Gil Smart, Associate Editor; Staff Writer Maria Coole contributed to this report
Copyright 2006 Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.
Lancaster, PA- Ben Leinster was out in back of his luxury townhome on a Saturday two weeks ago talking to a couple of men who were working on his deck, when he heard a commotion across the way at Crossgates Golf Club.
"At first I thought it was just a bunch of people having a good time," said Leinster, a retired military officer. "Then I heard the profanity."
From about 100 yards away, he couldn't tell who was screaming what. But he did see two guys nose to nose. Then he saw "the big guy hit the little guy twice."
Down went the little guy. Soon, a couple of Manor Township police cruisers showed up. No one likes it when the cops have to be called to their tranquil neighborhood.
"I was upset," Leinster said. "And I was even more upset when I found out who it was."
Specifically, the fight at Crossgates involved two law enforcement officers: Magisterial District Judge Maynard A. "Bud" Hamilton Jr., 65, and former Conestoga Township Police Chief Robert Buser, 59, now a sergeant with the Southern Regional Police Department.
Both men were at a birthday party being held at the golf club June 10 when they got into an argument that sources say was related to the scheduling of cases to go before the judge. They took the matter outside. That's when, witnesses say, the "big guy," Hamilton, decked Buser, first punching him in the face, breaking his glasses, then punching him in the stomach and nearly knocking him out.
Witnesses say Hamilton then went back inside the golf club and told Buser's wife that she could "go pick up your piece-of-[expletive] husband."
Hamilton isn't talking; he refused to speak to the police about the incident, and when his lawyer, Alan Goldberg, was asked if the judge would speak to the press about the incident, Goldberg said, "Absolutely not." Buser is out of town on a family matter and could not be reached for comment; previously, he declined to speak about the issue.
But they have apparently shaken hands and made up. On Friday, county Detective Michael Landis, who aided Manor Township police in the investigation, issued a press release noting that "While the investigation determined sufficient probable cause does exist to support the filing of criminal charges, Sgt. Buser has informed investigators that for personal reasons he does not wish to pursue a criminal prosecution."
And since Crossgates management does "not want to see charges filed on behalf of the club for any disruption that was caused during this incident," wrote Landis, the investigation is closed.
That irks some people, who say it appears that the judge is going to evade the law he is sworn to uphold.
"These people represent the justice system," said one Crossgates employee who, like others interviewed for this story, asked that his name not be used because both Hamilton and Buser are frequent guests at the club.
"There are tons of cases that go before [Hamilton] that involve fighting," he said.
"He should never be able to sit there and judge anyone again."
Hamilton represents District 02-3-03, which includes West Lampeter, Pequea and Strasburg townships and Strasburg Borough. A former East Lampeter Township police officer and California highway patrolman, he is serving his fourth term on the bench.
When he won re-election in 1999, an issue in the campaign was his work ethic. His opponent, Anita L. Smeltz, alleged that Hamilton wasn't working particularly hard, wasn't "devoting the necessary time to handle the business of his office." Hamilton dismissed it.
But sources say the dispute that led to the fight has to do with Hamilton's apparent request that Southern Regional police provide him with a schedule of when officers will appear in his courtroom. Police are said to be confused by this. How can they know when they're going to be in court until arrests are actually made?
Southern Regional police Chief John Fiorill declined to comment, except to say, "I fully support my officer."
The dispute came to a head shortly before 7 p.m. June 10, when Hamilton and Buser bumped into one another at the birthday party. The two had words inside the restaurant, then took the dispute outside before the dispute escalated into fisticuffs.
A woman called 911 at 6:57 p.m. to report the fight, and Manor Township police responded. But the township soon asked for help from county detectives.
"Because our department works with Southern Regional police, and works with [Judge] Hamilton, it seemed better" to ask the district attorney's office to help out, Manor Township Detective James Alexander said.
Manor Township and Southern Regional police also are in the early stages of merger talks, and sources say officials worry that Buser's involvement in the incident could tarnish his department's reputation and be an impediment in discussions.
But even as investigators interviewed witnesses, the two men sat down and hashed things out, with Hamilton apologizing both to Buser and his wife, according to Landis' press release.
"Although Sergeant Buser was not seriously injured, Hamilton also agreed to pay any damages or medical expenses incurred by Buser," wrote Landis.
And without a victim, there is no crime:
"Absent a complaining victim or an eyewitness who saw and heard the entire altercation, charges of simple assault, harassment or disorderly conduct cannot be sustained," wrote Landis.
A district justice must abide by a judicial code of conduct, which requires him or her to "respect and comply with the law" and "conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." But the state Judicial Conduct Board can only investigate if someone makes a complaint.
Tom Weaver, deputy district court administrator, said the police report will be sent to President Judge Louis J. Farina, who could forward the matter to the Judicial Conduct Board. But absent any charges, there's really nothing to forward.
June 12, two days after the incident, but before reports of it appeared in local newspapers, Hamilton called Farina to explain the altercation. Goldberg, Hamilton's attorney, said that "everyone has decided that it's in everyone's best interests to just shake hands and move on."
But the incident has left a bad taste in the mouths of some who wonder if they'd be able to punch somebody in the face and get away with it.
"Everybody is sure the judge is going to get away with this," said one Crossgates employee, who said Hamilton plays golf there frequently, and has been at the club at least once since the incident happened, joking about it.
"People in a position of authority have to be held to a higher standard," agreed Ben Leinster. "If I was in that judge's courtroom, or was stopped by that cop, I'd laugh.
"How can you take them seriously?"
June 26, 2006
Pa. judge pummels officer; ducks charges