In the end, it wasn’t just the videotaped beating of a handcuffed suspect on a sidewalk that got Buffalo Police Officer John A. Cirulli in trouble.
Cirulli also found himself in hot water for what he did later while the suspect sat inside a police cruiser. He hit him again.
Cirulli’s admission that he struck John T. Willet, 22, in the face a second time is part of a plea deal that could send the former officer – he resigned Friday – to federal prison for up to two years.
“Once he was in the car, he hit him again,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said of Cirulli on Thursday.
The revelation that Cirulli struck Willet a second time is why the 31-year old former officer pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts, not one, Thursday. It also could mean a longer prison sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Rogowski said the second incident followed Cirulli’s now-infamous encounter with Willet following a chase April 19. A video of Willet’s arrest, recorded by a bystander, shows Cirulli kicking and slapping the handcuffed suspect while he lies face- down on the sidewalk.
“This defendant did indeed strike the suspect with his feet as well as his arm,” Rogowski told Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
Cirulli, dressed in a gray suit, said little during his court appearance but at one point was asked by Skretny if he did, in fact, do what was outlined in the plea agreement.
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
Cirulli’s lawyer said his client decided to plead guilty because it was in the best interests of family, the other officers who were at the scene April 19 and the rest of the Police Department. He also challenged the notion that Cirulli’s actions are part of a larger problem.
“This public clamoring about the Buffalo Police Department being out of control is wrong,” said defense attorney Rodney O. Personius. “This is an isolated occurrence."
Personius said his client admitted responsibility for hitting and kicking Willet but reserved the right to challenge one other allegation against him – the claim that he tried to take the cellphone with the video away from the bystander who recorded it.
As part of his plea deal, Cirulli admits he took the phone, checked it for a recording and then returned it.
The plea deal says the bystander, identified only as “J.B.,” intentionally gave Cirulli a different camera.
The encounter, which took place inside a nearby neighborhood deli, could play a role in Cirulli’s sentence.
“We’re reserving the right to challenge what happened in the deli,” Personius said Thursday.
Cirulli’s plea agreement came just five weeks after the citizen cellphone videotape was made public.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda placed the six officers at the scene on paid administrative leave the day after the video went viral. Cirulli was suspended without pay.
The video also led to an FBI investigation and, by most accounts, Cirulli’s decision to take a plea deal.
Widely viewed on YouTube, the video of Willet’s arrest at Philadelphia and Ontario streets in Riverside shows the officer pinning him to the ground. Viewers also can hear Willet screaming, “Officer,” “Please stop” and, “Let me go.”
Willet, who was later charged with drug possession and resisting arrest, suffered neck injuries in the attack, according to his lawyer. He also claims Willet’s cries for help stopped when Cirulli placed his knee on Willet’s neck.
As part of his agreement with prosecutors, Cirulli pleaded guilty to two counts of deprivation of rights under color of law. He will be sentenced Sept. 24.
Cirulli’s plea came just two weeks after another Buffalo cop, Robert E. Eloff, was implicated in a separate beating incident in Molly’s Pub in University Heights. Eloff has not been charged, but he was suspended without pay.
The incident involved a patron, William C. Sager Jr., 28, who suffered a severe brain injury when he was pushed down a flight of stairs in the early-morning hours of May 11. Jeffrey J. Basil, Molly’s manager, has been charged with felony assault.