NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Before he was found guilty of a May 2011 shooting death in Cheektowaga Town Park, Dontre Jones was calling three teachers at Cheektowaga Central High School from jail, during school hours.
Those phone conversations outraged police, who have embarked on a campaign to make their content public and to hold the teachers, now on paid administrative leave, accountable. The anger was palpable at a news conference Thursday afternoon, when Cheektowaga Police Chief David Zack said he wasn’t able to release details of those conversations because of the threat of legal action.
“I can assure the public that we are not intimidated,” Zack said. “We are now more resolved than ever to make sure the public learns of what went on at Cheektowaga Central.”
“I wanted to play audio and I wanted to give you the transcript of what came out of this investigation,” the police chief said. “It’s very limited what I can speak on at this point.”
That’s because attorneys representing two teachers sent “cease and desist” letters to town officials.
Carl Morgan and John Gilmour are representing a male teacher they declined to identify.
“My opinion, this is the most appalling abuse of power by a police chief or anyone in a position of authority that I ever witnessed,” said Morgan, a retired police office. “It’s a vendetta on his part.”
According to police, Jones had attended classes at Cheektowaga Central until shortly before the May 31, 2011, shooting that killed Ira Watkins Jr., 19, of Buffalo. Though the shooting was related to an earlier argument between rival gangs from Buffalo, police said, neither Jones nor Watkins was involved in it.
Jones telephoned the teachers from behind bars between February 2012, when he was charged with second-degree murder, and this past June, when he was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter in a non-jury trial. Sentencing is scheduled for Monday.
“The conduct in question does not rise to a criminal offense under the laws of the State of New York,” District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said Friday morning, declining to comment on the content or nature of the conversations.
Should the tapes be made public?
“I don’t have a problem with them being made public. It’s not part of the criminal investigation or anything,” Sedita said. “It’s not mine to release or not to release.”
Zack said that the decision by police to go public wasn’t made in haste.
“We are not just police officers, we are parents,” he said. And, as parents, they agreed that all parents should know.
“When parents send their children to school, they must have faith and trust in the institution,” he said. “We felt strongly that parents would question that faith and trust, if they heard the communications we heard. Parents have a right to know what is taking place in the school, and in the classroom.”
In listening to the phone calls, which are routinely monitored in jails, police came to a point when they felt the conversations were negatively impacting their ability to investigate the homicide, Zack said.
“An investigation’s never over,” Zack later explained, in response to a reporter’s question. “The investigation doesn’t end until the trial is over.”
Police went to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office with their concerns.
“When we played the tapes to prosecutors, they were outraged,” Zack said. “It was their feeling that some of those communications would negatively impact their ability to successfully prosecute the case.”
Zack said the DA’s office contacted school district officials with those concerns before Jones went on trial. Then police met with the School Board earlier this month.
Two police officers are members of the School Board; Lt. Brian Gould is the board president and Officer Paul A. Nazzarett Jr. is a trustee. They are among those who voted unanimously to place the three teachers on leave while the district investigates their conduct.
There’s been no contact with the board since, Zack said. “My officers on the School Board, we don’t talk about it,” Zack said. “It’s a little bit awkward. I think it’s awkward for them.”
District officials haven’t commented on the situation. “We are investigating,” School Superintendent Dennis Kane said Thursday.
Blocked from talking about the phone conversations Thursday afternoon, police subsequently released links to Jones’ Facebook page, with photos and a video open to the public, as well as a Photobucket page with photographs of him and his friends.
Another attorney representing a teacher spoke out Thursday on the police dogged pursuit.
“I don’t get it,” said Kevin P. Shelby. “It seems to be a witch hunt.”
Shelby had sent a “cease and desist” letter to Zack, in which his client was identified as Sharon Campbell, a math and computer science teacher at the school. Shelby’s letter directed copies to local media outlets as well as the school superintendent.
Contacted Thursday morning by The Buffalo News, Shelby described his client’s relationship with Jones as “purely teacher-student, together with role model, parent figure. It’s all appropriate,” he said. Their conversations, he said, were “small talk.”
If there’s any action to be taken involving his client, Shelby said, “The way it should be handled is administratively.”
Gilmour and Morgan said they haven’t heard the taped conversations involving their client. “He’s denied any wrongdoing,” said Gilmour.
“The chief couldn’t charge these people criminally, so he’s trying these people in the public,” Gilmour said. “He decided he was going to go after their jobs.”