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Insurance Won't Pay for Damage If SUV of Mayor Was Stolen: INVESTIGATION

Apr 4, 2007

By Matthew Spina, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Apr. 5--Janelle Tryjankowski's 14- year-old Ford Ranger is damaged but operable. Lainey Pate's 1999 Nissan Sentra was totaled.

Neither will see a dime from Mayor Byron W. Brown's insurance company if Allstate investigators determine that, indeed, a thief, and not a member of the mayor's family, drove the mayor's Chevrolet sport utility vehicle into their parked vehicles.

The two Canisius College students would be on their own with their own auto insurers -- a tough break for Tryjankowski in particular because she did not carry collision insurance on her older truck. Its rear bumper was ruined, a brake light smashed, and the truck leaks gas from somewhere.

Insurance companies pay for damage when a vehicle driven by one of its insured drivers causes a wreck, not when a thief or someone lacking consent has made off with the auto, said a claims adjuster not involved in the case of Brown's Chevrolet Equinox.

She said the victims of the mayor's Equinox could always take Brown to court to seek compensation their insurers did not provide.

Allstate continues to investigate the matter and has not yet found that a thief set the wheels in motion a month ago. But Tryjankowski said her family has been told by an Allstate official that it will not compensate her if Allstate agrees the Equinox was stolen.

A company spokeswoman refused to describe the status of Allstate's inquiry, saying the policy is to not talk about "policy holders or claimants or pending investigations."

The whodunit has deepened as key mayoral appointees squeeze the flow of information.

The Equinox was abandoned in the shadow of a Canisius College residence hall, and the driver was recorded by a college security camera. But city police have refused to publicize the images, though many police agencies publicize photos of, say, bank robbers in the hopes of making an arrest.

The college referred a Buffalo News request to see the images to Buffalo police. Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson referred the request to mayoral spokesman Peter K. Cutler. Cutler referred the request to Corporation Counsel Alisa Lukasiewicz.

Then a Lukasiewicz assistant reported in a letter to The News that the city does not have a copy of the tape.

Nonetheless, police have been able to view it at Canisius. Gipson said he showed the images to Brown and to Brown's wife after the discovery of their damaged SUV Feb. 24.

The camera showed a lanky but unrecognizable black teenager get out of the SUV, according to Gipson. He said the driver, instead of walking away from the damage he had caused at Blaine and Meech, turned back toward it, walking in the general direction he would need to go to reach the mayor's home.

The mayor has a slender teen-age son but insists the boy was home the morning of the accident. Brown also has seen the images and said the driver -- who had just been in a frontend wreck -- walked nothing like the way his son walks.

That same day, investigators decided not to dust for fingerprints since they figured any car thief so young would be unlikely to have fingerprints stored in the database.

Buffalo police field 175 reports of stolen vehicles in an average month and don't examine each recovered vehicle for fingerprints.

But this was the mayor's vehicle.

"Wouldn't they want to run such prints against a database to actually try and find the 'thief?' " Tryjankowski told The News in an e-mail exchange.

While Brown said a thief was driving his Chevrolet Equinox, it nonetheless was turning onto the mayor's street and proceeding toward his home early Feb. 24 when it smashed into two vehicles, Pate's and Tryjankowski's. They were parked next to each other on Blaine Avenue at Meech Street.

The driver then backed up and drove off, abandoning the Equinox a few blocks away, in front of 121 Loring Ave., where it hit a third parked auto. Police surmised the operator had used a key, since there was no sign it had been forced open and the steering column had not been broken as a way to override the ignition system.

Hours after the crash was discovered and the mayor's wife, Michelle Austin-Brown, had seen the wrecked Equinox, she told police it must have been stolen from a parking spot in front of their home.

In an interview Friday, the mayor said there was a "zero percent chance" that he or a member of his family was driving the SUV when it crashed, and he didn't know how the thief got a key.

"I don't know how to explain it," Brown said, adding that the only two known keys were in their rightful spots.

"We just don't have a clue," he said. "We're completely baffled."

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

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