COLDSPRING - Citizens and officials alike are reeling in shock after Cattaraugus County Sheriff Dennis John was found dead Tuesday morning of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound outside his vehicle in the town of Coldspring.
Rumors about Sheriff John's demise circulated through the area Tuesday until Rebecca Gibbons, the public-information officer for the local troop of the New York State Police, confirmed the suicide in the early afternoon.
"It seems he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and I'm not aware of any note being left behind," she said. "He was found outside his car on Sunfish Run Road, which as I understand it, is a remote logging trail."
Sheriff Dennis John
Gibbons said she didn't know who found the sheriff but did say that the discovery happened around 9:30 a.m.
Foul play isn't suspected, she said, although the official investigation is ongoing.
Some phone calls to public officials were not returned Tuesday but those who chose to comment expressed their condolences for John's family and shared memories of the Sheriff and his professionalism.
Jerry Burrell, Cattaraugus County Legislator and former sheriff, described John as a man who was "dedicated to public safety."
"It's a very, very sad and tragic day," Burrell said. "He was a real professional who always stayed until the job was done."
James Snyder, a Republican legislator from Olean, echoed Burrell's comments, adding how John stood out among his peers.
"In my 40 years in Cattaraugus County government, I worked with a lot of sheriffs," Snyder said. "Dennis John was one of the best if not the best."
He described John as "a proud man, a proud member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, a proud Marine," and said he was also proud of his family and to be a law enforcement officer.
The president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Barry E. Snyder Sr., said the entire nation was in mourning upon hearing the news about Sheriff John.
"On behalf of the Seneca Nation, we were deeply saddened to hear of the death of one of our most trusted and respected members, Dennis John," the Nation president said. "He was committed to his profession as a law enforcement professional both for the Nation and Cattaraugus County. Each day he put the safety and well-being of others first. It was his life's passion. Our deepest condolences go out to his family on this very difficult day."
Ed Sharkey, Cattaraugus County district attorney, said John was approachable and easy to work with.
"I enjoyed working with Dennis. I liked Dennis a good deal," Sharkey said. "Having worked his way up through the ranks, he knew the problems we (prosecutors) faced and understood what was necessary to get a case to be properly prepared for us."
Richard Nephew, chair of Seneca Nation's Legislative Council, also described John as a man dedicated to the job.
"I am surprised and saddened to hear of the loss of Sheriff Dennis John today. As chairman of the Seneca Nation Council and Seneca Law Enforcement Commission, I knew Sheriff John as a very conscientious professional with the utmost concern in providing law enforcement service for the citizens of Cattaraugus County and the Seneca Nation," Nephew said. "Dennis was a Seneca citizen and we are all proud to have seen him recognized for his professionalism and become Sheriff of Cattaraugus County. On behalf of the Seneca Nation Legislative Council, I send our condolences to his family and friends."
John served the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Department since 1981, beginning as a deputy on road patrols and rising through the ranks over the years to become chief of detectives.
Prior to holding the top position in the department, John became the undersheriff in January 2002, when he was appointed following the retirement of Richard Haberer. John was the first Native American to hold the office of sheriff in New York, rising to the position in 2004 after then-sheriff Ernest Dustman retired.
He was confirmed by former Gov. George Pataki at the time and elected into the position by the people of Cattaraugus County in 2005.
He previously worked for the Allegany State Park Police, the Salamanca Police Department, and he was one of the first Seneca Nation of Indians marshals in the 1970s.
A 1976 graduate of Salamanca High School, John graduated from the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Academy in 1978, the FBI National Academy and has had training in homicide investigation, crime scene and evidence, forensic science, child abduction, crisis negotiation, legal issues for command level officers, management for law enforcement commanders, and mass media for law enforcement among other things.
He was an appointee to the Public Safety Committee of the New York State Association of Counties and a member and past president of the New York State Police Juvenile Officers Association. He was an honorary member of the Allegany Fire Department, a member of the Cattaraugus County Chiefs of Police, the New York State Sheriff's Association and the Cattaraugus County Fire Police Association.
John was also a certified police instructor, who was a member of Randolph Lodge 359 F&AM, associate member of the Randolph American Legion Post 181, a member and lay reader at Grace Episcopal Church of Randolph and past member of the Randolph Fire Department. John also was the co-chair of the Southern Tier Regional Drug Task Force.
John, 51, and his wife, Sharon, were residents of Little Valley. John had three children from a previous marriage: Jessica John Johnessee, 26; Stacie John Hebner, 24; and Denny John, a U.S. Marine.
County election officials reported Tuesday that the late sheriff was planning to run for re-election on Democratic, Republican, Independence and Conservative lines in November.
Undersheriff Timothy Whitcomb is now expected to be named sheriff and serve until candidates for sheriff come forward and run in November's general election, although this couldn't be confirmed Tuesday as Whitcomb was unavailable for comment.
John Conklin, spokesperson for the state Board of Elections, said since John's death occurred more than seven days before primary elections set for Sept. 15, political party committees to fill vacancies have 10 days to make substitutions to their original endorsement.
Late Tuesday afternoon, state Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, released a statement responding to John's death.
"This news is shocking and tragic, and I'm deeply saddened by the loss of my friend. My heart goes out to Denny's entire family," she said. "He was a son, husband, father and grandfather who was loved dearly. My sympathies also go to the sheriff's department, other county employees and Denny's countless friends. It is an extremely difficult time for everyone."