Long Story Short: A crime is solved; a problem remains

Diane Wolfe with a grandchild

Police stories

There have been numerous calls recently to defund the police, though the phrase itself can be misleading. It’s usually intended to mean redirecting a good chunk of funding away from police departments to other locally funded government agencies better suited for many of the jobs cops currently do. Police can’t solve homelessness, drug addiction, or poverty. Since the days of West Side Story, gang crime and violence has only gotten more sophisticated. What’s needed instead are jobs, quality education, economic investment, health care, and social workers with roots in the community, among other things.  

What defunding the police doesn’t mean is abolishing policing altogether, though some advocates do push their rhetoric to this extreme, as in the unfortunate case of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. At an emotionally charged protest rally in that city, a bullhorn wielding organizer on an elevated platform demanded a yes or no answer as to whether Frey supports defunding the police. Wearing a pandemic mask reminiscent of a hostage muzzle, the slight man gazed upward at his inquisitor, and asked, "Abolition of it?" The woman answered in the affirmative. Frey shook his head no. He was immediately forced to leave the protest through a gauntlet of demonstrators shouting, "Shame, shame, shame"—like Cersei Lannister, but without the bad haircut and compulsory disrobing.

Cops in the news

Stories like the one last week in LSS, about Buffalo Police Lt. Michael DeLong, don’t do anything to polish the image of police. DeLong called a woman a vulgar phrase, which was caught on video. It got him suspended without pay, which seemed like an appropriate response that might teach him a lesson. Later, we learned that DeLong had previously been suspended four times, and is the subject of thirty-six misconduct complaints, including thirteen involving use of force. This sort of behavior—and much worse—appears to be endemic in police culture.

Shocking data

One of the few things in which the US. leads the world is filling prisons. With only five percent of the earth’s population, we have twenty-five percent of its prisoners. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color, resulting in what is often described as mass incarceration. There are 707 U.S. prisoners for every 100,000 citizens, while communist China has between 124 and 172 per 100,000, and Iran has 284 per 100,000.

Policing tactics such as "stop and frisk," "broken windows," checkpoint roadblocks, "aggressive order maintenance," and "zero tolerance" have led to police overenforcement. What does that mean? Approximately 10.5 million American citizens are arrested each year, the majority of which result in dismissed charges. Many local governments use police as supplementary tax collectors, running up traffic citations and other fine-generating violations. 

Most citizen interactions with police involve people in cars, but accidents and traffic infractions don’t require armed officers. Ten to twenty percent of police encounters involve mental illness, alcoholism, or drug use, as with the DeLong case, where ten officers arrived to deal with one drugged individual.  A quarter of all people suffering from mental disorders have been arrested; some have been killed.  

The war on drugs has been a complete failure. Rather than focusing on treatment, tens of thousands of people are arrested, jailed, or even killed over low-level offenses, while drug use continues unabated. Various forms of loitering laws—many targeting the homeless—increased in the U.S. by fifty-three percent between 2006 and  2016.

Is it any surprise that people are outraged? Many believe that free public transportation, living wages, affordable housing, neighborhood investment, equitable education, and increased social services would be a better tax investment than a heavily armed police force. No wonder we’ve reached a cultural tipping point.   

The story takes a sudden turn

Diane Wolfe was my cousin. Actually, more than that. When her father died young, my dad served as something of a surrogate parent for Diane and her sister Karen. Diane visited our home frequently, went on vacations with us, and served as a babysitter until I grew too rambunctious to handle. I became a lifelong Marylin Monroe fan after watching Let’s Make Love on TV with Diane. That’s when I first realized Monroe had a naughty reputation. Diane must have said, "oh, my" a few times. She was a pretty restrained girl, not your typical giggly teenager. She was also a science fiction movie fan, but she didn’t like Star Wars. More fantasy than science fiction, she said.

As a married adult, she and her husband Roger joined my parents’ bowling team, and the couple continued making regular visits until my parents died. Their three children are now grown and have kids of their own. Diane had six grandchildren. A couple years ago, Roger passed away, leaving my cousin alone in her Tonawanda home. At age seventy-one, she was still working as Library Administrative Coordinator at Canisius College when COVID-19 broke out.

The peddler

In early April of this year, Joshua Wilson, age twenty-two, was in Diane’s neighborhood with a woman and two children, selling gift cards. Diane bought an Outback Steakhouse card worth $25 and paid an extra $10 tip. I imagine she empathized with what appeared to be a family struggling amidst the pandemic.

On May 4, police allege, Wilson returned about 11 p.m. to rob my cousin. During the burglary, he used a garden tool from the garage to bludgeon her to death. The assailant took her credit cards and stole her 2019 Honda CRV. On the morning of May 6, her son Jason found her.

A made-for-TV case

By all accounts, the Tonawanda Police did a remarkable job following clues and putting together pieces of what would otherwise quickly become a cold case. At a press conference this past Friday, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn called the events leading up to Wilson’s arrest a "made-for-TV, Dateline show." Tonawanda Supervisor Joe Emminger agreed.The hunt for the killer was major undertaking, with assistance from Buffalo police, U.S. marshals, and police in Utica.

It was the Utica police who noted that credit cards of a Western New York murder victim were used at a local Walmart and liquor store. On May 7, Diane’s stolen car was located by Utica police. Inside were Khaliq Hussein, twenty-eight, and Zenas Reed, twenty-two. They were arrested and charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and possession of stolen property. Neither was the assailant, though they have a connection to Wilson, which police are not yet disclosing.

