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Protecting a Predator: How the system failed Buffalo’s kids and let an accused abuser go free

Lovejoy community leaders say Gaeta abused kids
Posted: 8:48 PM, Nov 25, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-25 23:17:58-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Warning: This story includes accounts of alleged child sexual abuse. Help for abuse victims is available at the Child Advocacy Center in Buffalo by calling (716) 886-5437, or at Crisis Services at (716) 834-3131.

Linda Hastreiter has been on a mission for 30 years.

Hastreiter and her mother, Marge, are community activists in Buffalo’s Lovejoy neighborhood, where they run a museum dedicated to its history.

They say the darkest part of that history involves a political system -- politicians, lawyers, judges -- that, in their view, protected a predator at the expense of the boys and girls of Buffalo.

“The system failed every single boy whether they were from Lovejoy or not,” Hastreiter said.

That system failed to stop allegations of child sexual abuse by a Lovejoy man named Paul Gaeta, who throughout the 1980s and 1990s was the executive director of the Advisory Board for Lovejoy Elderly and Youth, a community organization known as ABLEY.

“I started to just ask him to his face: I hear you're molesting kids,” Hastreiter said of Gaeta. “I hear you're a child molester. And instantly everything changed. Life has never been the same.”

Sealing a sex crime

Protecting a Predator, Part 1: Sealing a sex crime

On April 21, 1978, Buffalo Police Officer Robert Calabrese was on night patrol near Delaware Park, in an area commonly referred to as “Lovers Lane.”

But when Calabrese approached an occupied car just before 11 p.m., he didn’t find two adults. Instead, he said he found Gaeta -- who was a college student at the time -- in a parked car with an 11-year-old boy.

“I remember the incident vividly,” Calabrese, now retired, said in an interview with the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team. “I remember seeing his head come up from between the young man’s legs.”

Government records obtained by the I-Team -- kept secret for years -- confirm Calabrese’s account of the arrest.

Gaeta was arrested and charged with child endangerment, as well as a felony sex charge, according to an Erie County Probation Departmenr memo written in 1995. But at Buffalo City Court, he would receive not jail time, but the sealing of a sex crime.

The confidential memo, which refers to the sealed documents in Gaeta’s case, cites “letters of reference and a psychiatric report which stated that a doctor did not believe Gaeta would do this again...”

The charges were dismissed and the case was sealed. Paul Gaeta was required to attend counseling and stay out of trouble for a year. But he would never see the inside of a prison.

“I find it incredible that this crime, where the perpetrator was caught in the act, involving an eleven year old boy, that the charge was ultimately disposed of by virtue of an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal,” said Dennis C. Vacco, former New York State attorney general.

Vacco was a young prosecutor in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office at the time, but he said he did not work on the case. The I-Team asked Vacco to comment as a law enforcement expert, and he said the outcome mirrors that of a traffic infraction.

“In other words: no criminal record, no conviction, and if you behave yourself for [a] six- or twelve-month period, the charges would be automatically dismissed,” Vacco said. “It’s mind-boggling to me.”

The Erie County District Attorney in 1978 was Edward C. Cosgrove. Documents show his office agreed to the deal, but Cosgrove in a brief phone interview said he does not remember the case and would not have handled it personally. He declined to comment further.

The judge who agreed to dismiss the charges -- and seal the records -- was former Buffalo City Court Judge Anthony P. LoRusso, who went on to face sexual misconduct allegations of his own.

In 1993, LoRusso resigned from the bench after he was censured by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for “offensive, undignified and harassing conduct” toward female court employees who were as young as 19.

Many of the sexual allegations against the judge are too graphic to describe in this story. LoRusso did not respond to messages seeking comment about whether political connections played a role in dismissing Gaeta’s case -- specifically, influence from a powerful member of the Buffalo Common Council.

Cosgrove said no political influence would have affected this case or any others that he prosecuted. Vacco refused to criticize Cosgrove, but he said in general, dismissing a felony sex crime would have been unusual -- and would have required the approval of top officials in the DA’s office.

“I think that what happened in this case is that I think phone calls were made,” Vacco said. “I think in this instance the defendant had friends in high places and they helped him.”

Those friends would put Gaeta in charge of a community organization in Lovejoy, where for the next decade, we would have direct access to some of the most vulnerable children in the Queen City.

