High-Profile Cases

Gerace Reflects On His Career As County Sheriff

Joe Gerace

CHAUTAUQUA — During a lecture at the Turner Community Center on Tuesday evening, former Sheriff Joe Gerace thanked his family for supporting him through a 24-year-long career as sheriff for Chautauqua County and shared excitement for his new job as director of campus security and safety for Chautauqua Institution.

While he has accepted his new job as of January and intends on implementing a Security Master Plan for the community, Gerace still had an opportunity to reflect on some of his most prominent moments during his career as sheriff. Host Greg Peterson questioned him about a variety of high-profile cases.

“VERY CONTROVERSIAL”

THE HIV PREDATOR

Not many are more familiar with the name “Nushawn Williams” than Gerace. Shortly into his time as sheriff, the case of the “HIV predator” made its way to Chautauqua County; Williams had knowingly started to spread HIV to more than a dozen women in the county during the late 1990s, and early on during the case, Gerace had no place to start. He wasn’t allowed to know the man’s name.

Gerace talked about how he couldn’t know the name of Williams as a suspect or those with whom he had sexual relations. Once a court order was pursued in the interest of public safety and granted despite laws surrounding patient confidentiality, the sheriff’s office was able to launch its investigation while in the public eye of what Gerace said included both scrutiny and praise.

“It was very controversial,” Gerace said.

When Williams was caught, Gerace and his peers had another tough decision on their hands: announcing the name of the suspect to the world. Gerace said that they were aware of multiple women who had sex with Williams in Chautauqua County and were aware of the possibility of more residents having had relations with Williams without the knowledge of his HIV status.

Gerace reflected on the international media attention the case garnered. He said some praised his office for revealing Williams’ information for the sake of public health while others criticized the decision to reveal information that would usually be considered confidential.

“That was depressing,” Gerace said in regard to the negative press that he felt centered on Chautauqua County.

He said that his home county being the focal point of such a micro-epidemic was worse than the stress of the case and dealing with what he called antiquated laws surrounding confidentiality vs. public safety.

Williams had infected at least 14 women in Chautauqua County with HIV without telling them of his HIV status, which had been revealed to him by health officials. He also pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory rape and was given a four-to-12-year sentence. However, he remains incarcerated under the Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act.

“SUMMER FROM HELL”

CHASING DOWN BUCKY

Between April and September 2006, New York State Police, local departments and the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office had their hands full with the manhunt for Ralph “Bucky” Phillips.

Phillips became infamous for escaping from the Erie County Correctional Facility and shooting three New York State troopers, killing one of them in the town of Pomfret. Before the shootings of troopers Donald Baker Jr. and Joseph Longobardo, who died, Phillips had been on the run during the summer of 2006, as an especially wanted target after having shot trooper Sean Brown in the town of Veteran in June 2006.

“It was a very frustrating time for me,” said Gerace, who explained how New York State Police didn’t involve local agencies in the search until its end. “It was a time of little communication between law enforcement agencies. … That should have been handled differently. I’ve been very outspoken about that.”

Gerace proceeded to talk about Phillips’ background with the audience Tuesday evening. He said he called “Bucky,” as Peterson had referred to him, by his given name, “Ralph,” because, in Gerace’s words, “he liked (being called ‘Bucky’).

“Ralph Phillips was a lifelong criminal,” Gerace said. “He ended up killing a New York State trooper: shooting three and killing one. It was the summer from hell.”

Gerace said there were “many near misses” since departments weren’t communicating effectively, and the former sheriff said he believes that Phillips would have been captured sooner had collaboration among departments and the state police been better.

“A lot of things happened the right way,” Gerace said in regard to the Sept. 8, 2006, capture of Phillips. “That’s when we finally had a cooperative, multi-jurisdictional effort.”

With the assistance of multiple departments from Pennsylvania and New York forming a perimeter and helicopters patrolling the air, Phillips was pinned down and eventually surrendered in a field after being spotted by a Warren County sheriff’s deputy.