Authorities are tight-lipped about details, but it’s likely that Diane’s killer was aware he was under suspicion. After an arrest warrant was issued for Wilson, he managed to evaded police and U.S. marshals for many days. In the end, it was a foolish move that led to his capture. "He was dumb enough to try to cross into Canada when Canada is still shut down," explained Flynn, "additionally in a stolen vehicle." Peace Bridge authorities get the credit for his arrest.

The charge

Joshua Wilson is in Federal custody on a second-degree murder charge, with other possible charges pending. He was arraigned Friday morning and is being held without bail with a felony hearing scheduled for July 31. The prison term for second degree murder is fifteen to twenty-five years. That’s assuming he is not allowed to plea-down and serves the full sentence.

Aggrieved families of crime victims often bemoan what seem like light sentences for murder. If convicted, Wilson could potentially be out of prison while still in his late thirties. At most, he’ll be in until his late forties, unless further charges add more time. 

Conflicting thoughts

I am of two minds. Like many, my impression of the police is badly tarnished by their repeated acts of unprofessional behavior, often caught on camera. Just weeks ago, I wrote that we not only need to rid ourselves of the rotten apples in policing; we must also chop down the diseased tree they sprout from.  

But, like two divergent entities simultaneously existing in parallel universes, I also feel immense gratitude for the police who worked on my cousin’s murder case. When there’s no one else to help, it’s the cops we turn to. Thanks to the tenacious efforts of Tonawanda Police Chief James Stauffiger, and Detectives Mark Scranton, Jeff Campanella, Gary Reinhart, and Mark Muscoreil, our family is closer to what may be some sort of closure.

Victory lap

Supervisor Emminger and District Attorney Flynn used the press conference announcing Wilson’s arrest to condemn police defunding. It was perhaps understandable, given the self-inflicted morale-pounding law enforcement has recently taken. "I’ve heard a lot of dumb ideas in my life," said Flynn, referring to the defunding calls, "but that may be the top of the list. I have no problem with mental health professionals working with police agencies. I have no problem with social workers working with police agencies. But at the end of the day who’s going to solve this crime?" These officials were clearly buoyed by their success.  

It’s notable that the work of solving my cousin’s murder didn’t involve guns, armor, choke holds, or no-knock warrants. The Utica police were likely armed when they pulled over the stolen Honda in Utica, but that was a targeted action, not a random routine traffic stop.

A defunded police force would still have investigators, perhaps working alongside social workers familiar with the community. But it would reduce traffic checkpoint stops, anti-loitering enforcement, student mentoring, overdose treatment, mental health intervention, counseling, low level drug busts, and dispute mediation. The city would divest from police and invest in public safety and economic security for the most marginalized. Spend more funds on mental health, social work, anti-violence groups, medical care, and economic development; treat low-level drug violations as a public-health problem. Then, the thinking goes, there would be fewer crimes for police to solve.

Final thoughts

If Wilson is guilty, he deserves the harshest penalty the law can deliver. I have no wellspring of compassion in my heart for a man who showed none for my cousin. There’s no excuse for his abhorrent actions. But there are myriad reasons. People aren’t born evil. Malevolence is learned. Criminal activity comes with poverty. If we address the causes of crime, people like Diane will be safer.

Fun again? Wow!

We can all use some good news, so it was nice to hear that recently closed Fantasy Island amusement park might yet reopen. Just how good this news is depends on your relationship with the park. In February, LSS ran a story on the closing that began, "A fond childhood memory for many area residents born after 1949 has bit the dust." Sad news for many, but like the villainous Black Bart—who was shot and fell to the ground in the park’s Western Town 28,678 times over the years—Fantasy Island may be getting back up and dusting itself off.  

What had me waxing nostalgic about the park was the idea that it was gone. I hadn’t actually been there more than once in the last forty years. But it was somehow reassuring to glimpse the place while driving over Grand Island on the 190.

The closing and aftermath

Earlier this year, the Apex Park Group of California, which had been running the park, had failed to pay its monthly rent. STORE Capital, a $6 billion Real Estate Investment Trust Company that purchased Fantasy Island in 2016 from Martin DiPietro for a reported $11 million, announced that the park would close, and the rides would be sold off.

This was a blow to Grand Island leaders, who see the park as a major economic asset. When the park’s general manager finally departed the site for good in April, Fantasy Island become the target of vandals and trespassers, who caused extensive damage. Some even posted YouTube videos of the abandoned property, which went viral, attracting more trespassers.

A villain to the rescue!

Fantasy Island is particularly known for its Old West show. What the park really needed was a hero to ride into town and save the day. It was, however, the park’s most notorious villain who came to rescue the park. None other than Black Bart himself, played by businessman and park character actor Bill Baldwin, along with George Marenna Jr., president of Connecticut based Marenna Amusements is trying to revive Fantasy Island. They call themselves Empire Adventures, and they hope to partner with STORE Capital to reopen the park in the spring.

STORE Capital hired the Georgia-based Alliance Property Services, which has since been providing security on the grounds while they clean the debris caused by vandals. Alliance is compiling an analysis of the damage for the owners.

Meanwhile

STORE Capital proposed a fifteen-year lease of the property to Empire Adventures, which became a letter of intent. It’s a testament to the fondness people have for the little park that, since word leaked out that Baldwin and others were trying to keep the fun alive, Western New Yorkers are lining up to help. Flying Bison Brewing Company owner Tim Herzog has joined the effort, as have former Grand Island Deputy Supervisor Jim Sharpe, Grand Island Chamber of Commerce President Eric Fielbelkorn, and three generations of the Vitko-Woods family.

We hope that by this time next year, families will once again be able to visit Fantasy Island, and maybe even getting deputized before the big shootout. You can learn about the plans to bring back the park on the Empire Adventures website. 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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