On a Sunday afternoon, a vehicle crossed the north Grand Island Bridge out of Niagara County – the same route Sandi Polanski usually followed when she left work and headed to her refurbished home in Depew.
Not long afterward, firefighters were called to her Niagara Falls workplace, where they spent more than three hours fighting a fire in the office building at the Treibacher Schleifmittel industrial complex.
The smoke, fire and water caused significant damage to the offices where she worked as the company’s payroll manager.
Damage from the fire also caused an audit to be suspended, and that delayed by about a year the company auditors’ discovery that Polanski had embezzled more than $873,000 over four years.
Company officials want to know why a vehicle with Polanski’s E-Z Pass transponder crossed the Grand Island bridge on the day of the fire, when the Treibacher offices were closed.
According to her E-Z Pass record, a vehicle with her transponder is time-stamped going through the toll plaza at 3:39 in the afternoon, court records indicate.
“There is no dispute that there was an arson at the Treibacher headquarters the night before the defendant believed the Treibacher auditors were going to discover the embezzlement in March 2011,” attorney John G. Schmidt Jr., who represents the Niagara Falls abrasives manufacturer, said in an affidavit.
But Polanski can no longer be asked to explain.
Polanski died May 14, at age 61, about 2½ months after Treibacher sued her in State Supreme Court for fraud and unjust enrichment among other allegations, court records reveal.
Even after her death, suspicion swirls around her nephew, Scott Kozmycz.
Newly filed court records reveal the company has collected more information that raises questions about whether he had something to do with the fire.
Treibacher has obtained sworn affidavits from people who said Kozmycz, a volunteer firefighter, had burns and bandages on his arm in the spring of 2011, Schmidt said.
At the time, Kozmycz had said he suffered burns while using a gas grill, according to Schmidt’s affidavit.
But in a deposition this summer, Kozmycz denied that his arm had been burned at all.
Schmidt’s affidavit said the E-ZPass records are for what he called the “family vehicle.”
The fire had two separate points of origin, fire and insurance investigators determined, and they found evidence of accelerants, including gasoline at one point of origin, Schmidt said in court earlier this year.
Polanski would not have been able to carry gas cans throughout the Treibacher offices, Schmidt said.
The company had suspicions about Kozmycz when it filed the lawsuit in February.
“The record would be incomplete without noting we suspect Scott Kozmycz, a volunteer fireman, is under suspicion regarding that fire,” said Peter M. Vito, a private investigator working on behalf of Treibacher, in an affidavit.
Kozmycz is also a defendant in the company’s lawsuit, as is his wife, Robyn, both of whom lived with Polanski in Depew.
In their affidavits, Scott and Robyn Kozmycz denied any knowledge of their aunt’s alleged embezzlement.
“Incredibly, Scott Kozmycz has denied that he knew anything about the embezzlement, claiming that he thought Sandi Polanski had inherited money,” Schmidt said in his affidavit.
“The denials are false and at best amount to nothing more than conscious avoidance by the Kozmyczes,” he said.
Kozmycz’s lawyer also rejected any insinuation Kozmycz had a role in the fire.
“Treibacher has no evidence to support its theory that Scott was involved in a fire at its office,” said attorney Richard A. Grimm III, who represents Kozmycz.
The police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigated the fire thoroughly, Grimm said.
“No charges have ever been made, and no evidence exists to support a civil case let alone a criminal case,” he said.
Grimm said Schmidt’s affidavit fails to include the [witness] affidavits, which he claims show that Scott had burns on his arms.
“Scott denied in his deposition that he had burns on his arms during the relevant time frame,” Grimm said.
The company’s affidavits would be insufficient, Grimm said.
“Saying that Scott had bandages on his arms during the spring of 2011 is beyond weak in terms of proof,” Grimm said.
As for the E-ZPass records, they show Polanski returned across the Grand Island Bridge on the day of the fire, Grimm said.
“The vehicle was Sandi’s vehicle – not Scott’s vehicle and not a ‘family vehicle’ as characterized by the Schmidt affidavit,” Grimm said.
The E-ZPass records show Polanski used that same car to come and go across the bridge on her way to and from work.
Grimm said the fire occurred several hours before she crossed the bridge out of Niagara County.
“The idea that someone would set a fire and then hang around for several hours is foolish,” Grimm said.
“It should come as no surprise that Sandi – one of only a handful of office workers – would be called to the scene of the fire,” Grimm said.
Polanski did not respond to the lawsuit or submit an affidavit before she died.
The company accused her of creating a fictitious employee, A.J. Sobschak, and arranging for paychecks to be made out to Sobschak and then deposited into accounts she controlled.
The company says her scheme unraveled after auditors from the company’s corporate parent began asking about the never-seen employee who had a higher rate of pay than the plant manager.
The company deposited $46,064 into an account for Sobschak in 2009, followed by $231,618 in 2010 and $314,118 last year.
The company also accused Polanski, whose salary was $37,070 in 2005, of giving herself a raise in 2006 and a bonus in 2007 by making unauthorized changes to submissions to payroll processor ADP, according to the lawsuit.
She also added to her paychecks the same amounts that were deducted for Social Security, Medicare and employee benefits, according to the lawsuit.
The company is seeking a default judgment against her estate for $872,377, and it wants her Depew home and other assets to cover part of the judgment, according to court records.
The company also wants the money from her life insurance policy.
Scott Kozmycz, the beneficiary of his aunt’s will, said in a deposition that he would renounce any life insurance benefits, court records show.
Polanski’s life insurance policy may be worth $250,000, but the company’s lawyers have not been able to determine if the insurance proceeds have been paid out, according to court records.
Scott Kozmycz said he was “chronically unemployed” from 2008 until earlier this year, Schmidt said in his affidavit.
In a deposition, Kozmycz confirmed that his aunt paid for many of his expenses, including child support for other children, vacations, and personal watercraft, among other purchases, according to court records.
Polanski had also paid for improvements to her Depew home, including a new kitchen and a new master suite upstairs for Kozmycz and his wife, Kozmycz said in his deposition.
According to Vito, other improvements included new siding, a new deck, a new boiler and a swimming pool.
“Scott Kozmycz was also effectively the general contractor on the extensive home renovations and was well aware of their costs, which amounted to many tens of thousands of dollars,” Schmidt said.
How much did his aunt spend on his behalf?
“I don’t know, sir,” Kozmycz replied to Schmidt during a deposition. “I couldn’t even, you know, I couldn’t even begin to tell you a figure. I couldn’t, to be honest with you.”