Nineteen months ago, Devin T. Rooney crossed paths with Robert E. Eloff, one of the Buffalo police officers suspended in May for his off-duty conduct at Molly’s Pub.
It was Jan. 19, 2013. Rooney was a patron at Faherty’s, a bar on Elmwood Avenue. Eloff was next door, moonlighting as a security officer for Toro Tapas Bar.
The clubs have the same owner, and it’s easy to see from one establishment to the next.
Rooney said he noticed a young black man who had been placed in handcuffs and was left waiting just inside Toro’s front door. Suspecting the young man was being treated unfairly, Rooney decided to take a picture of the scene with his phone.
As he focused from the sidewalk through Toro’s open entry, a Toro bouncer, not Eloff, knocked the phone out of his hand, Rooney said.
Rooney said he pieced the phone back together and, while retreating back into Faherty’s, let everyone know he was calling 911 to report the bouncer’s conduct.
An off-duty police officer working at Toro followed him into Faherty’s. Rooney said he later determined the officer was Robert Eloff.
“He was like: ‘You need to hang up the phone,’ ” Rooney said of Eloff.
“I said ‘no,’ and he kept insisting.”
Finally Eloff said, “I am going to start hurting you now,” according to Rooney.
An instant later, Eloff banged Rooney’s head into a wall three times – so hard he dented the wall’s surface, Rooney said.
Then Rooney’s hands were cuffed behind his back, and he was escorted into Toro, to wait with the other young man for transport to the city’s downtown lockup.
This is the fourth incident The News has found in which citizens claim they were mistreated by Eloff, one of the department’s busiest officers. Three of the four occurred while he worked off-duty for bar owners. Consider:
• Eloff, according to Rooney and other witnesses, was at the center of the incident at Faherty’s and Toro in January 2013.
• Eloff was one of the officers who threw Leonard Jacuzzo to the ground outside Toro in June 2013 to wrench away his cellphone and place him under arrest. Jacuzzo, a college professor and neighborhood fixture, had used his phone to snap a picture of Toro patrons spilling outside the bar. The News learned of Eloff’s involvement after Jacuzzo told his story for a News article published three weeks ago.
• Eloff, while on duty, knocked a phone from the hand of a woman recording video of police breaking up a disturbance on Chippewa Street after this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Internal Affairs investigators began an inquiry into that incident.
• Not only was Eloff present as an off-duty security officer when patron William C. Sager Jr. was critically injured at Molly’s on May 11, he had a Sager friend arrested when the friend tried to come to Sager’s aid.
Further, authorities suspect Eloff knew of, or took part in, an effort to destroy evidence for Molly’s manager Jeffrey J. Basil, who is accused of shoving Sager down a flight of stairs. Eloff asserted his Fifth Amendment right when called to testify at the bar manager’s felony hearing.
Soon after the Molly’s Pub episode, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda blocked his officers from working off duty directly for bar owners, largely because it violates a State Liquor Authority ban on police having any interest in the manufacture or sale of alcohol. Derenda wanted to avoid the conflicts that arise when bar owners employ their own police force.
Derenda told The News that he could say little about matters surrounding Eloff, 39, because departmental charges are pending against him and Adam E. O’Shei, the second off-duty officer providing security for Molly’s Pub on May 11. Both were suspended.
But Derenda again encouraged people to report their complaints about police abuse or misconduct to his department.
“If we don’t know about it, we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “If somebody has a complaint, they should file it immediately with our Internal Affairs Division.”
Herbert L. Greenman, a lawyer for Eloff, did not return a telephone message seeking comment. Also, Toro owner Nick Kotrides did not respond to two requests seeking his comments for this article, as well as to clarify Eloff’s past employment for Toro and to say whether Kotrides would cooperate with a police inquiry if the people involved file complaints.
Though Eloff no longer works for Toro, Chamus Hawk will never return there.
“I think that he was a reflection of that establishment,” Hawk, a local rap artist, said of Eloff. “So therefore I will never set foot in that establishment again.”
Hawk, who also goes by “Chae,” was the young man placed in handcuffs at Toro on Jan. 19, 2013 – the man whom Rooney feared was poorly treated. Hawk believes that Eloff singled him out, perhaps thinking Hawk was part of a street gang.
Eloff forced Hawk to remove a black-billed cap with a Buffalo Sabres emblem, which Hawk said he wore as part of a campaign for cap maker New Era. Hawk said he was told he could either leave the hat with the officer or stow it in his car before entering the club.
Hawk said he would rather leave the hat with a friend serving as Toro’s DJ that night. But Hawk didn’t see why he should have to remove it at all. He could see white patrons wearing hats inside the bar.
“They have their hats on,” Hawk told Eloff, motioning to others inside.
“He’s like, ‘well, you’re not,’ ” Hawk recalled.
Hawk said he and a friend blew past Eloff and headed into the bar. A minute later, Eloff grabbed him and told him again he could not enter with the hat.
“I said, ‘Well what’s your name, sir?’ He didn’t give me his name. I asked for his ID. He didn’t do that. ... I pulled out my phone and wanted to take a photo of him. That is when he rushed me and threw me up against the glass of the establishment, handcuffed me and brought me into that corridor in handcuffs.
“I was there for about 35 minutes, on public display,” Hawk said.
Later, as he waited in a police car, he exchanged a few words with an acquaintance who knew the officer and relayed his name: Eloff.
When arraigned the next morning on trespassing charges, both Hawk and Rooney, who had a sore head but was otherwise OK, had their cases adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.
As Hawk stood handcuffed in the foyer in January 2013, his friend Stephanie Rivera entered Toro.
“Chamus, what’s going on?” she asked him, she recalled recently.
Hawk told her a little bit about what had gone on over the hat.
“Just keep on moving,” the officer standing next to Hawk told her. She learned later, in seeing his picture on TV, that it was Robert Eloff.
Rivera said she told him Hawk was a friend.
“It’s none of your business,” she was told.
She wondered aloud if Hawk was being treated differently because he is black. Then once inside the bar, she started taking a video of Hawk and Eloff with her phone.
Eloff stepped toward her and grabbed it out of her hand, she said.
Rivera grabbed it back.
“Would you want someone videotaping you?” he asked her.
“Probably not, if I was doing something wrong. But if I was doing the right thing it wouldn’t matter to me,” she responded.
“Now you can just leave,” Eloff said, according to Rivera.
She and her boyfriend left. But she said she approached the on-duty officers as they arrived outside Toro to tell them she thought Hawk had been unfairly singled out. None would listen to her, she said.
Finally, Rivera went home because, she said, she didn’t want to be arrested.
Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Devin Rooney and Chamus Hawk pleaded guilty in order to be offered the adjournment and eventual dismissal.