By David Bushman
(An excerpt from David’s upcoming true-crime book about one of the most notorious police corruption scandals in NY State history, and very loosely the basis for the 2012 film ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’)
Chapter 15: Willy
Sometime between 1:30 and 2:00 p.m. on the overcast day of Saturday, October 6, 2001, Officer William “Willy” Marhafer II, a thirty-year-old Schenectady policeman who had dreamed nearly his whole life of being a cop, silently walked into the locker room at the police station, retrieved his semiautomatic Glock from his locker, and fired a single shot into his mouth. He never regained consciousness.
Marhafer, a seven-year veteran of the force with a wife and one-year-old son, left no note, but he had been on indefinite paid administrative leave since August 24, at the request of the FBI. He was not allowed to patrol but could visit the police station whenever he wanted.
Brown, the Schenectady PBA president, told the press he believed Marhafer’s death was “directly related” to the investigation he faced. “I believe his death is fallout from the investigation. He was under extreme pressure,” Brown said.
Assistant US Attorney John Katko said his office had had no plans to prosecute Marhafer.
“He wasn’t going to be prosecuted by us. That’s clear,” he said.
Still, the FBI had uncovered evidence that based on a tip provided by Mike Hamilton that a group of drug dealers living at 12 Chesnut Street in the Hamilton Hill section of town, were in possession of a gun, Marhafer and Officer Joseph Zelezniak, had conducted an illegal search of the residence in August 1999. Rather than wait to obtain a warrant, they barged into the house and found a semiautomatic weapon that was stashed in a cabinet. In their incident report, the officers reported finding the gun in “plain view.” Marhafer and Zelezniak were accused of lying about it under oath, leading to the conviction of two residents of the house.
According to Marhafer’s father, William, John Katko and fellow US Assistant Attorney Gregory West had spent eight hours grilling his son the day before Willy’s September 18 appearance before the grand jury.
According to Willy’s brother-in-law, Roy Ryan (the husband of his sister, Danielle), that appearance in front of the grand jury “destroyed Willy emotionally.”
Ryan said Marhafer never shared with him the contents of his testimony, but Katko acknowledged that Marhafer was cooperating with federal investigators:
“It was very, very clear in the days leading up to his death that he was under extraordinary pressure from members of the department not to cooperate,” Katko said. “He did something wrong and he opted to cooperate, and given that he was very low on the totem pole and given that he clearly wouldn’t have done it without the urging of his superior, corrupt officers, we gave him an opportunity to not have a criminal record.
“But just by simply saying what he saw, he endured a tremendous amount of pressure from some of the bad apples within the Schenectady Police Department, and that’s all endemic of the fact that the union would never do anything other than circle the wagons, no matter who got arrested, no matter how egregious the conduct, and this was just a very tragic example of that.”
Two days later, Marhafer met with Assistant Chief Mark Chaires, whom, Ryan said, “Willy respected more than anyone else in the department.”
Here’s Chaires recalling that conversation to me:
“Willy comes into my office and he says, ‘Chief Chaires, I don’t want to lose my job.’ And he says, ‘The chiefs want to fire me,’ because they were running the investigation, and I said, ‘Well, you know’─I didn’t want to be one of those guys like ‘Yeah, oh, they’re scumbags. I wouldn’t have done that.’ I said, ‘You know, Willy, the way Seber and Falvo and Grasso and those guys look at it, and what their argument is, is that because you got caught, the story goes, you basically committed a burglary, you find a gun and then lied about it at grand jury, you perjured yourself, so they’re saying that ‘Hey, you would have a hard time being believed on the stand, and your credibility would be shot.’ And then I said to him, ‘Willy, I can’t argue with that logic. I’d see it the same way.’ I said it’s unfortunate.
‘That’s what I said to him. Now, obviously, in hindsight, I would have never lied to Willy, but I certainly would have tried to couch it in a way to give him some kind of hope.”
(Zelezniak, who signed the same false report Marhafer did, wound up getting just a two-week suspension; there are two theories about this: one, that Marhafer as the senior officer, bore the brunt of the responsibility, and two, that Marhafer had a spent a lot more time on the force working under Hamilton, who, along with Messere, was the real target of the probe.)
