No angry words or bar fight preceded the assault on William C. Sager Jr. a week ago Sunday, a witness told The Buffalo News on Sunday.
Sager and a friend went to Molly’s Pub in University Heights after attending a stag party for another friend. Just before 2 a.m., according to the witness, the bar manager, Jeffrey J. Basil, pushed the 28-year-old Air National Guardsman down a flight of stairs leading up from the bar’s ground-floor entrance at 3199 Main St.
“There was no argument,” the witness said, asking that his name be withheld because homicide detectives are continuing their investigation. “We walked to the bar because I live nearby. Our plan was not to drive.”
Buffalo Homicide Detective Christopher F. Sterlace, in his narrative supporting a felony assault charge against Basil, also did not list a reason for why the bar manager “pushed the complainant down a flight of stairs.”
Whether there is another version of what happened may come later.
Basil’s defense attorney, Joel L. Daniels, hinted as much during the arraignment of Basil on Sunday morning in Buffalo City Court, where Basil pleaded not guilty to first-degree assault.
“This incident occurred last week in the early morning hours well past midnight at a very active bar,” Daniels told City Judge Joseph A. Fiorella.
“It’s not unusual in these types of incidents for things to take twists and turns.”
Whatever led up to the altercation, Sager suffered the worst of it. The sergeant in the Air National Guard remained in critical condition late Sunday in Erie County Medical Center with a devastating brain injury.
More serious charges against Basil may follow.
“This case at any second could turn into a homicide case,” Assistant District Attorney Christopher J. Belling told the judge in arguing against bail for Basil.
After Fiorella set bail at $250,000, Basil, 35, of Amherst, was returned to the Erie County Holding Center.
More information about the incident in Molly’s also came to light Sunday, following the arraignment, from court documents and interviews with five people who have knowledge of the investigation, including the witness.
Two 911 calls were placed at about the same time, 1:58 a.m., from Molly’s, two law enforcement sources said.
Sager’s companion called to report that the bar’s staff and two off-duty officers were acting in a threatening manner and alerted authorities that his friend was in trouble. The News previously reported that Sager called 911.
A second call to 911 was made from the cellphone of one of two off-duty officers who had worked security at Molly’s. The call reported an assault and an unconscious man at Main near East Winspear Avenue, the location of Molly’s. An ambulance was dispatched to the scene, along with on-duty officers from the Northeast District.
After Sager went down the flight of stairs and while he was unconscious, handcuffs belonging to off-duty Buffalo Officer Robert E. Eloff, one of the two officers working at the bar, were placed on Sager. He was then dragged out of the bar and onto the sidewalk several feet from the double-door entrance to Molly’s. The bar’s staff removed the handcuffs after realizing Sager was severely injured.
But before on-duty police arrived, Basil went into the bar’s basement office and removed an electronic recording fed from the bar’s 16 surveillance cameras, one of the sources said. He then went outside to the rear of Molly’s, where there is a parking lot facing the backs of two houses that are closer to the Main Street intersection of Northrup Place.
There, Basil allegedly tossed the recording unit into a city trash tote in back of one of the houses. On-duty officers later recovered it, according to three sources familiar with the investigation.
Investigators are now trying to learn whether Basil had assistance in removing the unit.
Eloff and the other off-duty officer, Adam E. O’Shei, who were working security at Molly’s, are the target of investigations by the Internal Affairs Division of the Buffalo Police Department and the FBI.
There is also a city surveillance camera on the east side of Main at East Winspear, and authorities have said investigators recovered footage from the time of the incident.
A passerby told The News she saw the commotion outside early May 11.
“I was coming from the 7-Eleven, and I saw the man on the ground. There were a bunch of guys around him arguing. It looked like they were trying to lift him up,” said University at Buffalo student Tiffany Kelly. “I thought somebody had just been thrown out of the bar.”
Andy Chen, another UB student, said he noticed the commotion and walked inside the 7-Eleven, at Main and East Winspear, to get a better look because it is situated on a slight rise away from the sidewalk on Main Street.
“I said, ‘Oh, crap, what happened?’ I saw a dude on the sidewalk and another guy in handcuffs. There were four cop cars and an ambulance,” Chen said.
“The guy in handcuffs was just standing there, and the guy on the ground, he wasn’t moving, and I think he was unconscious. I thought he had been knocked out in a fight. I didn’t think too much of it. Then I left.”
The individual in handcuffs, according to sources close to the investigation, was Sager’s friend, who had called 911 and refused to leave out of concern for Sager. He ended up being charged with trespass on a complaint from Eloff.
In City Court on Sunday morning, Basil stood quietly, handcuffed from behind, during the brief appearance. He was dressed in a black suit with a white open-collared shirt.
In the arrest paperwork filed by Sterlace, Basil was accused of “depraved indifference to human life.”
According to the arrest paperwork, Basil “recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, to wit, brain injury to William Sager in that the defendant did on May 11, 2014, at approximately 1:55 a.m. while at Molly’s Pub pushed the complainant down a flight of stairs.”
In arguing for no bail, Belling pointed out that in 2003, Basil was convicted of a felony drug charge and a few years earlier had a misdemeanor conviction for violating a court order, plus “several additional arrests.”
Daniels, in arguing for $25,000 bail, pointed out that Basil surrendered at 5 p.m. Saturday to homicide detectives at Buffalo Police Headquarters. The defense attorney also noted that he has been in contact with his client throughout the last week and with members of the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.
Basil is a graduate of Maryvale High School and attended Buffalo State College, Daniels noted.
“Mr. Basil has worked his entire adult life and is no risk of failing to appear at future court proceedings,” he said.
Basil’s family members, including his father, were in the courtroom.
Daniels also said: “We certainly hope Mr. Sager’s health conditions improve.”
Acquaintances of Sager are in the process of organizing a fundraiser to assist his family in covering his medical expenses, and details of the event are expected to be released soon.
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