Dontre Jones started calling fellow students at Cheektowaga Central High School a few weeks after he was charged with murder and was sent to the Erie County Holding Center last year to await trial in the fatal shooting of a teenager in Cheektowaga Town Park.
The students were often in class when Jones reached them on their cellphones. They talked about how he was doing in jail, and then they handed their phones to teachers who would stop class and talk to him, sometimes on speakerphone so all the students could hear the conversation.
Two teachers who did this in their classrooms apparently didn’t know that the jailhouse calls were being recorded.
In one of the 10 calls recorded during a 13-month period from March 2012 through April 2013, a teacher told Jones on the day before his murder trial that another student might testify against him.
The teacher identified the potential witness by name.
“I hear (Witness 1) snitched on you,” the teacher said, according to audio of their conversation provided Monday by the Cheektowaga Police Department.
“Word?” Jones replied.
“That’s what the kids said here,” she told him.
The student did not appear as a witness at Jones’ trial, which had been postponed to June, Cheektowaga Police Chief David J. Zack said as he released the tapes and a transcript to reporters.
He noted that the police investigation was hindered by the lack of cooperation from potential witnesses who were at the park when the shooting occurred.
“This is the one where we said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Zack said.
Zack contacted the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, which in turn contacted the school district to alert officials to the two teachers taking the calls during class. The calls then stopped.
“It’s like a super-red flag when the district attorney has to show up at your school to tell you to shut up,” Zack said.
The audio also showed that the teacher who told Jones about the “snitch” confided to him in an earlier call that she missed him and had his picture “right next to my desk.”
Police did not release the names of the teachers or students heard on the audio. Although police said three teachers communicated with Jones, only two are heard on the phone calls.
A third teacher worked part time as a deputy at the Erie County Holding Center and kept Jones informed about what was going on at school and about a fight that one of Jones’ relatives had with another inmate at the Holding Center, according to the audio. The teacher no longer works at the Holding Center, Zack said.
The teachers have been placed on paid administrative leave pending completion of a school district investigation.
“They did not make our job easier,” Zack said of the teachers. “They made it harder. When witnesses are being outed, that’s problematic for an investigation.”
Attorneys for the teachers could not be reached to comment Monday.
Zack told reporters that a second homicide investigation was affected when police heard on the phone calls that Jones learned the name of a potential witness in that case, which was unrelated to Jones.
The police chief said the teachers’ conduct jeopardized both homicide investigations and endangered the lives of witnesses.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said later at a news conference that he was outraged by the teachers’ behavior but that they can’t be prosecuted on charges of witness tampering or intimidation. “Tampering” means offering an inducement, like money, to someone not to testify, while “intimidation” involves a threat of bodily harm if a person testifies.
“They didn’t go far enough,” Sedita said.
Zack defended releasing the tapes, in response to criticism by one teacher’s attorney who said the release amounted to a witch hunt.
“It was not a witch hunt,” he said. “We were not out hunting teachers. We were out hunting a killer.”
Zack also spoke about fighting the “Don’t be a snitch” mentality, which discourages witnesses from coming forward.
He noted that Sedita, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. and Brian P. Boetig, the new special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo, joined other police chiefs from across Erie County at the news conference to support his actions “because they understand the ramifications” of that mentality.
Zack said police have been working with the school district to ensure that teachers don’t engage in such conduct again.
“If they were my employees, I know what I would do,” he said. “Some sins are unforgivable.”
Jeffrey F. Swiatek, an attorney for the school district, said the district’s investigation of the teachers is nearing completion.
He said the district received an edited tape of the phone conversations a week and a half ago under a Freedom of Information request and has filed an appeal seeking the unedited version. Once the district receives that, he said, it can complete the investigation.
The teachers tried to get a court order sealing the tapes. But a judge ruled last month that the tapes were not part of the criminal investigation and could be released.
Zack said police chose to release the recordings to prevent this kind of conduct from happening again.
Jones, 19, was convicted in a nonjury trial of killing Ira Watkins Jr., 19, of Buffalo, on May 31, 2011, in the park while scores of children played nearby. He was sentenced Aug. 26 to 25 years in prison by Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka.
Though the shooting was related to an earlier quarrel between rival gangs from Buffalo, police said, neither Jones nor Watkins was involved in the dispute. Zack said Jones was a “general” in one of the gangs.