Marhafer was also under investigation by District Attorney Robert Carney over the same incident, and though he was not facing any charges on the state level either at the time of his death, Marhafer and his attorney, Tom Neidl (who passed away in 2007), had been summoned to Carney’s office on September 21—three days after his grand jury testimony. Ryan was not present at this meeting, but, he said, “Willy’s father told me, Willy told me, and Tom Neidl told me in front of Willy’s mother that Carney told him that they wanted Willy to plead guilty to misconduct and lose his job, and with doing that he had to testify against Joe Zelezniak. The term that was used to his father and to Tom Neidl was they wanted him to ‘give blood on Joe Z.’”
According to Ryan, the state also was insisting that Marhafer testify against two other cops, whom Marhafer never identified to Ryan, but none of the officers who had already been arrested.
“Willy immediately said no, he would not,” Ryan said. “‘I’m not bringing anybody else into this.’”
So while it’s true that Marhafer wasn’t facing criminal charges from either the feds or the state at the time of his death, he had been threatened with jail time if he refused to cough up incriminating information against three of his colleagues on the force and was in danger of losing his job.
“From that moment on, he was not good,” Ryan said. “He just never saw another way out. He kept saying they would never stop, they would never leave him alone, it would just continue on.”
Complicating Marhafer’s predicament even further: Hamilton and Messere had been indicted on racketeering charges on September 18—the same day Marhafer testified before the grand jury, prompting speculation that he had handed the feds the ammunition they needed behind closed doors. Suddenly, Marhafer was getting the cold shoulder.
“We were later told that there was a gag order that came from the police—and I can’t tell you whether it was the union or if it was the chief’s office—that officers were not supposed to have any communication with any of the officers who had been put on administrative leave or had been arrested, and the reason for that was that apparently somebody talked to somebody and immediately after they got threatened by the FBI, so it was fear of people getting charged with obstruction or witness tampering,” Ryan said.
“I can’t tell you that Willy knew that was the reason at that time, but I know he went to a union meeting when he was out on leave, and nobody talked to him. Nobody even approached him. And this was a well-loved officer, and he just kind of felt left on an island.”
William and Sheila Marhafer, Willy’s parents, were both vocal in the aftermath of his death about the devastating impact of the “blue wall of silence” on their son’s emotional health, and even requested that Hamilton, Barnett, and Siler not attend his funeral. (Messere, I was told, was “looking out for Willy,” sharing information about the investigation with him.)
“He never got any support from any of his friends in the police department,” William told reporters. “The blue wall, that was the death of our son.”
But it wasn’t just Marhafer. The department, already ravaged by internal friction and the toxicity of warring cliques, was further fractured when some officers rallied around the arrested cops while others resisted pressure to lie or withhold information from the feds.
“There’s nothing more dangerous in this world than a cop with nothing left to lose,” one officer told me, requesting anonymity. “You think about that. You’re talking about sending a guy to prison with all the people he’s put in prison. At what length is he gonna stop?”
According to the FBI, Patrolman Brendan Barrett─a close friend of Marhafer’s since childhood─spent about twenty minutes alone with Willy one day at the home of Danielle and Roy Ryan, and it was after this meeting that Willy’s wife, Anna, began to notice changes in her husband’s behavior. According to several sources within the department, Barrett was encouraged to visit Marhafer by Robert Hamilton, Mike’s brother and a lieutenant on the Schenectady police force.
On another occasion, a police officer told Marhafer “they” knew exactly what time Anna dropped their son off at the babysitter as well as the address; the time she arrived at work; the time she left work; the time she picked their baby up; and the time that she arrived back home each day.
“It was said to him that he wasn’t just protecting himself; he had to think about his family,” Ryan says.
Fearful for the safety of his wife and child, Marhafer instructed Anna to start parking the car in the garage rather than on the driveway or street and to keep the venetian blinds shut at all times.
As Marhafer undoubtedly knew, these were not idle threats: according to newspaper reports at the time, the lug nuts on a vehicle owned by Barnett had been tampered with on two occasions before he pleaded guilty to drug possession and racketeering charges. Authorities suspected supporters of Hamilton and Messere were responsible for the tampering. There were also reports that at least one officer’s dog was killed and another officer’s cat was hung from a tree while the feds were summoning members of the department to Albany for interviews, both of which were later confirmed.
