On the rise?
DA says homicide adds to trend in county; police chief says Dunkirk is safe
It may have been a tragic case of mistaken identity.
On the night of July 6, Rebecca Ruiz allegedly saw a man in the yard through her back door at 141 Lake Shore Drive E. in the city of Dunkirk.
A little while later, her 21-year-old boyfriend, Julian Duman, was lying unresponsive outside.
“I shot him! Oh my God, is he dead? I didn’t know it was Julian, I thought it was Waldo,” Ruiz, 28, allegedly said shortly after police arrived. “I heard someone jiggle the door and I shot through the door. It was a .22 I think; I threw it over there and someone grabbed it I think.”
Ruiz now faces a second-degree murder charge — a charge given out twice in the city in the past eight years.
Homicides are not as common in Dunkirk and Northern Chautauqua County as in other places, but they still happen in the local area. According to OBSERVER records cross-checked with the county District Attorney’s Office, six killings took place in the north county since 2010 — two in the city, one in Westfield, two in Fredonia and one in the town of Dunkirk. One of those cases — the town of Dunkirk one — remains open and unsolved.
A significant number of homicides took place in the south county last year alone, and recent trends worry District Attorney Patrick Swanson.
“Our (county’s) homicide rate over the past 20 to 30 years has noticeably increased,” Swanson pointed out. “There are no signs that that trend will be changing anytime soon. Just last year, there were four homicides and an attempted homicide.”
“In an office of just nine attorneys, homicide cases place great strain on the office. The time required to investigate and prepare and the resources expended on homicide cases are substantial. My hope is that the Legislature provides us with the resources we desperately need in the coming years to confront the increasing complexity of issues we see every day in Chautauqua County.”
Swanson added that despite the violent crime rate and the opioid crisis the area is dealing with, his office has not been given the proper funding to add critical staff so it can fight more effectively for public safety.
“There have been essentially the same number of attorneys in the office for over a decade,” he stated. “My hope is that the county Legislature makes it a priority to provide the District Attorney’s Office with needed resources as budget time nears.”
The other issue with homicides is the likelihood of trial, Swanson said. Chautauqua County having only one county court judge slows the process down for not only the homicide cases, but the entire court calendar, he argued.
“This is a separate and significant issue that will only get worse as the number of these cases continues to grow,” he concluded.
In the city, Dunkirk Police Chief David Ortolano made it clear that having safe streets is a crucial mission for him and his officers, and he feels his department is putting up a good fight against illicit activity.
“We have a very safe community,” he remarked. “Issues that go on here in this community are the same issues that go on in communities across New York state and across our country, but I do believe if you go out and ask a majority of the people in this community, I think we have a safe community. Things happen in every community, but when you look at our record of taking care of things when things do happen, we’re right on top of things and we’ve got a really high solvability rate, but that’s a testament to the people of this community, as well.”
People in Dunkirk are not afraid to come forward with key information to help authorities piece together their investigations, Ortolano added.
He attributed that to a strong police-community relationship — something the area is lucky to have. Such a relationship does not exist in every community, he said.
“(That relationship is forged) through our community policings, through our National Night Out, we’re in the schools all the time, talking with the kids, and our officers are out of the cars, talking with people and greeting people in the community,” he listed off. “We try to do the best we can with opening those lines of communication with people, and it pays dividends to you because somewhere down the line, that person’s going to remember, ‘Hey, you know, that officer treated me decently and now they need help? Yeah, I’m going to help them.’
“That is the distinct advantage of a small community versus a very large city where it’s kind of like you get a little disconnected, but in a small community like this, we know everybody.”
Ortolano mentioned the July 6 shooting death of Duman was an isolated incident and nothing like it has happened in the city in quite a long time.
“It’s not a common occurrence here,” he said. “They happen; when they do, we get right out there in full force, and with the community behind us, we do the best we can to solve them and keep the community safe.”
As a testament to having a safe city, the police chief offered the example of the days surrounding the July Fourth holiday, one of Dunkirk’s busiest times of the year. No incidents and no problems were reported, he pointed out.
Ortolano concluded by tipping his hat to his officers, who he noted do a great job around the clock.
The following is a list of homicides in the north county area since 2010, not including the most recent one involving Ruiz and Duman:
¯ 2014 — Westfield shooting and stabbing of Mary Whitaker; case closed with Jonathan Conklin and Charles Sanford pleading guilty to murder.
¯ 2012 — Fredonia shooting of Frank Slate Jr.; case closed with Theodore Wickham and Christopher Grant pleading guilty to manslaughter.
¯ 2011 — Dunkirk city shooting of Ricardo Vazquez; case closed with David Corsi pleading guilty to manslaughter.
¯ 2011 — Dunkirk town shooting of Thomas Douglas; case open with no arrests made.
¯ 2010 — Fredonia beating, stabbing and strangulation of Ruth Fisk; case closed with Jason Wells being found guilty of manslaughter.
Swanson could not comment on the open case involving Douglas, 26, of Buffalo. The incident took place July 19, 2011 at an outdoor party at the Arrowhead Apartments on Arrowhead Drive in the town of Dunkirk.