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.”