Ryan told me that on the day he returned from the hospital following Willy’s death, he found a shotgun and a box of rounds on his bed, left by a friend of his on the force, with a message to the effect of “Make sure it’s close. You know a lot of stuff.”
Sheila Marhafer, Willy’s mother, recalled her son telling her shortly before his death: “‘You don’t know what they can do to me. They’ll never leave me alone.’”
Given all this, Ryan says, it’s no mystery why he chose to kill himself.
“I’ve been asked multiple times over twenty years why Willy killed himself,” he says. “Put it in perspective: taken out of work; shunned by police; the gag order; threatened initially not to testify; forced to testify by the FBI; threatened with jail, which is any cop’s worst nightmare; then Chaires told him he was never going to be a cop because he couldn’t be trusted; then Carney brings him in, tells him he’s gonna charge him at a state level unless he testifies against the other officers; and then he’s threatened again, because they know he testified at grand jury, with the things about his wife and son’s daily activities or routine.”
On October 1, Ryan and Sheila Marhafer drove Willy to Neidl’s office, where the attorney urged Willy to cooperate with the county and give up the other three cops, so that he could “be done with it and move on,” Ryan says.
“Willy said he could not do it, he would not do it, and that he had to kill himself; there was no other way out. At that point I was in my car, but they called me to come in, and Tom Neidl’s saying, ‘He’s telling me he’s gonna kill himself.. We can’t let him leave,’ and that’s when we brought him to Saratoga Hospital.”
Marhafer was admitted to the hospital that day for severe depression, but released four days later (eventually prompting Anna Marhafer to file to a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital, two psychiatrists, and a counselor, though a six-member jury ruled in favor of the defendants). At first, the treatment appeared to work. According to Ryan, Marhafer “had a wonderful evening with his wife on the night of October 5, a good morning the next day with his son, feeds him breakfast, tells his wife that he has hope, says he’ll see her later, promises never to leave her, and goes to the police station to get his paycheck.”
Here’s what happened next, according to Ryan:
“Everybody’s paycheck was with the desk sergeant except for Willy’s. The desk sergeant told Willy that his paycheck was in Kaczmarek’s office and that the chief wanted to see him. So Willy went to see him, and my understanding, and what I was told by multiple people, was that Willy went to Kaczmarek’s office, he was there for six or seven minutes, and then he actually left the police department, went and cashed his paycheck and deposited it, and then went back to the police station, and that is when he went into the locker room.”
The time is now about 1:30 p.m. Marhafer phones his wife, but her phone battery is dead, so she doesn’t hear the call. Next, he calls Danielle, his sister, tells her to let everyone know he loves them and to tell Anna he’s sorry he couldn’t fulfill his promise to never leave her.
“He was saying that he was unable to fulfill his promises to his wife and that he had to kill himself,” said Ryan. “So she handed me the phone, and I spoke to him, and there were several things that he said to me.“
At one point, Ryan said, “Willy told me, ‘You know Carney wants me to give up Joe Zelezniak?’ I said, ‘Yes, Willy, I know,’ because apparently at that time his mind did not remember that I had taken him to his lawyer’s appointment, so he reiterated that to me moments before he died, that he was unable to bring anybody else into it.
“Ultimately, I gave the phone back to my wife, and I told her to try to keep him on the line, and I called an officer who was a very good friend of mine to tell him that Willy was at the police station and he was telling us he was going to kill himself. He immediately hung up and called the desk sergeant, and then the desk sergeant grabbed another officer and they went to the locker room. And when they opened the locker room door to go in and find him—my wife actually heard the door to the locker room open—Willy said that he had to go, he loved her, and hung up.”
At a hastily called news conference after the shooting, Kaczmarek told reporters he was in his second-floor office when he learned Marhafer was in the building.
“Somebody called me up to say Willy had just come in the back door and got in the elevator. So I went downstairs and I heard a shot as I was getting off the elevator, and then I got into the locker room and Willy was laying on his back with blood coming out of his mouth.
“I rushed over to him, but I was unable to control the bleeding or adequately ventilate him,” said Kaczmarek, who was a registered nurse before becoming a cop.
