The mystery of the presumed suicide of a Town of Tonawanda man inside his burning home ended late this afternoon, when Town of Tonawanda police and fire investigators found the man’s body inside his Fries Road home.
While details remain sketchy, police said they were confident the body was that of 60-year-old Joe Hollywood.
That discovery was the latest development in an ever-changing incident that started at about 9:15 a.m. today, forcing a pair of school lockdowns.
Ken-Ton school officials finally were able to release the last of their students from school starting at 4 p.m. today. Earlier, the case had taken another unusual twist at mid-afternoon when a police SWAT team searched a nearby home on Mayfield Avenue, preventing Ken-Ton school officials from releasing their students who live in the affected area.
But Hollywood was not found at that home. Police told school officials they could release the remaining students, from Edison Elementary, Franklin Middle and Kenmore East High School.
Town of Tonawanda police then continued two parallel investigations, one presuming Hollywood died in his home, the other assuming he may have escaped. Some time between 4 and 4:45 p.m., his body was found.
Throughout the morning, Hollywood, known for dressing up as Santa Claus at large public events, threw part of the Town of Tonawanda into gridlock, after threatening his female domestic partner with a gun and starting his house on fire, authorities reported.
With police and fire officials unsure whether Hollywood still was in the house, firefighters were prevented from approaching the engulfed home, and Ken-Ton school officials locked down all their schools this morning. That lockdown was lifted shortly after 1 p.m.
Prior to that, police had little reason to believe that Hollywood escaped safely from the burning home, and they haven’t determined whether reports of shots fired inside the home may have been self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
“From the initial call, it seemed as if he was just determined to die today,” Bado told the media.
The apparent domestic confrontation that fueled the incident became public at about 9:15 a.m., when a woman at 163 Fries Road called 911.
“He is going to kill me, and he has a gun,” the woman screamed, according to police. The 911 operator also heard a man screaming in the background, and the woman claimed that the man had started the house on fire.
The phone call then ended, and the woman fled from the home, near Eggert Road, four blocks east of Parker Boulevard.
Almost half an hour later, responding volunteer firefighters still hadn’t been able to attack the fire, which had engulfed the home.
“He hasn’t come out, so they’ve been very cautious about fire personnel approaching the house,” said Bado shortly before 9:45 a.m.
Police said Hollywood has drawn a lot of police attention over the years. A quick check of police records showed that Town of Tonawanda police have had at least 18 contacts with him since 2003, they said. Those contacts mostly were for nuisance-type, rather than violent, crimes, including complaints of harassment, disorderly conduct, reckless operation and larceny, police said.
A City of Tonawanda man who went to Eggert and Fries roads this morning, who knew Hollywood from old roofing and construction projects they worked on, cited several incidents the man had with police.
“There were times he would tell the cops to come on in and get him,” said the man, who wouldn’t give his name. He also said Hollywood was a gun collector who had a large arsenal of weapons and ammunition in his basement.
On Jan. 2, 2000, Hollywood – dressed as Santa Claus – was charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct after being tackled in the tunnel at the end zone in Ralph Wilson Stadium during a Bills-Colts game.
In an odd twist, a Buffalo News report after his arrest listed his name as Joseph Bryniarski, of Fries Road, Town of Tonawanda, saying that he also went by the name of Joe Hollywood. Two days later, The News ran a clarification that he legally had changed his name to Joe Hollywood years earlier.
Four years after that incident, in April 2004, Hollywood, again dressed as Santa, appeared at a demonstration protesting then-President George W. Bush’s appearance at Kleinhans Music Hall.
This time, he was more peaceful, lobbying for funds for Kevlar trousers for soldiers in Iraq.
Shortly before 11:45 a.m. today, Town of Tonawanda police tweeted that Hollywood remained unaccounted for and that he had made threats in the past and has access to weapons.
Ever since they received the original call, Town of Tonawanda police focused on setting up a perimeter, looking for the man and helping neighbors evacuate or get to a safe place. At least some of the closest neighbors were asked to go into their basements.
The Ken-Ton schools issued this statement on their website at mid-morning:
“The Town of Tonawanda Police Department has advised that all school district buildings should not allow anyone to leave or enter at this time. The reason is that there is a possibly deranged individual that may be related to a house fire on the corner Eggert and Fries roads. Police informed us that at some point shots may have been fired, and we will remain in lockdown mode until they have found him as they are not completely sure he is in the house.”
Neighbors reported shots fired from the residence, but police haven’t been able to confirm that report.
Authorities weren’t sure about the relationship between Hollywood and the woman, but the original call was labeled a domestic situation.
The home is located south of Brighton Road, about a third of a mile south of Kenmore East High School.