‘He destroyed my son’

Protecting a Predator, Part 2: 'He destroyed my son'

Community leaders in Lovejoy said one of Gaeta’s most loyal friends was Norman M. Bakos, a colorful and controversial Buffalo Common Councilman who once ran for Buffalo mayor and who also served jail time for owning slum properties.

Bakos -- nicknamed Stormin’ Norman -- represented the Lovejoy District on the Common Council in the 1980s.

Hastreiter said Bakos’ political machine got most of its power from ABLEY, and it wasn’t long before Gaeta landed the top job at the non-profit group.

“Bakos walked in with Gaeta and said, ‘This is our new executive director,’” Hastreiter said.

With Bakos becoming a powerhouse in City Hall, and Gaeta running things in Lovejoy, government money started rolling in. City planners helped the group secure a $2.5 million grant for a new community center in 1992 -- approved by the State Division of Youth.

Jeremy Nowasell, a shy and introverted boy, played at that community center.

“When you look back, that behavior of his was probably what made him easy prey,” said Jeremy’s brother, Ron Nowasell.

Soon after Gaeta took Jeremy under his wing, Ron said his brother began to act out.

“It's like this light bulb, this switch just went off and after a couple years of living in Buffalo, someone would say something and he would just knock the hell out of you,” Ron Nowasell said. “He [was] just getting [in] these fights and he just became extremely aggressive.”

Jeremy’s mother, Pam Nowasell, said her son didn’t admit the abuse until he was in his 20s.

“We laid in there for hours and he cried like a baby,” Pam Nowasell said. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you.’”

At a different point in his life, Ron Nowasell said Jeremy also confided in him about the abuse.

“We got to talking and he just started crying -- uncontrollably crying,” Ron Nowasell said. “That type of cry where it takes 10 minutes to understand one word coming out of his mouth. And he said, 'You know, Ron, I was raped.’”

Susan Nardozzi was there when Jeremy hit rock bottom. She said she heard children screaming from her home across the street from Hennepin Park. There on the tennis courts was a young boy “bleeding profusely.” He had slashed his wrists, she said.

“[I] later found out, in discussing what had happened, that this young man was Jeremy Nowasell and he was a victim of Paul Gaeta’s,” Nardozzi said. “And it was not his first suicide attempt.”

On Dec. 4, 2003, at the age of 31, Jeremy Nowasell committed suicide.

“He destroyed my son,” Pam Nowasell said of Gaeta. “He just had one tortured life afterwards.”

‘One of the councilman’s boys’

Marty Harrington walked the beat for the Buffalo Police Department’s old “vice squad” for years, building cases against child molesters, prostitutes and other sexually related crimes.

He received multiple complaints of child molestation against Paul Gaeta, he said.

“He was a thorn in my side,” recalled Harrington, now retired and living in Florida. “I could never get a case on him.”

When he tried, Councilman Bakos told him to back off, he said.

“He tried to intimidate the hell out of me because he was a big-shot councilman,” Harrington said. “He said he was going to go to the mayor.”

The hard-edged detective wasn’t going to be intimidated, and told him to get lost, he said. But the message about Gaeta was clear.

“He was one of the councilman’s boys,” Harrington said. “He did a lot of favors for him.”

Gaeta did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment about these allegations of sexual abuse. Through a family member, he declined to comment for this story, and he left Lovejoy in the mid-1990s. Bakos died in 2016.

In 1995, records show Bakos used public funds to purchase a tract of land in Wyoming County. The property, which was later named “Camp Jellystone”, was marketed as a place for children and families to get away.

The camp’s first executive director was Paul Gaeta.

A ring of predators?

Protecting a Predator, Part 3: A ring of predators?

Some suspect an entire ring of predators may have been operating in the 1980s in Buffalo, preying on boys and girls across the city.

“Do I think they can all be connected?” Ron Nowasell asked. “Absolutely. Do I think they're covering things up? 100 percent.”

Sue Nardozzi thinks so, too.

“I believe that there was a circle of people who all knew each other, one being David Maday,” Nardozzi said. “He is connected to many people named here.”

David C. Maday was a well-known businessman in Buffalo who was arrested in 1987 in a high-profile sting operation regarding child pornography.