“I knew Willy since he was a teenager,” Kaczmarek says. “I actually helped him get ready for the police test. He was a good student, a good son, a good husband, and a good father. He was someone people could be proud of.”
Kaczmarek’s behavior in the aftermath of the suicide infuriated some people, especially Marhafer’s family, who believe he bears some responsibility for Willy’s death.
“It’s always been a wonder, a fear, an anger as to what was said to him by Kaczmarek in his office that day, because his wife said they had a wonderful night that night when he got out of the hospital,” Ryan said. “He got up in the morning; he told her that he had hope and that he would never leave her and that he would see her later. And then, hopefully, he goes down to the police station to get his check. Something changed in that period of time, and that’s a feeling that we have.”
According to Ryan, three days after Marhafer’s death, Tom Neidl and Anna Marhafer both received an anonymous letter, typed in all-uppercase letters, saying Marhafer “was told by the chief to resign or Willy would face further criminal charges and jail time.” Further, the letter says, “The chief is playing this teary eyed person looking for these answers of why Willy would do this. However, he knows why. He had just told him to resign.”
The contents of the letter, Ryan said, has “tormented” the family ever since.
Kaczmarek, however, told me he had no recollection of meeting with Marhafer in his office that day.
“The only time that day I spoke to Willy was in the locker room, kneeling over him,” he told me.
The family was equally enraged by Kaczmarek’s press conference shortly after the shooting, where he claimed to have attempted resuscitation of the fallen officer.
Ryan said he arrived at the police station October 6 shortly after Marhafer’s father, and that the two of them were standing outside the locker room as Kaczmarek exited. Kaczmarek maintains to this day that when he talked to reporters a short time later, Marhafer’s blood was on his clothes. Ryan, and others who were there, says it’s not true.
“He had white sneakers on, beige pants or gray pants [in fact, khaki], he had a light gray shirt, and he had absolutely no blood on him,” Ryan said.
“I’m gonna tell you, I was standing there, and there was no blood on Kaczmarek,” another officer told me. “There was not a fucking spot of blood on him.”
Videotape of the conference shows no blood, though Kaczmarek is visible only from the knees up.
“He walked up to Al Jurczynski, who was the mayor, and said, ‘We have no culpability here,’” Ryan said. “I’ve been told he was a mess in the locker room, but when he came up to us, obviously he was upset, as any human being would be, but he was still thinking about himself and the city at that moment, and then to say he assisted with—I think the words were that he was unable to control the bleeding and unable to adequately ventilate Willy. I don’t know how graphic you want me to be, but my brother-in-law put the pistol in his mouth and angled it upward toward his brain stem and pulled the trigger, and my question has always been for Kaczmarek to explain to me if you’re an RN how you attempted to control bleeding on somebody who shot themselves in the back of the throat and into the brain, and secondly, how did you adequately try to ventilate him? Did you have access to the oral airways in your locker room ? Did you have Ambu bags or stuff to resuscitate him? Or did you attempt to do mouth-to-mouth on someone who had horrific trauma to his mouth?
“And then to come up and not have any blood on him?” Ryan said. “I was described the scene by multiple people; and it’s impossible to do a compression on somebody who shot themselves in the mouth and their airway and their [gastrointestinal] system is completely full of blood. If you do a compression on somebody, you’re gonna wear blood. If you blow into them, you’re probably going to wear blood.
“That was a bitter source of what we consider a lie to this day with all of us,” Ryan said.
(Kaczmarek’s exact words at the press conference: “I went to the back of the locker room and tried to assist and offer some life support to Officer Marhafer. I was unable to control the bleeding or to adequately ventilate, and we were unsuccessful in our efforts to resuscitate.”)
In January 2002, Officer Pat Horan, who was one of two cops in the locker room with Marhafer when he pulled the trigger and held his hand as he lay dying, told the FBI that Kaczmarek was not telling the truth when he publicly claimed to have tried to revive Marhafer. According to Horan, Kaczmarek came into the locker room shortly after Marhafer shot himself and felt for a pulse, but made no effort at all to ventilate the dying officer, whose wounds were so severe that any attempt at CPR would have proved useless anyway.
