Quiet N.Y. Region Copes With a Crime's Aftermath
CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. — WHEN four bombs went off within 90 minutes of each other Tuesday evening, they shattered much more than lives and buildings in western New York. They destroyed a belief that violent crime - really violent crime - didn't happen in the quiet suburbs and rural towns here.
Smart detective work has led police to quickly round up two suspects. Just as important, it may help replace a mistaken belief with a positive perspective. If they take proper action, cities and suburbs are not helpless against crime, law enforcement officials say.
``What was important about this case ... was that before the 11 o'clock news, we pretty much knew what was going on,'' says local Police Chief Bruce Chamberlin. ``If we hadn't been able to do that, then I think you would have had a lot more fear.... And fear is probably as destructive as crime itself.''
Just one day after the bombings, which killed five and wounded two others, authorities charged Michael Stevens and Earl Figley with transporting across state lines explosives that killed two people in Rochester, N.Y. If convicted, the pair could face the death penalty. Homicide charges are likely, since the bombings apparently targeted family members of Mr. Stevens's estranged girlfriend, Brenda Lazore.
Fatalities included Ms. Lazore's mother in West Valley, N.Y., her stepfather, and a coworker here in Cheektowaga, a working-class suburb of Buffalo of more than 100,000 residents, and her sister, and a friend in Rochester. Another bomb wounded a relative in Hogansburg, N.Y., while police intercepted two others destined for relatives. Police see no precedent
``It's a difficult situation to understand how a family problem can rise to this level - even for someone in my line of work,'' says Detective Lt. Eugene Leahy of the Cheektowaga Police.
If homicides are rare in Cheektowaga - the two bombing fatalities were the town's first murders this year - they are completely unknown in rural West Valley, N.Y. At first, locals were devastated by the news, says Kathie Ford, a cook at the local Rainbow Pizza restaurant. Now, they're mad.
``I always was against the death penalty,'' she says. But recent concern about crime has convinced her to change her mind and to support stricter gun control as well. ``I have two grandchildren and I'm wondering what it's going to be like for them.''
If gun permits are any indication of people's security concerns, then those concerns are rising steadily here in Erie County. Every year, some 1,800 new gun-permit owners join the 60,000 or so county residents who already have gun licenses. ``For a lot of people in this community, having their own handgun provides them with a sense of security,'' says David Swarts, Erie County clerk. ``When you see an incident like what happened [this week] ... that only magnifies the concern.'' Perceptions vs. statistics
Public perceptions about rising crime are at odds with national statistics, which show a slight decrease in violent crime. But ``the perception thing is almost just as important as the reality itself,'' Chief Chamberlin says. A fearful public doesn't walk the streets at night and, at times, moves out altogether.
In his nearly four years in office, Chamberlin has tried several experiments to involve community support. Two years ago, the department started bicycle patrols of the business district. It has instituted quick-arrest procedures to keep domestic disputes from turning deadly. This summer, it began a community policing program, which involves various efforts to link residents' anticrime efforts with the police force.
The initial results are encouraging. Instead of a half-dozen neighborhood watch groups a few years ago, the town now has about 30. Crime declined about 15 percent in Cheektowaga during the first half of 1993 compared with the same period last year.
Good police work has helped to defuse fears stemming from the bombings. Local police found out within 20 minutes of the blast what trucking company had delivered the disguised bomb and, from there, learned of similar packages headed for other destinations. The Cheektowaga police also alerted authorities statewide, which caused West Valley officers to call when a bomb exploded there too. This allowed authorities to match the names of the first two known victims - they were husband and wife - and deduce that the bombings weren't random. That last fact has helped reassure Cheektowaga.
When he first heard the news about the bomb, Cheektowaga town supervisor Dennis Gabryszak remembered that he had driven by that location with his children just 15 minutes before the blast. ``You just never think of an event like that ever happening in this community,'' he says. ``What it does make you reflect on is where society is going.''
Twenty-five hours after the blast and just a stone's throw from it, Mr. Gabryszak stood before 200 people to be sworn in at the town's inauguration ceremony. He referred to the incident (``We are not immune from the ills of society''), but his speech was mostly a promise of responsive government.
Chamberlin, meanwhile, continues to preach his message of community involvement. ``Police business is everybody's business...,'' he says. ``It's not as if you have a choice.''