LIVINGSTON–On December 29, we will lose one of the good guys.
State Police Senior Investigator Gary Mazzacano will turn in his badge and his gun and call it a career after 40 years in law enforcement, 34 of those years with the State Police.
The decision to retire was not his choice. State Police policy requires that when an officer turns 60 it’s time to go.
The Columbia Paper interviewed the investigator in his office at the Livingston barracks to chronicle some of the highlights his career. A lawman who saw his job as helping people, the senior investigator was packing up, a task he has been chipping away at for weeks. Photos and plaques still lined the office walls and boxes were heaped with scrapbooks, files, commendations and mementos of a career that began at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office in 1971.
He grew up on the family fruit farm, Stone Bridge Farm in Greenport, amid apple, pear, plum and peach orchards. He graduated from Hudson High School and went to Dutchess Community College to study business administration.
But he always wanted to be a state trooper and before graduation, he took a summer job at the Sheriff’s Office under then Sheriff Dewey Lawrence, a former State Police sergeant. Young Deputy Mazzacano worked with Deputy Ted Chidester on the Sheriff’s boat patrol, cruising Copake and Kinderhook lakes to make sure boaters were not driving recklessly and wore their life jackets.
Not long after they started, he and Deputy Chidester were called to the office because a riot had erupted at the Greene County Jail. Prisoners had set fire to their confines and were being moved to the Columbia County Jail–everybody was needed there to help. The date was July 19, 1971 and he never looked back.
When Sheriff Lawrence left office, he asked Deputy Mazzacano to come to his house. The sheriff had noticed that the deputy had applied for a pistol permit. Deputies were not automatically issued firearms in those days. When he got to the house, the sheriff gave him his .38 snub nose revolver. “I still have it,” he said.
In 1972, when Mr. Mazzacano, by then a deputy, was working as a correction officer at the jail and sometimes as a dispatcher, he was drafted into the Army. The lottery system was in place at the time and the investigator said he was “the last one drafted from Hudson.” He served for two years with the 236th Military Police Detachment in Washington, DC, assigned to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he guarded Jordan’s King Hussein on the king’s trips there for medical attention and met helicopters bringing injured soldiers to the hospital.
Home from his military service in 1974, he returned to his old job as a deputy, working on the road patrol, in the jail or dispatching. By the time he left the Sheriff’s Office he had served under four sheriffs: Dewey Lawrence, Frank Appleton, Harold Horton and Paul Proper and he worked alongside a fifth, James Bertram.
He took the test to become a state trooper in 1975 and passed, but it wasn’t until the state was hiring again in September 1977 that he entered the state police academy. After six months of training, he was assigned to Troop F in Greene County. He worked the 1980 Olympics detail in Lake Placid, the State Fair in Syracuse and provided security during the 1979 correction officers’ strike at the state prison in Coxsackie.
While working as a trooper in Greene County, the investigator was called to check out a report of a plane crash on Tower Mountain in Windham. The night was bitter cold and snowy as the trooper drove around. In a cul de sac leading to a future housing development he blew the horn and sounded the siren, then shut the car off. He heard cries for help, called for backup and began walking toward the sound of the voice. He thought it was close, but he scaled Tower Mountain nearly an hour before he shined his flashlight on the plane’s pilot standing with the help of a homemade crutch. The man had broken bones and would never have survived the night, he said. Forest rangers were called in and the man was carried to safety by stretcher.
Years later in June 2010, Sr. Inv. Mazzacano would find another man, this one missing for four days.
Thomas Wopat-Moreau, 22, had not been seen or heard from after leaving a party in East Fishkill early the morning of May 30. Christine Wopat of Copake, his mother, was sure her son had run off the road somewhere.
With the help of the State Police Major Crimes Unit and its “computer guys” information about when Thomas’ cell phone last searched for service was discovered by the “ping” off a cell tower. After setting up a focus area within a mile radius of Lake Taghkanic, a methodical search was mounted.
Trooper Ron Cardis found a place along the Taconic State Parkway where a car had left road. He found pieces of the car that matched the missing BMW, but found no car and called Sr. Inv. Mazzacano to report that the car must have been towed out.
“It didn’t make sense,” said the investigator, who decided to look at the spot himself.