Attorney Kevin Luibrand, who filed a notice of claim against the city on behalf of Anna Marhafer, said of Kaczmarek, “He did so little, and there was so little that could be done. To then try and portray himself as attempting heroics is unfair to a lot of people.”
The Albany Times Union, seeking a response from Kaczmarek to Horan’s accusations, wrote that he was reached on his cell phone but “hung up and did not return later calls.”
In one of my conversations with Kaczmarek, he dismissed accusations that he had sought to aggrandize himself by saying that he had attempted to administer first aid in the locker room.
“Early on, people said I tried to puff myself up as a would-be hero, the father in particular,” he said. “I didn’t save him. There was nothing to be proud of. I tried to position the head, which is the first thing you do in CPR, and get an air patent airway, and I was not successful.”
As for the press conference afterward, Kaczmarek said he was unambiguously opposed to it, but ordered to meet with the press by Jurczynski and didn’t feel right about passing the burden on to any of his assistant chiefs. And there’s no question Kaczmarek had a rough go of it trying to get through the conference, pausing several times to choke back tears.
“I have I think a certain amount of sensitivity to suicide, because of my mom in ‘79, and I didn’t want to put the family through that on television,” Kaczmarek said. “That’s why I didn’t want to get into some of those gory details at a press conference I was ordered to attend. I would have liked to have skipped that. I know the pain of family suicide, and I tried to not add to it.”
Jurczynski, he said, “had little or no sensitivity.”
Chaires told me Marhafer’s death was “the worst day of my life.”
“I’ll never forget that day,” he says. “I remember I was sitting next to Tony DeCarlo, and we’re just sitting there like a bomb went off in that place. And anybody who was in the department, there’s psychological scar tissue that just isn’t gonna heal.
“Now, I’ll tell you my impression of Willy Marhafer. Willy Marhafer was a good friggin’ kid. He was a good kid. He comes into the department, this little guy, he looks like he’s about ten years old, and then he bulked himself up and he looked like a ten-year-old on steroids, But he was really trying to be a good cop. Did he make some bad decisions in doing that? Yeah, I guess he did. And there was a lot of pressure on him, from both sides. And unfortunately Willy, because of a bad decision, put himself in that position.”
He said he knows the Marhafer family thinks he bears some responsibility for Willy’s death, because Willy’s father told him so.
“I know they’re bitter,” he says. “I remember the family came in and we explained what happened. I gave his aunt or somebody in his family─I remember it was a woman─one of our business cards. I said, ‘If there’s anything I can do, here’s my card.’ She looks at the card with just disgust, like What the fuck am I supposed to do with this? Is this gonna bring Willy back? To me that kind of stung more than his father’s words.”
But Chaires doesn’t begrudge the Marhafers their anger─at him or anyone else:
“Here’s the way I look at it. Whatever the Marhafers want to say, they have a right to say. When you lose a loved one─this is the way I think the Marhafers look at it, and who the fuck is to tell them they’re wrong to look at it this way?─they had a loved one that wanted to be a police officer from the time he was a little guy. and he finally gets this job. And our department, at that point, aspects of it were so fucking dysfunctional, this kid gets twisted up in it, grinded up in the gears, and the only way he thinks he can resolve the situation is to take his own life.
“You know what? If I was his mother and father, I would feel the same damn way. So they have a right to feel any way they want. They have a right to say what they want. I will never, ever contest anything that they have to say, because it should have never happened. Willy committed suicide, but there’s a lot of actions, and a lot of inactions, that led to Willy pulling that trigger, and I think what we all need to do, instead of pointing fingers, is look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, is there something you could have done, or something you did do, that might have somewhere even remotely been a chain in that process?”
Ultimately, the Marhafers believe, the buck stops with Kaczmarek, for not only failing to correct the dysfunction and disorganization that Chaires talked about, but, they say, at times even indirectly fostered it.
“He encouraged people to do whatever they needed to do to make arrests, to look the other way, how he looked the other way himself, and that’s a whole lot of stuff, but there’s a strong belief that if Kaczmarek did his job and was not promoting the officers that ultimately went to jail, that Willy would still be here, essentially, and that a lot of people’s lives wouldn’t have gotten as messed up that they did,” Ryan says.