In his Brittany Lane townhouse, federal investigators and Buffalo police found, according to 7 Eyewitness News reports and court records, a “sex orgy diary” naming dozens of teenage victims and their “pet fetishes.”

They also confiscated Maday’s boat -- named “Mr. Buffalo” -- that was anchored in Erie Basin Marina and was used “as an alleged meeting place involving young boys and cocaine.”

According to federal court records obtained by the I-Team after decades in storage in the Midwest, Maday -- like Gaeta -- was also a volunteer in the “Be a Friend/Big Brothers Big Sisters” program for troubled youth.

When one Buffalo teenager came forward in 1987 to accuse Maday of sexual abuse, he told police he met Maday “after Maday contacted a Bailey-Lovejoy area community agency looking for boys who could to work around his West Side home,” according to a 1987 article in The Buffalo News.

The article also stated that in 1987, “Close to 100 young boys in the Buffalo area sold themselves as prostitutes...and police had a list of 20 adults -- including a lawyer, a dentist and a school teacher -- they believe used these boys.”

“They work in cells, they're very secretive and very close-minded about who they let in and they keep their cells very small,” said Dr. Steven M. MacMartin, director of the homeland security program at Medaille College. “It's very difficult to infiltrate them, it's very difficult to gather intelligence on them.”

7 Eyewitness News asked MacMartin, a former federal agent for the U.S. Border Patrol who specialized in child pornography investigations, whether it was plausible that accused child abusers like Maday and Gaeta were working together in the 1980s in Buffalo.

Based on his experience investigating sex crimes, MacMartin said it’s a common practice.

“Well, it's not only plausible, it's the way things operated,” MacMartin said. “What would happen is you'd have this small cell, the small group of people…and once they found a child that they could molest, they would share that child and the child would be passed through the group.”

Ron Nowasell believes he came close to ending up a victim of one of these groups. He said he remembers getting lured as a young boy to a house on Greene Street in Lovejoy by Gaeta and another man.

“I walked in and that other guy was wearing one of those cocktail jackets,” Nowasell said. “There was pornography on the table...and Paul sitting on a couch [says], 'Hey, come over here, sit down.' So I sat at one end of the couch, [and he says] ‘no, no, get on over here, come here.’ The whole idea was he wanted me right next to him. And then the other guy started walking in. I got the heck up and I got out of there. I ran. I ran all the way home.”

Many alleged victims are dead

Unlike Ron Nowasell, Janet Burr never got away.

“I believed Janet Burr without question,” said Tim Graham, an award-winning journalist who interviewed Burr about abuse she allegedly suffered by Gaeta at the Lovejoy community organization ABLEY.

Graham, who was a reporter at The Buffalo News when he was pursuing the story, said he interviewed a Buffalo Police vice detective who told him Gaeta was on “his Mount Rushmore of pedophiles that he wanted to arrest.”

The News never published Burr’s story, and she has since died. But Graham still has her hand-written notes, which he provided to 7 Eyewitness News.

“Did Gaeta molest me? Yes. Did he steal a part of me? Yes. Did he ruin my teenage years? Yes.”

Burr also mentioned the friendship between Gaeta and Maday, who died in 2004.

“Another time he brought me to Dave Maday's house and picked up some kids from Doat [Street] by a church. I waited in the front while Paul took the boys to the back of the house. I don't know what happened, but it wasn't good.”

Hastreiter and Ron Nowasell both say child sexual abuse has had a lasting effect on the Lovejoy neighborhood.

“There were 7 or 8 young men from our neighborhood that had died between 2003 and 2006 from killing themselves,” Hastreiter said. “One of them hung themselves, some of them drug overdosed, one took antifreeze.”

Years after he left the neighborhood, Ron Nowasell began to wonder why so many of his friends were no longer around.

“My buddy Tony, my buddy Johnny, my buddy Mike...and Frankie, who was my brother's best friend -- he's not with us,” Nowasell said. “All these guys are dead between 25 and 35? It's just insane. It's incomprehensible. There's got to be something. There's not a drug flying through the air that makes you commit suicide, that makes you go down that wrong road and cannot get out completely.”

Border Patrol

Protecting a Predator, Part 4: Border Patrol

In the mid-1990s, the past was starting to catch up to Paul Gaeta.

