A 26-year-old Rochester-area man ejected Thursday night from the Buffalo Bills game was found dead Friday morning in a small creek near Ralph Wilson Stadium, amid reports that the team’s first home night game since 2008 was one of the rowdiest in memory.
The mysterious death, apparently by drowning, raised numerous questions Friday about how the young football fan died and what role security at and around the stadium may have played in his death.
“They came to go to a football game,” Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said. “Not to have this horrific event happen.”
David Gerken Jr., 26, of Palmyra, about 20 miles southeast of Rochester, went to the evening Bills game with his brother and friends and was wearing an orange knit Dolphins hat, Orchard Park police said.
At around halftime, stadium security officers ejected him from the game, Orchard Park police said. Investigators are trying to determine why.
Gerken made arrangements with friends to meet up at Tailgaters Bar and Grill at Southwestern Boulevard at Abbott Road, Orchard Park Police Chief Andrew Benz said.
The brother and friends asked Gerken if he wanted them to join him then.
“He said, ‘No, after the game was over,’ ” Benz said.
But when the game was over, Gerken was nowhere to be found.
At about 12:30 a.m., the brother called Orchard Park police to report him missing.
Officers dispatched a patrol car and notified surrounding towns, searching for about an hour and a half.
The missing persons report, not uncommon at games that attract tens of thousands of people to the stadium, came on an especially busy – some say unruly – night at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Police were also handling the investigation of an incident involving Robert Sitter, 31, of Hamilton, Ont., who was critically injured when he was struck by a car as he ran across Southwestern Boulevard.
Orchard Park police alone made 24 arrests in connection with the game.
At about 5:30 a.m. Friday, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office was asked to help Orchard Park police by conducting an aerial search for Gerken.
Authorities also used “pinging” technology that helped them pinpoint the location of Gerken’s cellphone.
He was found shortly after 7 a.m., face down in Smokes Creek, near Shadow Lane on the opposite end of the stadium from Tailgaters. The creek is at the bottom of what police described as a “steep” cliff.
“He was located in the stream in the ravine there behind the stadium,” Benz said.
Investigators believe Gerken died in an “accidental drowning,” Benz said.
There is a possibility that hypothermia played a role. Temperatures dipped to 29 degrees overnight, according to the National Weather Service.
There were no signs of trauma to Gerken’s body, and Benz said there was no reason to suspect foul play.
It also wasn’t clear whether Gerken was intoxicated or if that factored into why he was ejected.
“I don’t know that alcohol played a role,” Benz said.
In statement, Buffalo Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold said a “thorough review” of the case will be conducted.
“We are constantly reviewing our game day policies and procedures with our partners and local law enforcement,” he added.
Gerken, according to the statement, was ejected for violating the Fan Code of Conduct – a policy posted on the team’s website.
“Ejections,” the statement added, “occur routinely during every home game as we endeavor to provide a safe and enjoyable game day experience for our fans.”
Benz said there was no doubt that Thursday night was busy for authorities around the stadium.
He noted that police contended with an array of situations, mostly underage drinking. There also were two arrests for driving while intoxicated.
One woman was charged with aggravated DWI after her blood-alcohol content level was measured at more than three times the legal limit. A man was charged with three counts of DWI, including a Leandra’s Law violation because his 15-year-old son was in the car.
The stadium’s private security force made 18 arrests inside the stadium.
Erie County sheriff’s deputies had 10 outside, including two for driving while intoxicated. And state police made five DWI arrests in the area during and after the game and two other criminal arrests, in addition to giving out 55 traffic tickets.
There was other evidence that Thursday was no ordinary night.
“There appeared to be abnormal ... lots of reports of high levels of public drunkenness,” Poloncarz said.
There were four times as many requests for ambulances to take sick or injured fans from the stadium to a hospital, and the stadium first aid station was especially busy Thursday night, Poloncarz added.
Erie County Sheriff’s Chief of Police Scott Joslyn said there was also an “obvious excitement” in the air as fans arrived for the prime time night game.
That said, Joslyn said he didn’t get a sense that the fans were out of control or especially drunk.
“We’re not arresting hundreds of people,” he said.
However, he said his detail’s arrests were “up slightly” compared with a usual Sunday game.
“On a normal Sunday game day, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office on the outside would make between three and five arrests,” he said.
While some fans who attended the game complained about the crowd, some found the security overly aggressive, ejecting people for acts they didn’t seem to be doing.
Poloncarz said he heard from several unnamed business leaders Friday “who were so disappointed by what they saw that they’re thinking about never going to a night game again.”
Poloncarz said the Bills have made many efforts to curb excessive drinking and rowdy behavior by limiting the hours the public lots are open and cutting off beer sales inside the stadium earlier.
Security at the stadium has been part of the discussions around the talks about a new lease, said Poloncarz, who has been in contact with the Bills about Gerken’s death as well as the behavior of the crowds.
“I know it’s going to be a topic of discussion going forward,” said Poloncarz, who expressed the county’s condolences to the Gerken family.
Gerken’s parents in Palmyra read a statement to The News, thanking the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, the Orchard Park Police, Orchard Park firefighters, EMTs, and stadium security among others for their kindness.
Gerken wrote what seems to be a prophetic note on his Facebook page Nov. 5
He posted, “You may forget me now, but you’ll miss me when I’m gone,” an apparent reference to a recent breakup with a girlfriend.
Friends commented Friday that he was already missed: “So many broken hearts right now. You were right kid ... RIP.”
News Staff Reporter Charity Vogel contributed to this report.