Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What Did Mark’s Neighbors Really See or Hear the Night of the Truck Fire?

This post considers further the issue of what my brother’s neighbors saw or heard the night his truck burst into flames in the field across from his house and he himself was found lying sixty feet away, with two-foot flames shooting from his entire body.  Photos of the area are included to help visualize some of the issues.

The original post (September 22, 2010) mentions various observations made by Cheryl Simcox in her witness statement and in conversations with me.  It is not necessary to reiterate that information here.  However, I draw attention to one important point mentioned in the first post: Cheryl, an EMT as well as one of Mark’s neighbors, told me that just before she was “toned out” and rushed to the scene, she heard an explosion, which shook their trailer.  When I informed Cheryl that there is no mention of an explosion in her witness statement, Cheryl expressed surprise and said that she was quite certain she had told the State Police investigator about it when he interviewed her.  Although it is not mentioned in the police report, there clearly was some kind of explosion, strong enough to shake the Simcoxes’ trailer.  It seems odd, therefore, that neither Dan Smith nor Eugene Woodworth, the other two neighbors with whom I spoke, mentioned anything about hearing an explosion.
Another point made by Cheryl has not previously come up in this blog.  I asked Cheryl the name of the neighbors who lived closest to the intersection of Whalen and Cross roads.  But she did not tell me because, she said, they had slept through the entire incident and did not know anything about what had happened.  Presumably, these neighbors told Cheryl that they had not woken up during all the commotion.  It is difficult to comprehend, however, how they could have remained asleep.  In addition to the sound of an explosion, there was undoubtedly a lot of noise from the sirens of emergency vehicles, such as fire trucks and police cars, and from the Medivac helicopter, which landed close by (as I was told, either in the field itself or in a nearby horse run). The photo below shows the location of the house of my brother’s closest neighbors on Cross Road (whose name I later learned is Pierce) on the upper right and Mark’s driveway beside the mailbox on the lower left.  The house clearly not only is close to Mark’s property, but also directly faces the field spanning one side of Whalen Rd.  It would thus have an unobstructed view of the spot where my brother lay burning and, sixty feet from Mark, of his truck (which had already been backed about fifty feet into the field from his driveway on Whalen Road).

The photo below shows the house of Mark’s closest neighbor on Whalen Road.  The driveway of this individual (whose name I was told is Jerry Collins) is adjacent to Mark’s property.  Did he not hear or see anything that night?


As mentioned in previous posts (September 22, 2010, and November 30, 2011), I also spoke with Mark’s neighbor Dan Smith.  When I asked what he had seen, he replied that he had been in his living room when he saw the truck on fire from the window and rushed to the scene.  When I asked if he had actually seen my brother, he replied that he had approached Mark, who spoke about ten words clearly to him, one of which was “Hi!” and the others he could not recall.  I have learned that Mr. Smith was not present with the firefighters (Gary Wind, Mark Ward, and Wayne Frank) who put out the flames on my brother.  Therefore, he must have seen my brother at the point when he was about to be placed in the ambulance for the Medivac airlift. 

Mr. Smith’s claim that Mark spoke several clearly intelligible words to him is problematic for a number of reasons.  First, the three firefighters who put out the flames on Mark could understand virtually nothing that he was trying to tell them: as reported in their witness statements, Gary Wind heard only the word “gas,” and Mark Ward, the words “gasoline can”; Wayne Frank told me that he could understand nothing at all, though it was clear that my brother was trying to tell them something.  Second, when my brother heard the voice of Gary Wind, the first firefighter on the scene, he called out, “Gary!” but said nothing else at that point.  As then deputy sheriff (now Salamanca Police Chief) Wind recently informed me, Mark could not see him because his eyes were badly burned.  How then did my brother recognize Mr. Smith and speak ten words to him?  Third, it is documented in the police report that on the airlift to the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo (which had to be right after any communication Mark allegedly tried to make to Mr. Smith) my brother could not communicate at all.  I emphasize this issue because the State Police and the District Attorney’s office used the claim that my brother had spoken with one or more individuals yet said nothing about foul play to insist that there was no evidence of murder.

