on December 2, 2012 - 12:01 AM
The West Seneca police homed in on Edwards, too, though he held no weapon and may not have known that his friend was armed. Appearing to want no part of a gunfight, Edwards was crawling clear of the car, trying to keep his hands in view.
An instant later, a tragedy that still resonates in West Seneca arrived with an agonizing crack. Jeffrey Edwards, known to friends as a simple and good-natured Everyman, was its worst victim.
Many hands, however, can make a tragedy. Even the hands of a victim who, months earlier, chose to give a deer rifle to a volatile friend.
So did Edwards reap the consequences of his bad judgment, or was he drawn into a situation more dangerous than he knew?
Police were threatened. But did they go too far?
Faced with gunfire, police reacted in seconds. They saw the figure splayed on the asphalt – Edwards – as a threat. The discarded rifle had landed within his reach. When the first bullet hit, Edwards cried out in pain and clutched his abdomen. He rolled onto his back, away from the rifle, and his legs kicked upward. With his face to the sky, it was more clear that he had no gun. He was not even looking at the rifle.
The next shot, the one that paralyzed him, entered behind his left ear. Then his left leg fell slowly, as if lowered by a string. His arms fell away from his stomach, and his lean frame went still under the gray April rain.
“I can't breathe,” Edwards gasped to an officer, who kept him at gunpoint.
In time, medics sliced off his clothes in a search for other wounds. Then they bundled him off to Erie County Medical Center, where Edwards' vital signs flat-lined, according to his close friend, Karen Stayer. Over the next months, he fought off a sepsis fever and lost around 80 pounds, she said. While Edwards has since stabilized, he has remained in ECMC, his care covered by government-run health insurance.
Edwards is now suing the Town of West Seneca. His lawsuit accuses the police of being negligent, careless and reckless and says Police Chief Edward F. Gehen failed to supervise and train his officers.
Edwards is 44. Should he prevail, the payout could exceed the town's $6 million in liability insurance, given the decades of care he is likely to need. Further, he and his lawyers will want an amount far greater than what Medicaid and Medicare can claim for the sums spent on Edwards' years in the hospital.
For comparison, Erie County government paid $7 million to settle a claim from a 39-year-old woman who suffered brain damage after she nearly drowned in a county-guarded swimming pool in August 2009. The county attorney at the time said he feared the woman, whose lawyers alleged the lifeguards were poorly trained, would have been awarded even more had the case gone to trial.
In personal-injury cases such as the one filed by Edwards, the payouts for irreparable harm go beyond lost wages, said Nan L. Haynes, a lawyer and University at Buffalo Law School professor not connected to the Edwards lawsuit.
“He would be subject to an award of damages to pay him not only for his pain and suffering and lost quality of life for his remaining years but also for the cost of whatever kind of support he needs, medical or rehabilitation,” she said. “Those are the types of damages under the that law he's entitled to. If he can prove them.”
The Marlin rifle
Edwards bought the rifle for himself in 2004 and, according to Brylski's ex-wife and statements to police, traded it in February 2010 for Jerome Brylski's used Ford Bronco and its plow. Edwards never did collect the Bronco before being shot. “I don't think he was trying to have a problem with the police,” Abbey Brylski, one of the gunman's three daughters, said of Edwards.
Abbey was 21 at the time of the shooting and considered Edwards a friend. Interviewed recently, she expressed sadness about what happened to him. But she added: “My dad was sick, and he knew my dad wasn't supposed to have those types of things.”
No one paid a bigger price that day than Edwards.
Jerome Brylski, 56 at the time, was hit by gunfire that sliced through the car, but he recovered. Today, he's serving a 20-year prison sentence for attempted murder.
Brylski owned the plowing business that provided winter employment to Edwards, a cement finisher. Brylski, a sort of father figure to Edwards, put him up in his house when Edwards' marriage broke up. They were good friends.
Edwards' girlfriend at the time, Dianna D'Angelo of West Seneca, emerged from the car with no bullet wounds and, as commanded, backed her way into police handcuffs. She faced no charges. She, too, has filed a lawsuit against West Seneca for the “physical, emotional and psychological distress” she endured.
The four police officers who fired their weapons received the department's new honor for bravery, the Medal of Valor.
