As Kelly observed, given the circumstances of Mark’s death, that was basic police procedure and should have been done.  What possible motive could the State Police investigators have had for not checking those records?

Saturday, August 31, 2019

More on the Issue of Mark’s Blood Alcohol Level

This post raises questions about the blood alcohol level that authorities emphasized as a primary factor in my brother Mark’s death.  According to New York State Police investigators, because he was said to have had an extremely high blood alcohol level, Mark caused the fire that claimed his life by spilling gasoline inside his truck, either accidentally or deliberately, and then lighting a cigarette.

Two previous posts (September 1 and October 29, 2013) have discussed problems with the N.Y. State Police theory about how Mark’s truck came to be fifty feet into the field across from his house the night of the fire.  Tire tracks observed by emergency workers on the scene indicated that the truck went down the long driveway in a straight line and then into the field across the road.  The State Police insisted that Mark could have backed his truck straight down that driveway and fifty feet into the field even with an approximately .46 blood alcohol level (calculated from a .25 post-mortem serum alcohol level).

However, the police record for his DWI the day before contradicts that assumption.  According to the DWI report, Mark, with a .28 blood alcohol level, was “weaving back and forth in [the] lane” and “failed to keep right.”  With any higher blood alcohol level, then, he would at least have been weaving back and forth; with a .46, he could not possibly have driven the truck in a straight line.  In fact, if he really had a .46 blood alcohol level, my brother would almost certainly have been in a coma, if not actually dead.  Moreover, he had head wounds, including evidence of a blow to his forehead (see esp. post of January 29, 2019), that would have made driving his truck to any extent whatsoever virtually impossible.  Someone else had to have backed that truck into the field.

Mark’s attending physician at the burn unit insisted to me that the .25 post-mortem serum alcohol level recorded in the autopsy report (=.46 blood alcohol level at the time of the truck fire) had to be wrong.  A forensic toxicologist whom I consulted agreed with Mark’s attending physician that the .25 post-mortem serum alcohol level was hard to believe and outlined the scientific bases for that conclusion (see post of September 1, 2013).  He also added that lab technicians frequently make mistakes in recording blood alcohol levels, often reversing digits.  (There was an obvious sloppy mistake in the autopsy report, which records Mark’s height as 5 ft. 7 ½ in. instead of 5 ft. 11 ½ in.)   Furthermore, as previously mentioned (see esp. post of August 11, 2014), an anonymous letter sent to me revealed that shortly before the fire Mark had been at the house of a neighbor, who insisted that he could not have been so intoxicated as the authorities claimed.

It is also relevant that Mark’s wife Susan says in her witness statement that shortly before the fire she heard “a noise” in the garage that she thought was from the cats but later realized that Mark had taken a gas can out of the garage (see the police report by the link on the side of the blog).  It is difficult to understand how Mark’s wife could have known about the gas can right after the fire (see post of September 29, 2018).  But the State Police investigators clearly did not pursue the implications of those comments, which Susan made the night of the fire. 

If Mark had a .46 blood alcohol level, it seems impossible that he could have gone through the garage door by the side of the house (see photos by the link on the side of the blog) and walked through that space without stumbling and bumping into objects, making a lot of noise in the process.  As the arrest report for his DWI the day before indicates, Mark with a .28 blood alcohol level exhibited poor motor control and failed a variety of sobriety field tests, including “walk and turn,” “one leg stand,” and “finger to nose.”  Thus, if he was even more intoxicated the night of the fire, his wife would presumably have checked to see what was going on and would have reported much more than hearing a simple noise in the garage.

The New York State Police investigators, of course, knew about Mark’s DWI the day before the fire.  They were also aware of the highly problematic circumstances leading up to that DWI (see esp. posts of April 18, 2013, September 14, 2014, and June 21, 2016).  In particular, after being involved in a personal argument with my brother at a local club, off-duty police officer Mark Marowski called in to the Salamanca police to pick Mark up for DWI on his way home.  Marowski and my brother had reportedly got into arguments at that club on multiple occasions.  It was also well known that Marowski had serious problems with both drugs and alcohol (and, ironically, was later picked up for DWI himself).