As mentioned in a previous post (April 20, 2011), I also spoke with Mark’s neighbor Eugene Woodworth after another individual advised me to contact him because of information he had given to her.  In a conversation with Judy Bess, then office secretary of Our Lady of Peace Church, I learned that Mr. Woodworth had told her that just before Mark’s truck fire, he heard a commotion on Mark's property from outside his own place just up the road; he then saw my brother’s truck go down the driveway and into the field; when it burst into flames, he rushed over and helped to put out the fire on Mark.  Below is a photo of Whalen Road from just past Mark's property, with the Woodworth house on the right (if you enlarge the picture by clicking on it, a small bit of Dan's Smith's is just visible in the distance to the left of the shrub):

Assuming that he would confirm what Judy had told me, I called Woodworth but was surprised to hear something very different.  According to Woodworth, he saw lights flashing but did not have a clear view because of the trees on his property; as he started down the road toward the field opposite Mark's house, he met Dan Smith returning to his own house at the end of Whalen Road and learned about the fire; he himself never even saw Mark.  Woodworth added, "I thought that something happened on the property and surmised that Mark had backed the truck all the way across the road."

As also mentioned in the earlier post, I explained to Judy Bess the discrepancy between her conversation with Eugene Woodworth and my own.  She strongly maintained that she had reported Woodworth’s conversation with her accurately and expressed her regrets that he would not tell me the truth about what he saw the night of Mark’s truck fire.  She reiterated his account of hearing a ruckus and screams from Mark's property and then seeing the truck go into the field.  When I mentioned the time of the truck fire, Judy expressed surprise: she had assumed that it happened during the day because Woodworth told her he had been outside on his property.

It is unnecessary to repeat here in full the response of both former Sr. Inv. John Ensell, Inv. Kalfas’s immediate superior at the time of the truck fire, and current D.A. Lori Rieman when I told them about this issue.  But Mr. Ensell dismissed its importance and, after speaking with Eugene Woodworth, sent me an e-mail summarizing his interview.  I quote Mr. Ensell verbatim: “Basically down to a one-liner was that he saw yellow off in the distance, walked about half way down, and turned around and came back.  That anything said after that would have been purely speculation.”

It seems obvious that Mr. Ensell did not press Eugene Woodworth about what Judy Bess insisted he had told her.  Although D.A. Rieman asked Mr. Ensell to contact Judy Bess about the issue, he told me in late 2010 that he could not find a phone number for her but from time to time checked various data bases for her number.  As far as I know, he never did contact her.  In a recent Google search of my own, I found an address for a Judy Bess in Kill Buck.  Unless there is another person with the same name in Cattaraugus County, it would appear that Judy has returned to the area.  Couldn’t Mr. Ensell have found her by now and thus done what D. A. Rieman asked?

A few years after Mark was killed, I spoke with a childhood neighbor of ours who still lived on Swan St. in Salamanca.  Kathryn Krieger remembered Mark fondly, especially because he used to come over and chat with her husband, a U. S. Army Colonel in World War II who mentored local Vietnam era soldiers, and was unhappy about my brother’s death.  Mrs. Krieger told me that people who knew what had happened to Mark that night had not come forward because they did not want to get involved.  Is that the case with Mark’s neighbors?


  1. As an observer from my car while Barbara was talking with Dan Smith outside on his approach road, I couldn't see why he was so nervous answering her questions. In fact, why was he so nervous?

    1. Good question, Frank. I vividly recall your surprise as you asked me if I had noticed how Dan Smith "kept dancing around" the entire time I was talking to him about that night. His reaction seemed all the more perplexing in light of Cheryl Simcox's casual suggestion that I speak with Dan Smith because she remembered that he had been on the scene. Smith himself, though, insisted that he had been there only briefly. When I later told Cheryl about his nervous behavior, she found it very odd.