As for Edwards, he cannot move his body from the neck down and might never do so. While he's finally off a ventilator, he needs therapy and near-constant care. He's plagued by raw bed sores, urinary tract infections and long days. In a few weeks, he will spend his third Christmas in ECMC.
With a tracheostomy, his voice comes out in a low gurgle, one word rolling into the next. His feet are puffed up like white pillows, his arms and legs are pale and limp. He needs regular doses of painkillers.
He has a view of a television set and East Side rooftops spreading out under the ECMC tower. He grows frustrated at having to rely on others for simple, basic needs. Just this summer, he was hoisted into a wheelchair and taken outside for his first breaths of fresh air since April 2010. It brought tears to his eyes, said his close friend Stayer.
Glimmer of hope
“Jeff should be living on his own,” he said. “He could be independent.”
D'Andrea collected an eight-figure settlement after the construction accident and formed a charitable trust to help disabled people and to promote scientific research. He said he has come to know quadriplegics who live on their own and run their own care because they are properly equipped, rehabilitated and trained. He doesn't see Edwards receiving the care that could liberate him from ECMC.
So D'Andrea has offered to fly Edwards to Colorado's Craig Hospital, which specializes in rehabilitating people with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. But Edwards must first be admitted and find a way to finance his care. The lawsuit is the key to his future.
“They say no good deed goes unpunished,” said Stayer, one of the few people who visits Edwards in the hospital. “And boy oh boy was he punished ...
“Jeff obviously was not showing any weapons. He was trying to get away from being shot,” she said. “And they ruined his life.”
News reports at the time focused primarily on Brylski, whom West Seneca police knew as turbulent. Reports treated Edwards, who was 42, as an afterthought, caught up in a police shooting that a grand jury found justified. He blended in with Brylski all the more when authorities charged him with second-degree criminal facilitation – aiding someone intending to commit a class A felony, which in Brylski's case would have been murder. Prosecutors later dropped the charge against Edwards.
The Buffalo News, through New York's Freedom of Information Law, obtained police records on the shooting, witness statements and most importantly, footage from dashboard cameras mounted inside the West Seneca squad cars. The newspaper interviewed acquaintances of the two men and obtained a crime-lab analysis of the ammunition fired that day, though it was never determined which officer, or officers, shot Edwards.
Trying to do right
Brylski in late April 2010 was going through another days-long meltdown. No longer taking his medication, he was ranting about police corruption, confident that the government would soon seize his computer, which contained his information about supposed police misdeeds. He was certain that some retribution would soon rain down on him.
“They will not be able to take me alive,” he told a friend, a Buffalo woman, over the telephone.
Another Brylski daughter, then-24-year-old Jamie, emailed Erie County Crisis Services on April 24, 2010, to tell them her father was slipping. He'd been sending emails laying out assorted conspiracy theories. Edwards and his then-girlfriend D'Angelo didn't get them; they didn't have a computer.
Crisis Services workers had a file on Jerome Brylski. They got back to Jamie Brylski the next day and headed toward the home, a boxy 1980s duplex at 102 Leydecker Road. But they backed off and called police around 2:30 p.m. after being told Brylski had a gun and was willing to shoot anyone who approached.
Just a year earlier, Brylski's family had him involuntarily committed to ECMC for psychiatric care, a grueling and disappointing effort for them because it left their father confined only for days in June 2009. In the swirl of events, police searched his house and charged him with criminal possession of a weapon because he possessed a 12-gauge shotgun – illegal, police said, because of a felony conviction decades earlier.
But on April 25, 2010, Brylski was boasting that he again had a gun, one that could “shoot through five cops.” His daughter Abbey told the officers he aimed it at her that week when she returned from the store. He backed off when he saw it was his daughter entering the home.
During his ravings that afternoon, Jerome Brylski called Edwards and D'Angelo for help. D'Angelo then called Abbey Brylski and left a message on her cellphone to say she was concerned and that they were heading over.
But Brylski's two daughters, Abbey and Jamie, were already stationed nearby at the West Seneca police “command post,” telling officers what they could to assess their volatile father.
In time, nearly every West Seneca officer at work that day was devoted to the pressure of 102 Leydecker. They talked on a secure channel and through chat messages about the potential threat.
