Early on Easter Sunday morning about 25 years ago, an inmate at the Erie County Holding Center took another inmate hostage, tied him up in bedsheets and slashed his back with a 10-inch shard of glass.
The hostage-taker – accused of rape, robbery and assault – wanted a free ticket out of jail and demanded to meet with an unarmed negotiator with the power to make a deal. If not, the hostage would die.
What he got instead was Dick Dobson, a sheriff’s deputy and the watch commander on duty that morning.
“Dobson was supposed to go in unarmed,” said Lee Coppola, a former WKBW-TV reporter who was inside the Holding Center that day. “But we saw him put a gun in his belt behind his back.”
Within minutes, Dobson was face to face with the inmate, his gun drawn, demanding that the inmate put down the glass or he would shoot.
The inmate surrendered.
“Once Dobson went in, it was resolved,” said Coppola, former dean of the journalism school at St. Bonaventure University. “It really was courageous.”
Richard E. Dobson remembers that day and a lot of other disturbing days, many of them including incidents he would prefer to forget.
Yet those are the kinds of stories people tell when you ask about the 32-year police veteran and political unknown running for Erie County sheriff.
In less than a year, the Town of Wales Democrat has gone from underdog to endorsed challenger in a race that may hinge as much on the record of incumbent Sheriff Timothy B. Howard as on Dobson’s own qualifications and experience.
“I know Tim Howard,” Dobson said. “To be honest, I think he’s in over his head.”
It’s no secret why Dobson is running.
The former sheriff’s lieutenant says the department he loved – he calls it a family – is in shambles and in need of new leadership.
He points to the Ralph “Bucky” Phillips escape in 2006, the series of Holding Center suicides and Howard’s insistence that he won’t enforce New York’s new gun-control law as just a few examples of why the current sheriff needs to go.
Even more important perhaps is what he sees as a lack of adequate personnel and the consequences of that understaffing – forced overtime and tired, overworked deputies.
“People think morale is an ambiguous thing,” Dobson said. “I’m not one of them. The bottom line is, we need more deputies.”
Ask him why he’s running and he’ll tell you it’s because of his passion for police work – he comes from a law enforcement family – and his desire to give back.
You also get a sense that the death of his son Kevin, a state trooper who was killed by a passing car during a roadside traffic stop on the Youngmann Highway in the Town of Tonawanda two years ago, gave him the motivation to chuck retirement and enter politics.
“I think that strengthened his resolve,” said David R. Carlson, a close friend and retired deputy sheriff. “I think it gave him a renewed sense of responsibility to his peers.”
Dobson, 68, is not without a few warts, however.
He has been gone from the department for nearly 14 years, and there are those who think he may be out of touch with modern-day police work and what it takes to manage a large department such as the Sheriff’s Office.
“Dick Dobson never supervised more than 15 people,” Howard said. “His supervisory experience was limited to the road patrol, and that doesn’t come close to what’s necessary.”
Howard isn’t shy about questioning Dobson’s record, just as Dobson is quick to challenge his. Howard contends that his opponent was a chronic abuser of sick leave, including taking 51 days off in the 18 months leading up to his retirement.
“Was he really sick and is he better now?” Howard asked.
Dobson said his time away from work that last year-and-a-half was due to a serious medical condition but indicated he did not want to discuss publicly what is a private health matter.
“I never called in sick unless I was truly ill,” he said.
During his three decades with the department, Dobson also acquired a reputation as a hothead, a loose cannon, a guy who never got along with any sheriff.
Even now, decades later, he admits to having a temper, to be being a “good Irishman.”
“I tried to modify it, temper it a little bit, but sometimes it came out,” he said of his years in the Sheriff’s Office.
When you talk to people who know Dobson, it’s almost inevitable you’ll hear the story of his run-in with then-Sheriff Michael A. Amico.
The stories differ on what happened – Dobson says he was improperly accused of backing one of Amico’s political challengers – but the outcome is well-known, even now. For more than eight months, every day of every week, he walked patrol around the Holding Center, his punishment for actions that were, depending on who you believe, either real or perceived.
And when he wasn’t circling the jail, he was told to guard the deputies’ locker room.
Dobson said he did it without complaining, but his union took the issue to court, and Dobson was eventually returned to his old job.
“No one broke out of the jail, and no one broke into the locker room,” he said with a laugh.
He also butted heads with then-Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins and was one of three ranking members of the department to ask the district attorney and the FBI to investigate Higgins. The three contended that Higgins was trying to whitewash a series of brutality complaints against his son, a sheriff’s deputy.
Higgins called their request “childish.”
Lawrence F. Cousins, a retired captain who once supervised Dobson, likes to talk about the Bucky Phillips escape and how Dobson viewed it as huge embarrassment for the department. Phillips escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility in 2006 and shot three state troopers, killing one, during his five months on the run.
Dobson, he said, was especially upset by Howard’s attempts to blame others, including one of the guards on duty that day.
“That really frosts Dick,” Cousins said. “He believes the buck stops at the top.”
When you talk to people such as Cousins and Carlson, former colleagues who have known Dobson for decades, there’s a common theme in why they think their friend, even after 14 years away, is ideally suited to be sheriff.
No one, they said, knows the department better and what needs to be done to turn it around.
“He’s not looking for a career in politics,” Cousins said. “He’s looking to fix the department and get out.”
In some respects, Dobson never left the job.
After retiring in 2000, he became a supervisory officer with the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, a role that took him to East Timor, a southeast Asian country plagued by poverty and violence.
“That was a very humbling experience,” he said. “These people had nothing.”
His friends say that when he came home, he found a Sheriff’s Office nothing like the one he left.
Over time, they said, it became clear to him that he needed to do more than complain.
In February, Dobson announced his decision to seek the Democratic nomination for sheriff, an announcement that put him at odds, not only with Howard, but with much of his own party.
He soon found himself in a primary fight with Bert D. Dunn, a sheriff’s lieutenant and the preferred candidate of party headquarters.
Dobson won the primary but entered the general election campaign with only grudging support from County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner and the realization that Dunn, who stayed in the race on a minor-party line, could prove to be a spoiler.
He also found himself in the midst of controversy courtesy of his association with former party chairman and longtime political operative G. Steven Pigeon.
In a complaint filed with the Moreland Commission, a state panel formed to root out political corruption, two Erie County legislators accused Pigeon of illegally spending money on Dobson’s behalf.
The allegation, which has been made before but never proven, is that Pigeon’s independent political committees funnel money to candidates while at the same time coordinating with their campaigns, a violation of state law. Pigeon says the complaints are nothing but “more crybaby, political bellyaching.”
In Dobson’s race, the allegation is that Pigeon’s committee spent $77,000 on television advertising during the primary campaign and that Dobson, in contrast, raised only $50,000 on his own.
“The first time I saw it was on television,” Dobson said of the ad bought by Pigeon’s committee.
For Democrats supporting Dunn, that’s difficult to fathom and, to make their case, they point to a recent photo of Dobson and Pigeon together at a Buffalo Bills game.
Dobson says he wasn’t aware of the deep divide within his own party, but he nevertheless welcomes Pigeon’s support.
“I didn’t know there were sides,” he said. “I was just looking for help from anyone offering it.”
On Election Day, now just two weeks away, Dobson will find out if it’s enough to win the office that many think he has always aspired to.