Fuller picture of N.Y. cop's crash emerges

Copyright 2006 The Hearst Corporation

Police chief says tests show Kenneth P. Wilcox was within legal blood-alcohol limit at time of his death
The Times Union

ALBANY, N.Y - A decorated city detective who died in an on-duty car crash was not intoxicated when his unmarked cruiser slammed into a concrete barrier on Interstate 90 this week.

Chief James W. Tuffey announced Thursday that a prelimi nary investigation indicates excessive speed and failure to wear a seat belt were factors in the accident that killed Detective Kenneth P. Wilcox.

"The late Ken Wilcox died of a basal fracture to his skull," Tuffey said. "Speed was a factor ... and the detective was not wearing a seat belt." The chief confirmed that Wilcox, 39, had a low level of alcohol in his system at the time of the crash Wednesday. A hospital blood test showed that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.03 percent, Tuffey said. In New York state, a person is considered legally intoxicated if they have a BAC of 0.08 percent, and a level of 0.05 percent is considered legally impaired, which is a violation.

Meanwhile, Wilcox's relatives, and several members of Council 82, the parent organization of the Albany Police Officers Union, held a news conference Thursday afternoon assailing the Times Union for reporting that Wilcox had spent several hours drinking at a downtown nightclub before reporting for duty the night of the crash.

The newspaper, citing interviews with people who were at Noche Lounge on Broadway Tuesday night, reported that Wilcox and a business associate, Aaron R. Dare, 37, had arrived at the bar shortly after its 4 p.m. opening and paid $900 for a bottle of cognac. Patrons and other people there said Wilcox and Dare stayed until about 11 p.m.

The newspaper's report did not state that Wilcox was drunk, as was alleged by members of the police union and several television newscasts. Wednesday's article stated: "There is no indication Wilcox was intoxicated or impaired at the time of the crash."

Bernard H. Bryan, 58, a family spokesman, said Wilcox came to his family's house about 8:30 p.m. that same night to deliver money to his 13-year-old daughter, who was leaving on a field trip the next day. He said Wilcox ate with the family and did not leave until after 10 p.m., when he went home to get ready for work.

Witnesses at the bar said Wednesday that while Dare and Wilcox had each left the bar that night, each was gone for a short time and both returned before leaving together at 11 p.m. One witness said Wilcox told a bartender that he had gone home to give his daughter some money for a field trip, which the family spokesman confirmed.

Steve Barnes, a senior writer at the Times Union, arrived at Noche Lounge around 10 p.m. Tuesday. He said Wilcox and Dare were at the bar then, with a near-empty bottle of cognac in front of them, and that they both left together an hour later in Wilcox's SUV. The bartender provided the men with the empty bottle of cognac as a souvenir when they left, according to Barnes and other people who were there.

Bryan contradicted those witnesses' accounts and said Wilcox had arrived at his mother's home about 8:30 that night. He did not dispute that Wilcox had alcohol in his system, or that he was at Noche at some point during the evening. Bryan said Wilcox was "cleareyed" at his family's house and that he left there to go home and get ready for work.

"Kenny spent at least two hours with his family before reporting for duty on that fateful night," Bryan said. "He did not have a drop ... at his mom's house. ... He was cold sober when he left. He was not in a nightclub continuously."

Bryan said the Times Union had "desecrated his memory."

Christian Mesley, president of the Albany Police Officers Union, acknowledged that the newspaper did not say Wilcox was drunk. But he said the report "created the perception ... he was drinking like a college kid for hours."

The newspaper was not notified about the news conference called by the union and Wilcox's family members.

When asked if a Times Union reporter could attend, Mesley responded: "If you come, come at your own risk."

A reporter from the newspaper attended the news conference without incident.

James Lyman, an Albany detective who is president of Council 82, attacked the Times Union's story as "totally baseless" and he accused a reporter of writing "slanted stories" on the Albany police force.

Times Union Editor Rex Smith said the newspaper's Thursday story was accurate. "We are very sorry for the pain felt by the family and friends of Ken Wilcox," he said. "But our reporting was careful and true."

Smith added, "We have portrayed Albany police fairly and accurately over the years, including incidents of both stress and great pride, and we will continue to do so."

Internal affairs detectives visited Noche Lounge early Wednesday to interview employees, and Tuffey said his agency is continuing to probe Wilcox's activities in the hours before he arrived for work, as well as his on-duty movements.

Police officials have not disclosed if they know where Wilcox was headed when the crash took place. His westbound cruiser crashed just west of Everett Road, near the city line.

No one else was injured and police said no witnesses have come forward.

Wilcox was not breathing when rescue personnel and police reached him minutes after the 2:38 a.m. crash. He was pronounced dead at 3:40 a.m. at Albany Medical Center Hospital, where blood was drawn and tested for alcohol.

Police officials initially said the results of a blood toxicology test would take four to six weeks to complete. However, law enforcement officials said the blood test that measures alcohol was available to police Wednesday, but that the department opted not to make the information immediately public. Under departmental policy, officers are to refrain from drinking alcohol if it impairs or leaves them intoxicated to the point they are rendered "unfit for the next tour of regular duty." Regulations that govern other professions, including nurses, truck drivers and airline pilots, prohibit those workers from consuming alcohol in the hours preceding work.

Tuffey pledged Thursday to review the policy, which is outlined in the department's standard operating procedure manual.

"I think you're going to see some changes," he said, without elaborating.

Late Wednesday, after internal affairs investigators had confirmed Wilcox had spent some time at a bar on the night of the crash, Tuffey issued a statement acknowledging detectives were exploring whether alcohol could have been a factor in the crash.

"Understanding the sensitive nature of this investigation, if it is determined that alcohol was a factor in the accident, an integral part of the internal investigation will focus on the environment of that alcohol consumption and police department standard operating procedures relative to his on-duty work," the statement reads.

The funeral for Wilcox is planned for Monday at the Palace Theatre in Albany, Tuffey said, adding that additional details were not available.

Wilcox was regarded as a dogged street cop and valued homicide detective by many on the 340-member force. He was the second officer lost in the line of duty in two years. Lt. John F. Finn, 38, died Feb. 12, 2004, from injuries he received in a Christmas Eve shootout with a robbery suspect.

Wilcox was sworn in on Jan. 15, 1988, and worked as a patrol officer until joining the detective ranks in 1993.

That same year, he received a lifesaving medal and a key to the city for saving the life of an 8-month-old baby in a house fire in the city's South End. His other awards include being named state Arson Investigator of the Year, and Kiwanis Police Officer of the Year.

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