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Trooper descends on Palumbo on his way to court; misconduct investigation into state trooper in offing

February 24 , 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

A surprising twist of events -- involving New York State Trooper Benjamin Campbell -- may shed light on the Lenny Palumbo case.

Palumbo is the former Lewiston-Porter School Board member accused of stalking a schoolteacher's wife and New York State Trooper Danny Cullen.

On Feb. 7, Trooper Campbell stopped, ticketed and arrested Palumbo on his way to a Wheatfield Town Court appearance in the case involving his colleague, Cullen.

Cullen and Campbell work out of the same trooper barracks on Witmer Road. Palumbo was driving on his way to appear before Judge Robert Cliffe when Campbell pulled him over for a seatbelt infraction. Campbell wrote two more tickets for failure to change registration and failure to change his address on his license. He let Palumbo leave, but followed him to court and waited in the parking lot.

After Palumbo left court, Campbell issued Palumbo three more tickets for failure to yield right of way to an emergency vehicle, speeding and disobeying a traffic control device. Campbell then handcuffed Palumbo for traffic infractions and took him to the Witmer Road barracks.

According to Palumbo, Trooper Cullen -- his accuser in the stalking case -- was there.

"After I was handcuffed to a bench," Palumbo said, "Campbell and Cullen accused me of interviewing for articles that appeared in the Niagara Falls Reporter about Cullen and creating anonymous fliers about Campbell."

The Reporter broke the story last fall that Cullen, who charged Palumbo stalked him in his car, had wrongly identified the car Palumbo was driving. Cullen swore that, in the summer of 2008, Palumbo repeatedly stalked him in a 1999 Intrepid. The Reporter revealed Palumbo sold his 1999 Intrepid in June 2006.

Palumbo claims Campbell was enraged over crude and anonymous fliers that circulated around Lewiston. The fliers allege Campbell, in a fit of rage because Joanne Smith, 70, cut him off in traffic when he was off-duty, gave chase, nearly running her off the road. Another flier claims Campbell went into a frenzy at the Orange Cat Cafe.

Benjamin Campbell

N.Y. State Trooper Benjamin Campbell in patrol car.

The Reporter investigated the so-called "road rage" incident and learned the woman referred to is a retired dental hygienist who has lived in Lewiston since 1963. In an interview with the Reporter, Mrs. Smith said that on Nov. 22, 2007, she turned from Sixth Street onto Center Street in Lewiston, cutting Campbell off.

"I didn't see his truck coming," Smith said. "Once I made the turn, he sped up, tailgating me. I came to a yellow light and slowed, preparing to stop. I was frightened as he approached rapidly and I ran the yellow light. I drove to where my son was on Route 104, not knowing the truck chasing me was driven by a police officer. When I got to where my son was, Campbell jumped out of the truck and started shouting at me. He identified himself as a state trooper."

Smith's son, Tom Smith, witnessed an "enraged" Campbell, out of uniform, "swearing and yelling at my mother because he said she cut him off." He said, "It seemed like road rage."

Campbell came to Mrs. Smith's house four days later and gave her tickets for running a red light, failure to yield right of way and having an obstructed mirror.

"I had not had a ticket since 1963. I've never been in trouble with the law before," Smith said.

She hired civil rights attorney David Jay to represent her. On July 9, 2008, they went to trial before Lewiston Town Justice Thomas J. Sheeran. Smith was found guilty of all three infractions and fined $600.

A second flier alleges Campbell became enraged at the Orange Cat Cafe on Center Street in Lewiston. The Reporter discovered the incident there, which occurred on July 12, 2008, was related to the previous incident. Joanne Smith's son, Tom, was at the cafe and was openly critical of Campbell.

Robert Lee, an attorney living in Lewiston, who was at the cafe that morning, granted an interview to the Reporter.

"Tom was seated at the next table and was describing to people an incident that involved his mother and Trooper Ben Campbell. Most of the time he was having normal conversation," Lee said, "but at times he became agitated. When asked to tone it down, he did."

Shortly after Smith left, Campbell appeared.

Lee continued, "Campbell parked his official vehicle at the curb in front of the coffee shop and approached the customer entrance. A middle-aged man was waiting outside the entrance door. Campbell stood behind this individual as would any other customer in line. After a second or two, Campbell directed the man to 'get out of my way.'

