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In 42 years with the Buffalo Police Department, James P. Lonergan helped solve some of the city’s most notorious crimes.

His bluff cracked the murder of two Catholic priests in the late 1980s.

He later investigated the killing of a nun in the same spot where the priests were killed.

He put handcuffs on the City Grill shooter.

Lonergan recently retired as a homicide detective sergeant. His path to law enforcement started after graduating from Bishop Timon High School and, with his older brother, John, taking the police civil service exam.

After flipping hamburgers for a short time, Lonergan was hired as a police cadet.

“There are a lot of people in Attica who wished I stayed flipping hamburgers,” the 61-year-old Lonergan said.

“Just recently I got a letter from a guy in Attica who told me, ‘I despise you.’ To me, that was a compliment,” he said.

“There’s plenty of people mad at Jim Lonergan, but most of whom are in jail,” said Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards. “He is a one-of-a-kind street cop, who excelled at communicating with some of the most despicable members of society.”

A South Buffalo native, Lonergan’s passion for police work started early. Whether walking the beat or chasing leads, he couldn’t get enough.

“I remember getting my service revolver and a badge, and that was a big thing. I was just 20 years old,” he recalled.

In 1976, Lonergan got his first big career break with a transfer to the tactical patrol/street crime unit, working as a plainclothes officer in high-crime neighborhoods.

He soon caught a killer.

Lonergan and his partner were downtown when the radio broadcast the report of an murdered in his Grant Street home. The victim had been stabbed in the chest with a barbecue fork.

A witness provided police a vague description.

“We started driving to the area and spotted a man hitchhiking on the Scajaquada Expressway, and he had on a flannel shirt, no jacket, and it was raining, and that caught our attention. We picked him up, and he got in the back seat, and we put our guns in his face. He actually had property belonging to the victim in his pockets with the victim’s name on it.”

He was among those convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life after an encounter with Lonergan.

Clergy murders

Lonergan’s first case on the homicide squad involved the murders of two Catholic priests, Father A. Joseph Bissonette and Monsignor David P. Herlihy. Their murders outraged and frightened the community.

“We didn’t have much to go on, so we developed a list of people who were seen near rectories. We located one of these individuals, Milton Jones, and we went just to interview him. We had nothing to go on, and when we located him, kind of as a bluff, we said, ‘Do you know why we’re here?’ He put his head down and said, ‘Because of the priests.’

“I was with Detectives Harold Frank and James Zientek, and as soon as Jones said that, we took a break and went into another room and high-fived each other. We then went back and Jones confessed. He and the other guy, Theodore Simmons, got something like 50 years in prison.”

Years later, he would return to the scene of Father Bissonette’s killing, the rectory at 335 Grider St., which had been given a new life as a home for parolees. The Bissonette House was run by Sister Karen Klimczak, and on Good Friday, April 14, 2006, she was killed.

Parolee Craig M. Lynch, in what he said was a crack-cocaine induced craze, killed her when he was caught rifling through her room in search of valuables to use to buy drugs.

Lynch was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Handcuffing McCray

Perhaps the biggest homicide investigation of Lonergan’s career dealt with the August 2010 downtown City Grill shootings in which four people were fatally shot and four others wounded.

Lonergan and other detectives obtained photographs taken of partygoers attending a private event inside the now-closed Main Street restaurant and night spot.

“We had images from the surveillance video of the shooter outside, but you couldn’t make out his face, but we could see his clothing. So with the photographs taken inside by a photographer who had been hired for the party, we were able to match the clothing of the shooter outside with the photos taken inside,” Lonergan said.

Police soon learned the name of 23-year-old Riccardo M. McCray. There was just one problem: He fled the city.

Police determined McCray was hiding out with relatives down south.

“He knew we were close. He came back to Buffalo and surrendered,” Lonergan said.

The detective sergeant had no patience when community activist Darnell Jackson Sr. arranged for the surrender at WIVB’s television studio.

With a TV camera rolling, Lonergan and other detectives entered a room where Jackson and McCray stood.

“Jackson was blocking our path to this guy who had killed four people. I told Jackson, ‘Get out of my way,’ and I pushed him and grabbed McCray. I didn’t know if he had a handgun on him, and I was with two other detectives, and we had to protect the people around us. We searched and handcuffed McCray.”

The images shown on television created a sensation, and some viewed Lonergan as a bully for shoving Jackson.

“I couldn’t believe the negative comments. A day or two later, I was told that Darnell Jackson was demanding a public apology. I told Commissioner Derenda that Jackson better stockpile food and water, if he’s waiting for my public apology.”

Jackson said he never requested an apology.

“I wouldn’t expect an apology from someone like him,” Jackson said.

‘I’d do the same all over’

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda called Lonergan a devoted police officer.

“He was one of a kind and did an outstanding job,” the commissioner said. “He will truly be missed, and I mean that. It’s very hard to replace his experience.”

In reflecting on his rough-and-tumble ways, Lonergan says there isn’t a thing he would change in his career.

“I’d do the same all over,” he said.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com