on October 17, 2013 - 12:18 AM
, updated October 17, 2013 at 6:18 PM
Outside the Toys R Us Hamburg store, workers grieved on a Saturday morning in late June, trying to cope with the news that their beloved assistant manager had been fatally stabbed inside his tiny office.
Among those consoling them was Bernard “Bernie” Grucza, the toy company’s regional manager in charge of loss prevention, who was more than eager to help investigators solve the heinous crime.
Police had grainy surveillance video and a “Florida Gators” hat left behind at the crime scene and not much else to go on.
It turns out the man wearing the cap in the video was Grucza, according to Hamburg Detective Capt. Kevin A. Trask, and Wednesday he was charged with second-degree murder.
Police say Grucza entered the store at about 4:20 a.m. using a key. He walked into the manager’s office some 10 minutes later and closed the door. Roughly seven minutes later, he disabled the store’s surveillance cameras.
In the meantime, assistant manager Laurence C. “Larry” Wells II had arrived to unload a truck.
Police believe Wells, 35, of Blasdell, entered his office and was stabbed multiple times by the 38-year-old Grucza.
Later, when workers found Wells sitting in a chair bleeding to death, they called 911 and he was rushed to Mercy Hospital where he died.
Grucza was not initially viewed as a suspect and assisted police, according to Trask.
“We talked to him on a regular basis about the investigation,” Trask said.
Other law enforcement officials said Grucza, a Canisius College criminal science graduate, often appeared “overly cooperative,” though investigators thought he was trying to stay abreast of the investigation.
Grucza, in fact, helped investigators recover store video showing the killer.
At first, police were baffled.
The video seemed like a promising lead. It was released to the public, but even enhancement efforts by the FBI’s crime laboratory in Quantico, Va., failed to provide clear enough images to readily identify the killer. DNA samples were identified on the cap but did not match any in the national criminal database. A $25,000 reward was offered.
Still, the killer remained free.
A series of breaks in the last two weeks, Trask said, led police to Grucza. Part of that, according to law enforcement officials, came from DNA samples taken from store employees. Grucza’s DNA, the officials said, matched the DNA found on the hat.
Trask said the Erie County District Attorney’s Office has asked that motive and other elements of the crime not be released, but police sources believe Grucza went to the store in the predawn hours of June 29 to either steal cash or merchandise and somehow ended up in a confrontation with Wells.
“We don’t know if he wanted Wells to open a safe or if he was just there to take money from the registers,” a police official said.
Authorities added that they are aware of other burglaries at Toys R Us stores outside of New York State, but Trask said no connections have been made between Grucza and those incidents.
There are indications that Grucza has been experiencing financial problems in recent years.
In 2009, he filed for bankruptcy. At the same time, he owned a sprawling $450,000 home on Kettle Run Road, an upscale Elma neighborhood. Just last Christmas shopping season, he and his now-estranged wife spoke with a Buffalo News reporter about the nearly bursting bags of presents for their children that they had purchased at Walden Galleria.
And while authorities say a precise motive remains unknown because Grucza has refused to cooperate, they speculated that the divorce has left him financially pressed. He was recently arrested in Elma on a domestic-related charge.
Grucza apparently was living with a new girlfriend in a small two-story, one-family home they had started renting a few weeks ago in a section of the Southern Tier Village of Allegany, popular with college students.
Neighbors there said the couple kept to themselves.
A St. Bonaventure University student, living across the street, said the couple stayed to themselves.
“I never saw them, only their dog,” the student said. “I had friends that lived there last year, but they didn’t come back to it.”
Early Wednesday morning, Grucza was arrested at the Allegany rental.
Hamburg Detectives Scott Kashino, Tom Brown and Tim Crawford, assisted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, including the Safe Streets Task Force, followed up on tips and Wednesday searched the homes in Allegany and Elma, where evidence tying Grucza to the homicide was secured, Trask said.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Grucza stood before Hamburg Town Justice Walter L. Rooth and was formally charged in the case. Grucza was polite and calm, appearing in gray sweatpants, a blue checked, long-sleeve shirt and paper slippers on his feet. He told the judge he was being represented by Buffalo defense lawyer Frank T. Housh.
Rooth entered a not guilty plea for Grucza, who was not eligible for bail because of the seriousness of the charge. Housh said he was planning to meet with Grucza this morning at the Erie County Holding Center.
“The DA’s office has had plenty of time to investigate this matter, and if they believed they had a case against my client, they could have presented evidence to a grand jury,” Housh said late Wednesday. “Instead we simply have allegations filed in a lower court.”
Assistant District Attorney Gary W. Hackbush appeared in Hamburg Court for the brief proceeding. The case is expected to continue there on Friday.
Wells’ wife, who was expecting their second child when he was slain, was informed earlier Wednesday of the arrest by Trask.
“She is thankful, but upset. She is reliving it, as you can imagine,” the captain said.
News Correspondents Chris Chapman and Nancy Gish contributed to this report. email: email@example.com