Thursday, April 1, 2021, 9:50 p.m.
Friday will mark the 2nd anniversary of the establishment of the DA Bureau as part of the Erie County’s government (April 2, 1821).
Erie County’s District Attorney John J. Flynn announced that his office, along with Erie County, will celebrate its bicentenary on Friday. Flynn, who serves as the 41st prosecutor for Erie County, recalls the work of previous prosecutors and prosecutors by sharing the office’s history.
On April 2, 1821, Erie County was officially formed from a portion of the land previously ruled under Niagara County. Herman B. Potter, who previously served as a district attorney in Niagara County, was named Erie County’s first district attorney by the court. Erie County DA was an appointed position until the role became an elected official in 1847.
The Erie County District Attorney’s Office was originally located in the Buffalo Courthouse near Lafayette Square, now the location of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. In 1876, the district attorney’s office was relocated to Old County Hall, which housed offices for the county, the city of Buffalo, and the courthouse. The office was relocated to its current location in the Erie County Court building in 1964.
One of the most notable criminal cases handled by the firm was District Attorney Thomas Penney, who successfully prosecuted the case of Leon Czolgosz, the man who fatally shot President William B. McKinley during the 1901 Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo. The Erie County Prosecutor’s Office is the only local prosecutor’s office in the nation that convicts a presidential assassin.
Other historical cases tracked by the Erie County’s DA office include:
• In 1887, DA George T. Quinby prosecuted five oil managers, including three from the powerful Standard Oil Co., for conspiracy to violate trade and industry. The crime destroyed an independent oil refinery in Buffalo by convincing the foreman to sabotage the company. Quinby tried to tie Standard Oil to the conspiracy by putting its President, John D. Rockefeller, on the stand. He was unable to get a straight answer from Rockefeller, and the judge issued a judged judgment found not guilty of the three Standard Oil defendants. The publicity of the process, however, helped initiate a Congressional investigation that led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Years later, President Theodore Roosevelt would use that law to break up some of America’s biggest corporations – including standard oil.
• In 1889, DA Quinby persecuted William Kemmler for the common law murder of his wife with an ax handle. After Kemmler was sentenced, he became the first in American history to be sentenced to death from the electric chair. The office was in the middle of the War of the Currents, fierce competition between Thomas Edison’s DC and George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla’s AC. Edison and his allies ran a smear campaign against AC and had a Westinghouse dynamo used in Kemmler’s execution to show the public how dangerous it was. Hearings were held and the case went to the US Supreme Court, but the electric chair was found not to violate the Eighth Amendment. The execution went terribly wrong – although it resulted in Kemmler’s death – and a shaken Quinby collapsed on his way out of the death chamber.
• In 1893 and 1994, DA Quinby and ADA Daniel Kenefick persecuted several members of William F. “Blue-Eyed Billy” Sheehan’s political machine for attempting to steal local elections in Buffalo in 1892 and 1993 – including the office of DA . Sheehan was the governor of New York, and his heels’ tactics ranged from changing the results of the vote to attacking people trying to vote for an opposing candidate. No convictions were received as the juries were suspected of being manipulated by Sheehan, but the bad publicity broke Sheehan’s influence on local politics and ended his career in elected office. The stress of the election theft cases took its toll on Quinby, and in the middle of a resume he fell into Kenefick’s arms and burst into tears. He resigned after a nervous breakdown and died a year later at the age of 46. Kenefick succeeded him and became the first Irish-American prosecutor in Erie County’s history.
• In 1899, DA Thomas Penney successfully prosecuted David Nugent, the chief henchman of Dock boss William J. “Fingy” Conners, for shooting a worker who supported the Grain Scoopers Strike of 1899, one of the greatest job victories in American history .
• Following the KKK’s resurgence in the 1920s, DA Guy Moore prosecuted George Bryant, the KKK’s local leader, for violating the Walker Act, a law that required the KKK to disclose its membership. The charges came days after the death of Eddie Obertean, a former Buffalo police officer enlisted by Buffalo Mayor Frank Schwab to infiltrate the local KKK. After Obertean received the membership list, Bryant and a KKK investigator followed his car one evening, resulting in a confrontation. Obertean and the investigator opened fire and killed each other. The KKK membership roster was made public and the DA office successfully defended the constitutionality of the Walker Act in a case that went to the US Supreme Court. The KKK was never again present in Buffalo or any other northern city.
• DA Leo Hagerty hired the first female ADA, Winifred Stanley, in 1938 and the first African-American ADA, Robert Burrell, in 1941. He spent his entire nine-year career as a DA pursuing the local Mafia, particularly underboss Joe DiCarlo. During his first year as a prosecutor, the police had to guard Hagger’s home to keep his family safe. After Hagerty sentenced him a third time, DiCarlo left Buffalo saying, “There’s no point staying in town while Hagerty is a district attorney.”
Among the many high profile murder cases tracked by this office, the Erie District Attorney has convicted three known serial killers.
• Altemio Sanchez, also known as the “Bike Path Rapist”, has been prosecuted by then Assistant District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, who was later elected District Attorney. The defendant raped and murdered at least three women between 1990 and 2006, but is believed to have been responsible for numerous sexual assaults in the Buffalo area since 1975. Sanchez pleaded guilty to three murders in the third degree. He is currently serving a 75-year sentence in the Clinton Correctional Facility Prison.
• Joseph G. Christopher, also known as “The .22 Caliber Killer”, has been prosecuted under the leadership of former District Attorney Edward C. Cosgrove. The defendant, who terrorized the African American community in 1980, was convicted of the murder of four men. He is also believed to be responsible for the deaths of two other black men. He died in the state prison in 1993.
• J. Frank Hickey, also known as the “Postcard Murderer”, was convicted of murder in 1912. He was responsible for the deaths of at least three people, including two boys. He sent a gruesome postcard to the family of one of his victims. He died in the state prison in 1922.
“When I started my second term, it was my privilege to serve as the district attorney for the people of Erie County,” said Flynn. “I work with prosecutors and staff in my office to make this community a safe place to live by holding criminals accountable and bringing justice to those affected. I would like to acknowledge the work of my numerous predecessors who strived to do the same for the people of Erie County. “
In order to preserve the history of the office, Assistant District Attorney David A. Heraty gathered information on those who previously served as District Attorney in Erie County. This information is in the DA office library in the Erie County Court building (pictured). ADA Heraty is currently working in the office’s appointment office.