In response to the aggravated murder charge and the attempted aggravated murder charges, Phillips said he was “guilty as hell.” He remains in the Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone.

“One of the most touching experiences I had as a law enforcement officer for the years that I have been was, after the Bucky Phillips capture, I left the command post as one of the last to leave and came up through the burg in Frewsburg, and the streets were lined with local residents applauding,” Gerace said. “It was touching. I had to choke back the tears.”

“IT DOESN’T BRING THE VICTIM BACK”

MURDERS OF COUNTY RESIDENTS

Peterson questioned Gerace about other high-profile cases, including the murders of Clymer School Superintendent Keith Reed Jr. and violinist Mary Whitaker.

Gerace said Reed had been beloved by his staff and students and that it was shocking when his body was discovered dead outside his home after Anthony Taglianetti had shot Reed three times Sept. 21, 2012.

The murder had been spurred on by Taglianetti’s rage after he discovered his estranged wife, Mary Taglianetti, had an affair with Reed. Anthony Taglianetti then drove 350 miles from his Virginia home, found Reed, shot him and left him for dead.

“The sheriff’s office has some of the finest men and women in law enforcement,” Gerace said of his staff that had located the body and assisted in the search for Anthony Taglianetti, who was found near the Shenandoah Valley National Park a week after the homicide.

Whitaker had been lured outside of her Chautauqua home by a registered sex offender and her next-door neighbor, who was later found out to have a history of robbery and other violent crime. She was murdered Aug. 20, 2014.

Gerace said that, due in part to help from the FBI and increased cooperation among police agencies, the killers were quickly apprehended.

“We did a tremendous investigation,” Gerace said, “but it doesn’t bring the victim back.”

“WHAT AN EXPERIENCE”

ADVANCEMENTS IN LAW ENFORCEMENT

Gerace attributed the start of his involvement in the rise of technological advancements in the sheriff’s office to his predecessor, Sheriff John Bentley, who gave Gerace the responsibility of manning the color photography lab.

The former sheriff was able to work with his brother Vince Gerace in forensics “for almost 17 years” and said he learned fingerprinting from the “grandfather of forensics in Chautauqua County,” John Sirianno, a former undersheriff and investigator at the sheriff’s office.

From then on, the advancements kept coming once Gerace became sheriff in January 1995. The purchase of two Starflight helicopters was a big boost to the office, Gerace said, and he credited his staff with the initiative.

“When you have really good people around you, they make you look really good,” Gerace said.

By pressing the importance of saving people who had gone through trauma, Gerace’s team was able to convince county government that the “golden hour” was a crucial time period within which to get people to a primary care facility, since their survivability “goes way up.”

“After saving thousands of lives, it was very apparent it was important,” Gerace said.

The 1990s also introduced 911 consolidation as the universal means for people to call for help. Chautauqua Institution was the first community in the county to use 911, and Gerace said he was grateful to have “played a small part” in making 911 effective.

He recalled an early case in which a woman dialed 911 as she was being physically assaulted by her husband. The husband had then ripped the landline phone out of the wall, but police had already tracked the source of the call and were able to save her in time.

“Cell phones didn’t fit into the 911 mentality,” Gerace added.

He said that mobile devices made it feel like 911 was starting back at “square one.” Even today, Gerace said applications like Facebook and services like Uber do a better job of wirelessly tracking people’s locations than cell phones do.

“We still have a ways to go in the nation,” Gerace said.

A leader in county security, Gerace went through a unique situation not all law enforcement agencies get to go through: hosting the president of the United States. Former President Bill Clinton visited Chautauqua Institution in 1996, and Gerace was in charge of security for three and a half days while Clinton was there.

“What an experience to learn about presidential security,” Gerace reminisced. “We were on the map for some really cool reasons.”

As he had begun his career in law enforcement as a police officer at Chautauqua Institution, Gerace said he intends to bring his public service “full circle” by working there again.

Follow Eric Zavinski at twitter.com/EZavinski

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