The state Division of Youth opened an investigation, records show, the results of which are still unknown, as the department denied a records request by 7 Eyewitness News for the results of the probe.

Gaeta then applied for multiple jobs in law enforcement.

Eventually, he succeeded.

“He was arrested in 1978,” said Sue Nardozzi of Lovejoy. “Somehow, my father-in-law got into the sealed file.”

None of this would be coming to light without Sue Nardozzi and her now-deceased father-in-law, Anthony Nardozzi Sr.

Tony Nardozzi was an Erie County Probation Officer for decades. A staunch law-and-order guy, Nardozzi in 1995 received a tip that Gaeta was applying to become a juvenile probation officer for the county.

But unlike most employers, Nardozzi had access to the sealed files about Gaeta’s 1978 child molestation arrest. In a confidential memo to his supervisor -- obtained by the I-Team -- Nardozzi cited Hastreiter as saying that despite Buffalo Police investigations of suspected child abuse in Lovejoy, Gaeta was never arrested “because the parents of the boys refused to press charges.”

“He never told me any of this,” Sue Nardozzi said. “My mother-in-law gave me this [memo] after he died in 2015 and I was shocked.”

The document, which Nardozzi believes her father-in-law delivered to his bosses in county probation, also stated that despite his past, Gaeta “adopted a young boy" in the 1990s and was attempting to adopt another.

Following Tony Nardozzi’s recommendation, Erie County officials did not hire Gaeta.

“I’m thinking, thank God that he wasn’t appointed a juvenile probation officer with a badge and authority over young people,” Sue Nardozzi said. “But then one day I was on Main Street and I saw him wearing a green police-type uniform. I was shocked. That’s how we found out he was training at Border Patrol.”

After decades of police suspecting he was a child molester, in 1998 Gaeta applied for a job as a federal agent at the border -- and he was accepted.

Gaeta worked for the U.S. government as an immigrations inspector in Buffalo and at the Toronto airport, court records show, before transferring to the Border Patrol station in Tucson, Ariz., where he currently lives.

“That meant he had a badge and he was going to have authority again,” Sue Nardozzi said. “To put someone like that in charge of people that [are] having a problem and getting questioned and they’re possible illegal and they’re young and they’re separated from their parents in any way...I can’t imagine.”

Gaeta’s secret history of child abuse never surfaced in three federal background checks because the records from his 1978 arrest were sealed, something MacMartin, the retired Border Patrol agent, said is relatively rare.

“It's always possible for someone to slip between the cracks,” MacMartin said.

But Hastreiter and her mother were persistent, first going to Toronto and hanging flyers in Gaeta’s neighborhood to warn his neighbors about his past, then catching the attention of federal officials in the Southwest.

Federal prosecutors in Arizona arrested Gaeta in 2006 and charged him with concealing a prior felony -- the 1978 alleged molestation in Delaware Park -- when he applied to the Border Patrol. Gaeta answered no to the question of, “Have you ever been charged with or convicted of any felony offense?”

In court papers, prosecutors said Gaeta lied on his application and went to “great lengths” to hide the “horrendous crime” from 1978, “not only [because it would] preclude him from this job, but could potentially destroy the career he has built working with children, and could cause a reevaluation of that, and of the adoption of boys that he has adopted into his family.”

They also argued that on the southern border, Gaeta could come in contact with vulnerable refugees and could also be subject to blackmail.

“Someone that knows their past and knows that they're at risk if they are exposed...certainly are a huge target for blackmail,” MacMartin said when asked about the case.

Court testimony revealed that Gaeta habitually requested copies of his criminal records to make sure they were still sealed, even enlisting the help of “a friend of mine who worked for the Buffalo Police Department who said he would do my fingerprints for me.”

Police found a closet in Gaeta’s apartment with a dead-bolt lock and no door handle, according to court transcripts, something MacMartin said is common among sex offenders.

“Hidden rooms, hidden places for contraband or materials they use...it’s incredible,” MacMartin said, speaking generally. “Diaries, speaking in code, keeping their notes in code.”

At trial, Gaeta said he was advised by his Buffalo attorney that the 1978 arrest was removed from his record and that he did not have to disclose it going forward.

