David Gerken Jr. sat through the first half of the Bills-Dolphins game Thursday night with his brother and a friend, rooting for his Miami team and wearing his orange-knit Dolphins hat.
Though he probably wasn’t thrilled with the Bills dominating the first half and leading, 19-7, his family knows of no nastiness between him and Bills fans.
And although he may have had a couple of beers, he was not intoxicated, his family said. Gerken knew he had to go to work the next day, as a supervisor in a Victor packaging company.
Around halftime, Gerken said he was going to the men’s room. Minutes later, he called his brother on his cellphone and told him he was being thrown out of Ralph Wilson Stadium – and he didn’t know why.
He told his brother he would meet him after the game at a nearby bar.
That’s the last his loved ones ever heard from him.
Roughly nine hours later, the body of the 26-year-old Gerken was found in a creek down a steep ravine, not far from the Bills Healthy Zone Fieldhouse.
On Saturday, barely 24 hours after the discovery, the circumstances leading to his death still remained a huge mystery to his family.
Specifically, why was he ejected from the Bills-Dolphins game? And how was his body found southeast of the stadium, in the opposite direction from the tavern north of the stadium where he arranged to meet his brother and friend?
His father, David Gerken Sr. of Palmyra, was asked how he could make any sense out of what happened in the hours before his son’s body was found.
“I can’t,” the father said in an approximately 20-minute telephone interview Saturday. “I don’t understand anything yet. I’m numb.
“I can’t blame anyone,” he added. “I don’t know exactly what happened. I’d like to know what happened. Why did he get ejected? What did he do wrong? I don’t know. I don’t know if I ever will.”
Even after Gerken was ejected, he sounded under control while talking to his younger brother on a cellphone, his father said. The brothers agreed to meet after the game at Tailgaters Bar & Grill, at the corner of Southwestern Boulevard and Abbott Road.
David Gerken Jr., who knew the area around the stadium, didn’t show up there after the game.
Instead, his body was found near the far end of stadium property the next morning, past a fenced-in area.
“Why would he go down that way?” his father asked. “Why would he go over the fence or around the fence? There’s no reason for him to go there. I don’t know why he wound up where he was found. Your guess is as good as mine.”
After learning early Friday morning that their son remained missing, the young man’s parents headed to Orchard Park to help look for their son.
Some time around 7 a.m., the elder Gerken found him.
Just as he was about to call 911, his wife called to tell him that Orchard Park fire personnel were going to take over the search.
“I already found him, honey,” Gerken Sr. said he told her.
“I wish I had never walked in there,” he said Saturday morning, trying to control his emotions.
David Gerken Jr. would seem an unlikely person to have died in such mysterious circumstances.
A graduate of Palmyra-Macedon High School, he had worked the last seven years at Heritage Packaging in Victor, where he earned Employee of the Month honors in August, rose to the level of supervisor and trained new employees. He was conscientious enough about his job that he planned to go back to work Friday, even after the late-night game that would have gotten him home well after midnight.
Gerken went to the game with his younger brother, Chuck, and a friend. Although he wore his Dolphins hat, he wasn’t outfitted in full team regalia.
“I told him not to wear too much, because I know how the crowds can get,” his father said. “Maybe [the hat] had something to do with him being ejected from the game.”
Some time around halftime, David Gerken Jr. went to the men’s room. He later phoned his brother, told him he was being ejected, but wasn’t sure why.
“He said to his brother, ‘You stay at the game, I’ll walk over to Tailgaters, and you meet me at the end of the game,’ ” his father said.
But his brother and friend never found him at Tailgaters. So they went back to their car, parked on Abbott Road. When they still couldn’t find him, they reported him missing around 12:30 a.m.
David Gerken Jr. was about 5-foot-9, 160 pounds. Family members didn’t see him as a combative person who would fight with people.
“He was a very easygoing guy,” his father said. “If somebody had hassled him, he might have hassled them back, but he would have done it with a smile on his face and said, ‘Enjoy the game.’ ”
Prime-time games like Thursday’s typically lead to a much longer tailgating experience, and there were of reports of drunken behavior inside and outside the stadium.
“I don’t know that alcohol played a role,” Orchard Park Police Chief Andrew D. Benz said Friday.
And Gerken’s younger brother doesn’t drink, their father said.
“I don’t think he [David Jr.] went there with the intent of drinking a lot,” his father said. “He had to be at work the next day. He wasn’t with a big drinking crowd. … I’m sure he had a couple of beers, but was he intoxicated? I don’t believe he would be.”
Despite his family’s enormous loss, Gerken Sr. once again thanked the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and Orchard Park police and fire officials for working hard overnight to find the general area where his son’s body was found.
Does he hold any ill will toward the Bills or stadium officials?
“I’m going to try to find out what the problem was,” he said. “If the Bills indeed need to change their policy, so nothing like this ever happens again, that’s great.”
While so much remains murky about what happened to David Gerken Jr., it seems clear the results of the investigation will spark a debate about the Bills’ – and other National Football League teams’ – practices in dealing with the fans at their stadiums.
“We continue to cooperate with law enforcement during their ongoing investigation,” Bills Senior Vice President for Communications Scott Berchtold said in a brief email Saturday to The Buffalo News.