"The man, perhaps not understanding, did not immediately respond. The situation quickly deteriorated, as Campbell became threatening in tone and manner and seemed to be baiting him into some response that would have subjected him to charges. Their interaction ended with Officer Campbell shouting at the man, 'Go sit over there and don't go anywhere.'"

The Reporter identified the man ordered to sit down as Kevin Miller of Lewiston. Miller owns an insurance and investment business.

Miller told the Reporter, "A lot of police go to the Orange Cat Cafe. I thought he was a customer. I was turning around to say hello to someone, when Campbell looked at me and said angrily, 'Get out of my way.' I was taken aback when he snapped, 'What part of "Get out of my way" do you not understand?' I stood still for a second, confused. Then he came close and started berating me. If he was there on legitimate police business, I did not understand why he was bothering with me."

Lee filed a formal complaint with State Police Internal Affairs.

"Officer Campbell's behavior was appalling and absolutely unnecessary under the circumstances," he said. "Campbell (told Miller), 'In the Falls when people see me coming, they know to get the hell out of the way.' "

Miller, describing Campbell's behavior, added, "I can hardly believe this person can be allowed to be a police officer. He seemed to get a thrill out of his rampage."

While Miller waited, Campbell interrogated others about what Smith said about him in the cafe.

Lee said, "Campbell asked if I heard Smith utter profanities. I answered I had not. His response was, 'Do you mean to tell me that two people over there heard him swear and you didn't?'"

Lee wrote in his complaint, "Afterwards, a number of patrons sat seemingly stunned by what they had witnessed. ... It was surprising the percentage of them who had had unpleasant encounters with Officer Campbell. I witnessed a person who is not psychologically well and perhaps a ticking time bomb."

Campbell later went to Joanne Smith's home on Cayuga Street. According to Smith's husband, Donald, Campbell and a Lewiston police officer came to their door looking for their son, Tom.

One other instance, alleged in the fliers, is that Campbell at traffic stops pointed guns at motorists. The Reporter investigated anecdotal reports. One involved a popular Lewiston volunteer firefighter. Another involved a woman and two teenage girls.

On March 12, 2006, Claire MacMillan was driving up Lewiston Hill Road coming from Lewiston-Porter Senior High School after picking up her daughter, Kim, and her friend, Danette Kilmer, from their chorus concert. According to MacMillan, who gave an exclusive interview to the Reporter, she left her high beams on accidently. A patrol car came behind with flashing lights.

She said, "I was at the traffic light and couldn't pull to the side of the road because I was in the left lane. I couldn't turn because the light was red. I stayed in my lane and stopped at the light in order to give the officer room to pass. I did not realize then he wanted me to pull over. When the light turned green, I made the left turn and pulled to the side of the road. The next thing I knew was Trooper Benjamin Campbell slammed his flashlight on the hood of my car in front of the windshield and pointed his gun at my head."

MacMillan is married and works in Niagara Falls. She said she never had a ticket in her life and was never in trouble with the law.

"He held the gun point-blank at my eyes. He got violent and loud. He was like a psycho-cop."

The Reporter spoke with MacMillan's passenger, 17-year-old Lew-Port high school student Danette Kilmer.

Danette told the Reporter, "Campbell got out of his car. He was screaming and swearing and his gun was aimed less than a foot from her head. He kept pointing the gun at her head and kept yelling, 'You need to learn how to drive. Where did you learn to drive? Who the hell taught you to drive? Why would you get into a vehicle when you do not know how to drive?' He was just blabbing on. He wasn't even saying it in a tone that was understandable. That whole night we were pretty much in shock over doing something so minor. He appeared crazy. If I hadn't known he was a cop, I would have called a cop."

MacMillan was issued a ticket for driving with her high beams on and paid a $90 fine.

After being stopped by Campbell on his way to court in a trial that involved Campbell's colleague Cullen, and after being handcuffed and arrested for mere traffic infractions and taken to the Witmer Road barracks, where his accuser allegedly waited, Palumbo was taken to Niagara Town Court for arraignment. Bail was set at $200. Palumbo was next taken to the Niagara County holding center, where he waited until a friend posted bail.

While driving to county jail, Palumbo claims, "Campbell told me I'd be arrested again if 'me or my friends didn't stop the fliers.'"

Five calls to Campbell and three of his supervisors seeking interviews were not returned.

 

 

 
 
 
  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.