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After a law enforcement career that began as a police cadet in 1969, Lackawanna Police Chief Dennis J. O'Hara is preparing to retire Jan. 9.

His mind is flooded these days with good memories and bad ones, but one chilling mystery keeps coming back, and he is frustrated that his department never has been able to solve it.

Patricia Rodriguez was stabbed 108 times. The body of the 21-year-old mother was discovered April 13, 1979, lying face-up on a grave marker in Holy Cross Cemetery.

"Of all the cases I ever worked on, that one frustrates me," O'Hara said in an interview this week. "I was a detective at that time. I took all the evidence photos. I'll never forget the murder scene or the fact that it happened on a Friday the 13th, Good Friday, two days before Easter.

"We never did solve it, but we felt we had a good suspect. We felt we were close a couple times. . . . One of our detectives still gets calls on that case."

A stocky, affable and sometimes outspoken man, O'Hara is retiring at age 57 because of what he called "a complication with my pension." He declined to discuss the issue, except to say he is not bitter about the situation.

"I've enjoyed police work, but I'm ready to retire," he said. "I'll miss the people I work with, but I won't miss going out to work in 3 feet of snow, up to my [butt]."

O'Hara has been Lackawanna's police chief since August 1997. He found himself in the national spotlight for a time in 2002, when his department worked closely with federal agents on the "Lackawanna Six" case.

Six young men from Lackawanna wound up going to federal prison for training with the al-Qaida terrorist group in Afghanistan. O'Hara said it was disturbing to learn that young men from his community had trained with the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Before [Kamal] Derwish died, I would say there was a potential for danger from this group," O'Hara said.

Derwish, a former Lackawanna resident, was killed by a CIA missile attack in Yemen in 2002. Federal agents said Derwish was a full-fledged member of al-Qaida who was trying to recruit suicide bombers in the United States.

"Derwish was a very dangerous individual," O'Hara said. "These other guys were only followers."

President Bush has cited the case several times as one of his administration's important accomplishments in the fight against terrorism.

"It was kind of neat to be involved with a case that the president was getting briefed on every morning," O'Hara said.

After beginning as a police cadet -- or trainee -- O'Hara worked as a Lackawanna police officer, rising to the rank of lieutenant before retiring from the department for the first time in 1992.

He took a job as assistant race secretary at Buffalo Raceway but stayed only about 18 months. He then worked in several security jobs for the City of Lackawanna before he was named director of public safety in 1996. In that job, he oversaw both the Police and Fire departments.

He returned to police work in 1997, when then-Mayor Kathleen M. Stanizewski named him police chief.

"I'm proud that we worked on the Lackawanna Six case, but I'm more proud of some other things we've done,"O'Hara said. "We started a DARE program and a K-9 unit, and upgraded the SWAT team. Those are all things I'm proud of."

O'Hara owns his own Santa Claus suit and enjoys playing the role of Santa at children's events in Lackawanna. His most recent appearance was at Truman Elementary School.

The retiring police chief and his wife, Mary Lou, have been married for 30 years. She is a teacher's aide at Lackawanna High School. They have two sons. At this point, O'Hara said he has no immediate plans to work another job.

Asked about a successor for O'Hara, Mayor Norman Polanski Jr. said he will name an acting police chief nextThursday, adding that a Civil Service test for the job will be offered in March.

The Lackawanna police chief makes about $74,000 annually to run a department of 45 officers in a city of 19,000 people.

"[O'Hara] has done a good job, and it's a thankless job," Polanski said. "People love you when they need you, but after that, there's no love lost."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com