It is troubling that apparently nothing was done to investigate Marowski himself for possible involvement in the events that ended in the suspicious truck fire that took my brother’s life.  The claim of an affair between Marowski and Mark’s wife (see post of August 11, 2014) makes that failure seem all the more like an example of police protecting other police.  Who else might the police have been protecting?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

More on the Alleged Suicide Letter in the Deaths of Mark and Dale Tarapacki

Previous posts have brought up the issue of a suicide letter allegedly left by my brother Mark (see September 22, 2010; November 23, 2013; January 31, 2018; and March 31, 2019).  In addition, the post of January 31, 2018, refers to a report by two individuals that the young pharmacist Dale Tarapacki, who like my brother was burned to death in a suspicious truck fire in Great Valley, N.Y., also allegedly left a suicide letter.  This post adds further information about these two alleged suicide letters.

In a telephone conversation with N.Y.S.P. Captain Steven Nigrelli in 2014, I raised the problem of inconsistencies about an alleged suicide letter left by my brother (see post of March 31, 2019). Specifically, I brought up the following: the claim made to me by my brother’s daughter Christie the night of Mark’s death that he had left her a suicide letter, which she subsequently denied to the State Police investigator; the denial of a suicide letter by my brother’s wife Susan to the State Police investigator; and the report of a much later claim by Susan that Mark had in fact left a suicide letter.  Capt. Nigrelli responded by insisting that family members often deny the existence of a suicide letter in order to protect the insurance money but later admit it.  His explanation, however, did not take into account why Christie would have made the claim of a suicide letter to me at all.

Moreover, in his effort to justify the inconsistencies of those claims about a suicide letter, Capt. Nigrelli referred to Mark’s death as “autoerotic.”  In the circumstances of my brother’s death such a claim, implying an effort by the victim to achieve sexual gratification, makes no sense.  Autoerotic deaths are not very common in the U.S., and the majority of cases involve asphyxiation by hanging or ligature (see A. Sauvageau and S. Racette, “Autoerotic Deaths in the Literature from 1954 to 2004: A Review,” Journal of Forensic Sciences 51, 2006, 140-46).  Furthermore, autoerotic deaths are by nature unintentional; they are accidents, not the result of suicide.

That bizarre explanation by a New York State Police official also failed to account for the wounds on my brother’s head.  Two emergency workers on the scene of Mark’s truck fire and his attending physician at the burn unit observed a wound to his forehead, and a CT scan, according to Mark’s attending physician, revealed further soft-tissue damage to the left side of his face (see esp. post of January 29, 2019).  Capt. Nigrelli’s attempt to justify the failure of the State Police investigation to pursue the problematic claim of a suicide letter is simply ludicrous.

In Dale Tarapacki’s case, in addition to the reference to a suicide letter by two individuals, an entry in the police report by the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Department dated 4/11/05 (the day of Tarapacki's truck fire) summarizes the results of a search of Tarapacki’s house.  The relevant section concerning an apparent suicide letter reads as follows: “Sheriff John found a note apparently hand written by Dale Tarapacki which made mention that Tarapacki would be in a mind state of hurting himself.”

The language referring to this note is imprecise and unclear (see post of May 31, 2018).  Did officials check to determine if this note was actually rather than merely “apparently” written by Tarapacki?  What does the vague phrase “would be in a mind state of hurting himself” mean?  Why doesn’t the police report actually cite the specific language in that note found by Sheriff John?  An individual who knew Tarapacki well reported that far from intending to take his own life, shortly before his death Tarapacki feared for his safety.

Tarapacki as a pharmacist knew—and actually told an acquaintance—that there were peaceful ways of ending one’s life.  His actual death in the truck fire that burned his body beyond recognition hardly represents a “peaceful” way out.  Finally, the bullet wound to the rear side of his right thigh clearly wasn’t inflicted by Tarapacki himself and couldn’t have hit him accidentally as he sat in the driver’s seat of his truck.  How is it that the Sheriff’s investigators apparently never considered foul play in Tarapacki’s death?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Problems concerning Mark and Dale Tarapacki in the Driver’s Seat of Their Burning Trucks

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

Mark's Gasoline-Soaked Clothing

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.