Tom Gabriele─who once got into a physical altercation with Marhafer in the police station parking lot─told me essentially the same thing:
.“You had two guys that were infecting the younger guys because they wanted that social status; they wanted to get into that gravy train,” Gabriele said. “They glorified these two guys. ‘Just make the arrest; they’ll plead it out, it’ll get through, don’t worry about it.’ That’s what they were telling them. This kid took his life over that.”
Ryan remembers attending an awards ceremony with Marhafer about two years after he joined the force, the same year Hamilton and Messere were presented with the Chief’s Award:
“They didn’t give it to one; they gave it to both, and it was Greg that did that. And I’ll never forget walking out of there, and Willy just said, ‘Someday, I’m gonna get that award. I want to show them I can do their job just as well as they can.’ He just looked up to them. Right from the beginning.
“I’m not making excuses,” Ryan said. “I hope that Willy never crossed the lines to the extent that they did, but I know that Willy obviously crossed lines. I’m not dumb or naïve. Kaczmarek used to call Nick Supercop. There were headlines with ‘Supercop’ plastered all over the police station, that Nick was Supercop, and Hamilton was his leader. And there were people that went to Kaczmarek about it and there were people that went to Mike about it, and that’s why the FBI got involved─because nobody did anything about it.”
Marhafer’s father, before passing away, used to send Hamilton and Messere Christmas cards every year (and not the warm, fuzzy kind). One year Hamilton wrote back, praising Willy as a good, hardworking cop and saying he understood his anger, but that he had been misled, since he had never worked or road in a car with Willy and never encouraged him to break the law. Hamilton told me essentially the same thing:
“Marhafer, he was a younger cop, aggressive, that worked the midnight shift. He came in at midnight, and he worked until eight in the morning. I worked usually 3 p.m. to eleven. So occasionally I would see him, maybe in the gym or in the locker room, and I would tell him what information I knew: ‘Hey, this house is dealing, that house is dealing.’”
Hamilton believes responsibility for Marhafer’s death lies with the investigators, who were pressuring him to give them dirt on Hamilton because he was the one-half of the prize package.
“He told them the truth,” Hamilton said. “He couldn’t tell them anything because he never worked with me.”
I asked Chaires to weigh in here, and this is what he told me: “A lot of people want to hang this on Mike Hamilton. I don’t think that’s fair. Here’s the approach I think we should all take: when something goes wrong in an organization, look in the mirror first. Are there things, what could I have done, or what did I do that encouraged this or enabled this, and then I have to ask myself some soul-searching questions. What are some things that I could have done differently? There’s a lot of blame to go around here.
“Now, after the fact what I saw was some finger pointing. The union says that’s the FBI squeezing those guys and that’s what made him do it. Well, when you become a suspect, that’s the shit they do. That’s what we do to suspects. But other people say, ‘Hey, there was pressure from people in the union saying, ‘Keep your mouth shut don’t cooperate.’ Well, there is a blue code. You do not want to have to testify against another office, especially officers that you respect.”
Kaczmarek called Marhafer’s death “the tragedy of my administration.”
“I share their pain to this day,” he told me, “and still go to the cemetery.”
Bio: David Bushman is an author, publisher, and media/writing professor who was
a longtime television curator at The Paley Center for Media (formerly The
Museum of Television & Radio), where he organized panels, exhibitions, and
screening series, including one on television noir. He is the author of
five books, two of them on true crimes: *Forget It, Jake, It’s Schenectady:
The True Story of ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ *(2023, Fayetteville Mafia
Press) and *Murder at Teal’s Pond: Hazel Drew and the Mystery That Inspired
Twin Peaks *(2023, Thomas & Mercer). He also spent two years as program
director at TV Land and before that was a TV editor at *Variety*. He is
active on Twitter at @dbushman_author.
His book, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Schenectady: The True Story Behind “The Place Beyond The Pines”” from which this excerpt comes can be purchased on Amazon, and found in our Bookstore.
His other book, “Murder at Teal’s Pond: Hazel Drew and the Mystery That Inspired Twin Peaks can also be found at Amazon, and our Bookstore.
Read more True Crime at The Yard: Crime Blog.