From Officer John Urbanski: “I think this guy has a scanner.”
Lt. John McNamara: “OK – let's use chat or cell.”
Officer Donald Driscoll: “Who did he make the threat to?”
Officer Chris Vogel, working as a dispatcher: “He says he has guns that will blow through five cops.”
Driscoll: “Who is he saying this stuff to?”
Vogel: “Crisis Services.”
Who are those two?
“That's what this was all about,” Brylski remarked later to the police. “It's got all the data on it.”
Police did not try to intercept Edwards or D'Angelo as their car slipped into the driveway. The couple were not told police were watching 102 Leydecker, nor that police had urged tenants in the other side of the duplex to leave that afternoon for their safety. In fact, police at first didn't know what to make of the two people who drove past their command post and stepped out of the maroon Grand Prix.
“I immediately met with both the Brylski girls in an attempt to determine who would have arrived in the red car,” wrote Daniel Denz, an assistant chief who was at the command post set up outside Luke's Enterprises, a collision shop at Southwestern Boulevard and Leydecker Road. “Both stated that it was most likely Jerome's best friend, Jeff, and Jeff's girlfriend ...
“I asked if Jeff was someone who could help us talk to their father, and if their father would be calmer with Jeff and his girlfriend being in the residence with him. Both girls said yes.”
He asked Jamie Brylski if she had Edwards' cellphone number. She didn't, but said she would try to get it. She was unable to do so.
Denz also asked Carolyn J. Damon of Crisis Services team to call Jerome Brylski.
She got him on the phone, introduced herself and told him people were concerned he was not taking his medication and that he seemed more agitated lately.
“No. I think everything is fine,” said Brylski, who family members said had turned to marijuana for his medication.
“I love you. Bye-bye,” Brylski told Damon, then hung up.
A few minutes after arriving, Edwards eased D'Angelo's Grand Prix to the back of the driveway and closed the high wooden gate behind him. A West Seneca police officer watching the residence from his own home across the street lost sight of the car. Brylski's computer was being loaded into the trunk.
D'Angelo told police in a statement that she did not know Brylski had spirited the Marlin, which is a little longer than a yardstick, into the Pontiac's back seat. But she later said Brylski had the gun out when she and Edwards arrived.
“What are you doing with that thing? Are you crazy?” Edwards said to Brylski, according to D'Angelo's statement.
Edwards could barely speak after the shooting and never gave police a statement. But his lawyers will contend that he, too, was unaware Brylski hid the gun in the back.
Officers wanted to stop the Grand Prix so they could ask Edwards about Brylski's condition. But would Brylski be in the car?
The officer watching from across the street, Sean Donohue, warned that if the car left the house “there was a good chance that Mr. Brylski was in the vehicle,” according to his statement. But when the car finally drove out, Donohue relayed that he saw no one in the rear.
The car turned left on East and West Road, with Edwards at the wheel, D'Angelo in the passenger seat and Brylski in back, with his gun. In quick pursuit, Officer Urbanski flipped on his flashing lights to pull the car over. Behind him was an unmarked car driven by Lt. Kevin Baranowski and with Lt. William Leitzel riding beside him.
Edwards braked the car onto the shoulder.
From the command post, Jamie Brylski heard faint crackling off in the distance.
She knew immediately what had happened.
Shots ring out
Brylski threw open the rear door on the driver's side.
He planted a foot on the pavement and took two shots. Pop. Pop.
At that range, the Marlin's bullets had the velocity to pierce an officer's bullet-proof vest.
Brylski sat back down and fumbled with the rifle as Edwards opened his door and displayed his hands.
Did Urbanski see the hands? Or Leitzel?
Probably not. A dashboard camera shows that, as police are trained, Urbanski and Leitzel were diving for cover behind the protective steel of their autos. Meanwhile, Baranowski was preparing to back up the unmarked car. Brylski hit it with one of the rounds.
“I immediately drew my weapon, sought cover behind the rear passenger side of my patrol car and returned fire directed towards the left side of the vehicle where the gunman was shooting from,” Urbanski said in his statement. “I remember feeling my gun jam, and as I cleared my weapon to resume firing, I could remember feeling rounds flying over my head.”
Those rounds had to have come from his fellow officers. Brylski fired no shots after the first two.
