Bernard T. “Bernie” Grucza was certainly around the Toys R Us store in the hours after the assistant manager was slain, helping police and consoling workers.
But in the days, weeks and months afterward, Hamburg police had a difficult time finding him.
Other co-workers of the victim came forward to give DNA samples, but it took months for police to find Grucza. He took a leave of absence from his job as regional loss-prevention manager for the toy store chain.
“It was the proverbial haystack of information, and we were looking for that needle,” Hamburg Detective Capt. Kevin A. Trask said Thursday. “He was on the radar, but we were following up on so many leads and he was kind of put on the back burner.”
Then when it came time to obtain a DNA sample from Grucza, he was nowhere to be found.
He had moved out of his $450,000 home in an upscale section of Elma because of an ongoing divorce dispute and an order of protection placed against him by his wife, Heather, in the weeks prior to the June 29 homicide at the Hamburg store.
“Grucza was hard to find. We believe he was intentionally keeping a low profile,” a police official said.
But Trask said detectives were able to locate a relative of Grucza’s in North Tonawanda, who provided information that helped them locate him.
Trask declined to elaborate on how his detectives obtained a DNA sample from Grucza, but authorities said the sample matched a DNA specimen obtained from a University of Florida Gators cap that the killer had left behind when fleeing the store after the predawn stabbing of Laurence C. Wells II, 35.
The DNA obtained from the cap did not come from a hair, but apparently from a body secretion found on the cap, which had helped hide the killer’s face in the grainy footage recorded by the store surveillance cameras, the police official said.
Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard recalled obstacles that his investigators had encountered in obtaining a DNA sample from Altemio C. Sanchez, the bike path killer and rapist.
“While we were on the final leg of the investigation into Sanchez, we faced a similar issue in trying to get an uncontaminated DNA sample without alerting the suspect we were focused on him, and certainly one of our hurdles was finding out exactly where our suspect was,” Howard said.
The DNA match along with other evidence gathered by town detectives and members of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force in recent weeks convinced investigators that Grucza was their prime suspect.
Tuesday night, a team of investigators headed down to the Village of Allegany in the Southern Tier, where Grucza and his girlfriend were living in a small house they had rented.
After spending the night in a motel, task force members and detectives entered the rental property at dawn Wednesday with a search warrant and placed Grucza under arrest, charging him with second-degree murder. Investigators questioned Grucza’s girlfriend most of the day and removed additional evidence from the home that has been described as helpful.
Detectives were out again Thursday taking statements and “tying up loose ends” in the case, according to Trask.
Grucza, 38, is to appear this morning in Hamburg Town Court in front of Justice Walter L. Rooth.
He also faces sentencing on his guilty plea to a reduced charge of fourth-degree attempted criminal possession of a weapon in Elma Town Court in late November. That charge stems from his arrest in early June in a domestic incident.