Prosecutors want the Evans police to return a sport utility vehicle involved in a controversial hit-and-run case to its owner, but Police Chief Ernest P. Masullo says he is extremely reluctant to do so.
The vehicle in question is a gray 2013 Ford Explorer owned by Angola beach bar owner Gabriele “Gabe” Ballowe. Although no charges have been filed against Ballowe, police say they are absolutely certain that her SUV struck and fatally injured Evans resident Barry “Bob” Moss last Dec. 22.
An Erie County grand jury voted last month not to indict Ballowe in the hit-run, but Masullo said his department is still investigating the crime and wants to keep the Ford SUV until the probe is complete.
“We have an active investigation going on, and this is an important piece of evidence,” Masullo said. “Absent a signed order from a judge to turn it over, we plan to hold onto it. Our policies and procedures call for holding on to a piece of evidence from an active case.”
Evans police received a directive last week from the Erie County District Attorney’s Office to return the vehicle to Ballowe, law enforcement officials told The Buffalo News.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, who has received some criticism for his handling of the case, said he believes the SUV should be returned to its owner.
“It’s in the possession of his department,” Sedita said of Masullo. “If the chief believes he should make the defense attorney get a court order to make him return it, that’s up to him.”
Ballowe’s attorney, Thomas J. Eoannou, said his client has the right to have her vehicle returned to her.
“They’ve already examined her vehicle and got what evidence they need from it,” Eoannou said. “The case was no-billed by the grand jury. There are no charges pending. The police have no legal right to hold on to it.”
If police are ordered by a judge to return the SUV to Ballowe, Masullo said his department intends to make every effort to keep the portion of the SUV that struck Moss and has his DNA on it.
A 2013 Ford Explorer in good condition, with 15,000 miles on it, is worth about $24,000, according to the Kelley Blue Book website, frequently used by car dealers and consumers to estimate a vehicle’s value.
The disagreement over Ballowe’s SUV is the latest controversy in the mysterious hit-run incident. A handyman who had three daughters, Moss, 52, was struck on Route 5, injured and left to die early on the morning of Dec. 22.
Police are convinced that Ballowe, 48, was behind the wheel of her SUV when it hit Moss, but Ballowe hired Eoannou to represent her shortly after the incident. She has refused to discuss what happened that night with police or the DA’s Office.
No one – at least, no one who has come forward – witnessed the fatal accident, which occurred at around 12:15 a.m. near the intersection of Route 5 and Gold Street, police said.
Masullo said Moss’ DNA was found on the right front fender of Ballowe’s SUV, and broken parts from the SUV were found at the accident scene.
After hearing testimony from more than 20 witnesses, a grand jury last month voted not to file any charges against Ballowe. But The News reported Sunday that grand jurors initially wanted to indict Ballowe on two felony charges, but were talked out of doing so by a supervisor in Sedita’s office.
While declining to comment on exactly what happened in the grand jury, Sedita said he agreed with the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ballowe. He said he is willing to present the case to a new grand jury if Evans police come up with valuable new evidence.
Sedita was asked about the similarities between the Moss case and the July 2011 hit-run case involving Dr. James G. Corasanti, an Amherst physician. Corasanti was accused of manslaughter, driving while intoxicated, evidence-tampering and other charges after his luxury car hit and killed Alexandria “Alix” Rice, 18, who was riding a longboard along Heim Road in Amherst.
Like the driver who killed Moss, Corasanti left the accident scene without reporting the accident to police. He later claimed he was unaware his car had hit a person. After a hard-fought trial in May 2012, Corasanti was convicted of only one misdemeanor charge of DWI. He was sentenced to a year in prison and served eight months.
In the Corasanti case, investigators and prosecutors had “much, much more” evidence to work with than they have in the Moss death, Sedita said.
“In the Corasanti case, you had witnesses who saw him hit Alix, and he admitted he was driving the car,” Sedita said. “We have none of that” in the Moss case.
Police have not found anyone who saw Ballowe’s SUV hit Moss, or anyone who claims to have heard Ballowe admit that she was the driver, Sedita said.
That is true, Masullo said but he believes police built a “very solid” case against Ballowe that could have been successfully presented at trial.
“I disagree with Frank, but he is the prosecutor and I do respect him,” Masullo said.
The Moss family has posted a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of the hit-run driver. Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the Crimestoppers organization at 867-6161 or Evans police at 549-3600.
Moss’ sister, Maria Wrafter, said she is glad that Masullo opposes returning the SUV to Ballowe.
“I don’t believe she should get it back. There is an active investigation into my brother’s death,” Wrafter said. “This is a key piece of physical evidence that should be available for future examination.”
Moss’ daughters are still planning to pursue a civil lawsuit against Ballowe, said family attorney Michael P. Caffery.