Edwards, rather than stand and show his hands amid the bullets, inched out of the car feet first, just as .40-caliber rounds crashed through the rear window and through the driver's area where he had been sitting.
On muddy elbows and knees, he moved backward. In the view from Urbanski's dashboard camera, Edwards again shows his hands as best he can. But that's the view of the camera. What the officers were able to see is something else entirely.
Officer Driscoll drove the third car to reach the scene. By the time Driscoll dashed into position to shoot back, Brylski had squeezed off his two shots, dumped the gun and slid into the back seat. Driscoll's view was of a man on the ground – Edwards – and a rifle nearby.
“He was the only person I could see at the time, and he was angled with his upper body in Officer Urbanski's direction,” Driscoll said in his statement. [Edwards was actually angled toward the car, not an officer.]
“To protect the lives of Officer Urbanski and myself, I fired at this individual.”
Soon, Edwards lay still, as if frozen. But Brylski remained in the car. Could he have another weapon?
While he didn't, the officers had no way to know for sure. Their barrage rattled on – for 43 seconds after Brylski took his only shots, and for 38 seconds after he tossed the rifle.
The camera placed on the lieutenants' unmarked car also recorded sound, and people who view this footage for the first time are struck by how long the police keep shooting.
“This looks like a pretty residential neighborhood,” he said. “You could have kids on the playground or somebody walking out of their house to get the garbage can, or whatever. There's any number of things that could have occurred there where civilians could have been hurt.”
Studies into the phenomenon called “contagious fire” reveal that officers fire more bullets when in a group of cops rather than alone. Researchers examining officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County from 1998 through September 2002 found an average of 6.48 shots fired per officer when more than two officers were involved. That was almost three rounds more than a lone officer would fire.
While Krieger remarked on the number of rounds fired, he said the officers were justified in shooting at Edwards: “I wouldn't know if he was getting out to surrender, or if he was getting out to try to grab the gun that he was laying alongside of. I can see where they would feel they were in danger. And you still had another person in the back seat.”
Police in New York can use deadly force to, among other things, defend themselves or someone else from what they reasonably believe to be the use, or imminent use, of deadly force. Certainly, Brylski had used deadly force.
Still, could the police have held their fire at Edwards? Could they have viewed him differently from the man who actually shot at them?
The lawyer who represented the officers when the Brylski-Edwards shootings went before a grand jury said their decisions should be judged by what they faced at the moment, not with detached reflection afterward.
“These cops showed up, responded to somebody that had a lengthy history of hating cops, popped out of the car with a center-fire rifle in a pouring rainstorm and cranked off a couple of rounds at the police officers,” said Thomas H. Burton, a former police officer and prosecutor often called on to represent police in use-of-force cases.
“That is an unusual, scary event made even more so by the fact that he's pointing a gun at somebody who is already armed,” Burton said of Brylski. “Most people who do that are either over the edge or willing to follow through with what they are trying to do.”
Burton teaches police academy recruits about laws regulating the use of force. The town hired him for special advice on the Edwards lawsuit.
“None of those officers wanted to see this other fellow hurt the way he was,” said Burton, who has no use of his legs and limited use of his arms, ever since a motorcycle accident in 1993. But he blamed Edwards for what happened on April 25, 2010, because he gave Brylski the rifle.
What if the police reached Edwards on his cellphone? Would they, together, have been able to defuse the situation and avoid bloodshed?
And what if Edwards surrendered in some other way?
Tim Dees is a retired officer from the Reno, Nev., police department who writes about police and public safety issues and authored a book titled “The Truth About Cops.” The News asked Dees to watch the videos to help answer the question: How could Edwards have saved himself from the gunfire on East and West Road that afternoon?
Maybe, Dees offered, the driver could have emerged from the car's passenger side. Or maybe he could have sat tight and awaited orders.
Both suggestions posed risks. The girlfriend, D'Angelo, was already huddled in the passenger seat. Edwards would have had to make his way over the center console and then around her to get out. Or the two would have had to take their chances together.
As for sitting tight, bullets were pounding the driver's side of the car. One shot through the back window pierced the windshield at the driver's eye level. Edwards would have been hit in the back had he sat there.
In sum, Dees said, “I don't see anything the driver could have done to avoid this situation.”