Gaeta testified that he “was not trying to conceal anything. I was, however, prudently making sure that the law didn't change, and that there was nothing that had changed in regards to the type of answer that I could give to that question.”

Ron Nowasell, whose brother, Jeremy, is an alleged victim of Gaeta, learned about the police records from 1978 and the information about the Border Patrol trial for the first time when the I-Team showed them to him for this story.

“We could have prevented all this from happening,” Nowasell said, visibly upset. “They had him. He hurt so many people. So many freaking families. So preventable. It just...could have been stopped. That makes me very angry to hear that.”

In 2007, prosecutors dismissed the charges against Gaeta after a jury deadlocked on a verdict, but he no longer remained a federal agent.

He still lives in Arizona and is not on any sex offender registry.

Is ‘the system’ fixed today?

Protecting a Predator, Part 5: Is the system fixed?

The question now is whether that system is any better today at stopping alleged predators -- and whether a new law will allow the alleged victims of Paul Gaeta to finally seek justice in court.

“I think with time passing, we've become better and more educated and we know more about child sexual abuse,” said Marni Bogart, director of legal affairs for the Erie County Department of Social Services.

Bogart has fought for victims of child sex abuse for decades, including as a sex crimes prosecutor for the Erie County DA’s Office.

“Back in the ‘70s or ‘80s, the thought was that if a child is touched inappropriately or sexually abused, they can tell right away,” Bogart said. “We know now that that is absolutely not the case, that [in] the majority of cases we have delayed disclosure.”

Police who say they were investigating Gaeta for alleged child sex abuse in Lovejoy back then didn’t have the resources of the Child Advocacy Center, which was created in 1995 to bring police and social service agencies together to provide resources to children who have been sexually abused. They also work to make it easier for abused children to testify in court.

“They are there for one interview, one medical exam, and it's a collaborative team effort,” Bogart said. “That wouldn't have happened in the ‘70s.”

MacMartin, the homeland security expert who worked on internal affairs investigations for the federal government, said a case like Gaeta’s can effect change.

“After this happened, and after the government realized that this type of person got this position, procedures and policies would have been reviewed, changes would have been made, so this couldn't happen again,” he said.

But those interviewed for this story said the key system failure happened in 1978, when the DA’s office and a city judge agreed to dismiss and seal Gaeta’s original sex charge.

“At the end of the day, I mean, in the case that you're talking about, one person or one piece of the system protecting an abuser leads to a house of cards, right?” Bogart said. “Because if we don't stop them at [the] inception...even if the background check had been done, it would have never shown up in this case.”

Today, Gaeta lives a free man in Arizona. He has never spent a day in prison or on any sex offender registry and probably never will, since the statutes of limitation on most of his alleged sex crimes have run out.

But since New York State’s new Child Victims Act became law earlier this year, survivors of child sex abuse from decades past have a one-year-window to file civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers.

The window expires in August 2020.

“If the abuser was using their authority as a member of an organization that gave them access to kids, and there’s reason for that organization to have known that something was going on that shouldn’t have been going on, that there was abuse taking place, or that they suspected abuse was taking place, they should have taken some action, and so there’s a case against both the abuser and the organization,” said Steve Boyd, a Buffalo attorney who has filed more than 100 abuse lawsuits under the Child Victims Act.

Boyd said victims’ families may be able to sue under the Child Victims Act if they can prove the suicides were a result of the abuse.

“And the reality is, there were a lot of suicides,” Boyd said. “There were a lot of people who this happened to as children who were simply broken by it, who never came back.”

Both Hastreiter and Nowasell say Gaeta’s story has been bubbling under the surface for years, and they would not be surprised to see more alleged victims come forward.

“Those young boys, a lot of them are now men that have problems,” Hastreiter said. “They're into drugs or alcohol. They can't hold down a relationship. They can't keep a job, and that's affected the youth of the neighborhood here.”

“It shouldn't have to happen to anybody, to any parent,” Ron Nowasell said. “I do believe that because my friends are all parents now, that somebody else will come forward.”

If you or someone you know was sexually abused, there are options for getting help:

  • Local law enforcement: 911
  • Child Advocacy Center: (716) 886-5437
  • Crisis Services: (716) 834-3131
  • 7 Eyewitness News Tipline: (716) 840-7750 or ITeam@wkbw.com.