‘All In A Day’s Work’
3 Cattaraugus County Deputies Awarded High Honor
LITTLE VALLEY — It was a warm Monday afternoon. The day had already been busy for Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s deputies Steve Dombeck, Hanz Heineman and Sgt. Andrew Rozler, but Monday, May 7, 2018, had much more in store for the trio.
At about 6 p.m., the call came from dispatch that a four-door Toyota pickup truck had driven off the road in a ditch along Route 242 in Machias. Dombeck was on his way back from a transport into Erie County, and was driving south on Route 16.
The scene was already mildly hectic. People had stopped to help the driver of a pickup truck that was front-end down in the ditch. At first, Dombeck said he was thinking it was an alcohol or drug-related accident. That’s when one of the Good Samaritans that had stopped to help approached to warn him.
“As I came up, a guy came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on with him. Something is wrong because of what he’s saying,'” Dombeck said. “As I walked up, I could see a gentleman on his knees, yelling to a guy on the roadway.”
As he approached, Dombeck said he immediately noticed that the guy was wearing clothing, and his vehicle had a license plate that identified him as a veteran. He would later find out, a combat veteran.
“As I approached, I could hear him quoting Bible scripture,” Dombeck said. “When he recognized that I am law enforcement, he starting to tell me to make the call. ‘Make the call. You know who to call. I could tell by the way he was dressed, even if he never identified himself as such, that he could be military.'”
Dombeck’s training told him to keep calm and to try to talk to the man.
“Some of the things he had said made me feel uneased,” he said. “He had made mention of having guns so I stopped my advance. I decided to back up a little bit and talk to him a bit more. He wasn’t threatening that he had weapons. More letting me know he had weapons, and a lot of them.”
In total, it would be discovered there were six weapons between handguns and long guns.
Dombeck radioed for backup.
New York State Police Investigator Matthew Stegner was second on the scene. With the situation going as well as could be expected with Dombeck talking to the gentleman, Dombeck said Stegner cleared the cars that had parked along the road to help out.
Meanwhile, on their way back from assisting Erie County with cases, Rozler and Hieneman heard the call for backup and immediately went to assist.
“I was behind Deputy Heineman,” Rozler said. “I could see that Dombeck was talking to the man. I could see he was talking at a distance, maybe about 12 to 15 feet. I could hear him yelling Biblical verses and saying things like, ‘We shouldn’t have done it.’ ‘You know the op. You know the operation.’ He was telling (Dombeck) to make the call.
“I knew at this point there was going to be no negotiating with him and no rationalizing with him,” Rozler continued. “The sheriff has had me take all sorts of classes over the years, and I knew that he was having some sort of psychiatric break.”
Rozler and Heineman found their way around the truck to the passenger side door. With the man on his knees near the open driver door with his hands up, they took a quick assessment of the weapons.
Rozler went to close the passenger side door as quietly as possible. The click was all it took for the man to turn his head and immediately raise his guard.
“At that point, we had to make our move,” Rozler said. “We ended up tackling him and taking him to the ground. There was a struggle.”
As the man as taken down, he attempted to reach into his front right pocket. Rozler said he immediately grabbed the hand and felt the gun as well. Once the gentleman was securely down, the gun was discovered to be a .38 pistol.
“It really could have been a bad situation for all of us,” Rozler said. “I give Steve (Dombeck) a lot of credit. He had four or five cars behind him.
If he would have been able to get to the guns in his truck, it could have been a very bad day. We were at a tactical disadvantage. Our vehicles were up on a hill from us with no cover. He is also well-trained military and former law enforcement.”
From the time Dombeck responded to the time the man was taken into custody took less than 15 minutes. The day was not over.
Rozler drew on his training and came to the conclusion that something more was taking place. During the ordeal, and after, he made contact with people that knew the individual.
Along with the guns and ammunition, the officers found a couple badges for law enforcement agencies in southern states. Contact with them revealed more on the man. As it turns out, he was a combat medic with several tours of service in Iraq. When he left the military he went to work with SWAT-style teams for those agencies.
“We were told that he was a great operator with his teams,” Rozler said. “One of his supervisors said he was great at his job, but don’t turn your back on him. He is highly trained.”
Rozler said he knew there was more than had to be done for this man.
He was taken to UPMC Chautauqua for treatment, and to find out what could be done.
“He legally possessed the guns in his home state, but we placed SAFE Act charges on him,” said Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Rieman.
With the man in a hospital bed, getting the help he needed, Rozler and his team were getting answers, and the help, they needed to make sure things went the way they needed to.
Rozler said that while the gentleman was in custody he made reference to his truck being booby trapped. At that point, the truck was in evidence inventory with technicians going through it. Rozler said he very quickly cleared the crew out and called the Cattaraugus County explosive technician, Deputy Joe Yerpe, as well as the Chautauqua County crew. Nothing was found.
As it turns out, the man had left his New Hampshire home to go to the store, Rozler said. After being gone for a while and his wife having no idea of his whereabouts, she started to track purchases on his bank card.
He had found his way to Niagara Falls and then to an Army buddy’s home in Virginia. Before heading home, he went back to the Niagara Falls area and then down Route 219. Rozler said it was a situation akin to divine intervention.
Rozler said everything worked out that the right people were a part of this ordeal to keep it from going the wrong way.
“I think Steve’s (Dombeck) composure really played a large part in how the day went,” Rozler said. “There were a million ways it could have played out.”
“I can only say that we are all so proud of how the officers handled this,” Rieman said. “They are cool headed and one of them is a veteran himself. They de-escalated what could have been a senseless tragedy.”
Through the action of the deputies, in conjunction with the willingness of the district attorney to work with Veterans Administration to get this man the help he needed, he is now back at his New Hampshire home with his wife and daughters. According to correspondence, he is grateful for the way it was handled.
“We agreed to let his family take him there and gave them a specific time limit to have him admitted and provide proof, which they did,” Reiman said. “The VA provided us with regular updates and, when it became clear that he was no longer a danger to himself or others, I dismissed the charges.”
“You know, we see a lot of bad people but more often than not, we see good people having a bad day,” Rozler said. “That’s what this was. This man was a combat veteran, a combat medic. He saved lives. He is a hero in his own right. He was having a bad day.”
For their efforts and the concern in helping this man and not just looking at the charges and an arrest, Rozler, Hieneman and Dombeck were bestowed a rare honor. They are the 15th, 16th, and 17th recipients of the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Meritorious Service Award. The commendation was created in 1817 as a way to recognize county law enforcement for performing extraordinary service.
“You know, as I look back, it was a Monday,” Dombeck said. “When it was over, it was Tuesday. I treated the scene as I would any other. I was doing my job.”