After seeing all the brush and undergrowth scraped and pushed down in one direction he said, “I bet that car is still in there.” But walking through the dense thicket was impossible and the investigator had to return to the highway to find a spot where he could work his way down the embankment further into the undergrowth. He finally saw the car, which it was later determined had travelled 480 feet off the road, become airborne twice and rolled over. He called Thomas’ name and heard a response saying, “Over here.”
Thomas was paralyzed but had somehow dragged himself 150 feet from the car to the edge of a swamp. The senior investigator told Thomas, who had survived on swamp water and reeds for four days, that his mother would be “some happy” to see him.
“It’s not all about arresting people; the biggest thing is to help people,” the investigator said.
He was promoted to Bureau of Criminal Investigations investigator in 1984.
What he likes about the State Police are the opportunities. A trooper can stay in the uniformed ranks, work his or her way up or stay a trooper for an entire career. They can move on to investigations–crime follow-up, work at the State Police lab, become involved with training, computer crimes, administration, crime scene processing or undercover work in narcotics.
Though he had no training at the time, the senior investigator found he had a talent for hostage negotiation, now called crisis negotiation when, as a trooper in April 1982, he convinced a young man who was holding his parents hostage in a house full of guns in New Baltimore to surrender. The 21-year-old shot up the whole house, five family vehicles and a snowmobile with 141 rounds from a .30 caliber rifle. The parents escaped while then Trooper Mazzacano was on the phone with their son. After he became an investigator, he took negotiator training and has since successfully settled hostage situations in Pine Plains and Kinderhook. He has talked people out of jumping off bridges and calmed a man who stood outside the Columbia Memorial Hospital emergency room with a rifle threatening to shoot himself.
Promoted to senior investigator in 1990, he worked out of Troop K headquarters in Poughkeepsie. In 1999, after a few years at the Rhinebeck BCI unit, Sr. Inv. Mazzacano was transferred to the Claverack barracks. When he walked into the barracks that first morning, the trooper behind the desk asked him how long it had taken him to get to work. “Twenty-two years,” the investigator told him.
That same year, State Police administration in Albany decided the time had come for a new barracks in Columbia County. Sr. Inv. Mazzacano and Zone Sergeant Ed Moore looked for a new location and once they found one, they were given “some leeway” and actually designed the whole interior of this station. Troopers moved there in 2002.
The biggest technological innovation in police work the investigator has seen is computerization; no more handwritten tickets or using a typewriter to fill out reports. Now troopers have computers in their cars.
Though he has handled cases that generated banner headlines, the senior investigator said he most loves to solve burglaries. “Unless you’re a victim of a burglary you don’t know how violated a person feels to have someone going through their stuff,” he said. “I like to recover their property, it eases their minds.”
A case Sr. Inv. Mazzacano would have liked to have solved was the September 2000 murder of Jacqueline McCalop, 43, a Hudson native, who lived in Catskill. Ms. McCalop was found dead on the east bank of the Hudson River by duck hunters. She had multiple stab wounds and a fractured skull.
Even as recently as last week, the investigator said he received information about the case. “I believe the case can be solved if we could get cooperation from certain people involved.”
One of the most rewarding cases he handled was that of Robert Conn, 37, of Ancram, who was convicted of the kidnap and rape of a 21-year-old Copake Falls woman in May 2005. In the early morning hours of August 6, 2004, Mr. Conn forced the woman in her vehicle off Route 22 in Copake Falls. He kidnapped her at gunpoint, drove her to an isolated place in the woods off Cottontail Road, Ancram, where he raped and sexually abused her. “Nobody should go through what this young girl did,” he said. “It was through her own will to stay alive” that she convinced him to drive her somewhere and drop her off. She told him he shouldn’t go back to where her car was that police would probably be there. She convinced him that she would not tell anyone about the incident and that she would make up a story about where she had been.”
Later that day after a manhunt that spanned two states, Mr. Conn was captured.
“We were with that young lady and her family and helped them through that trial. They were so grateful they wrote us a nice thank you letter,” he said. What was most surprising to the investigator was that sometime later, the young woman invited him, another investigator and a trooper to her wedding.
He asked the bride’s father why someone who had been through that kind of trauma with those kind of memories would want the police to be part of her special day. The father assured the investigator that his daughter “absolutely wanted us there, so we went and had a wonderful time.”
Asked what the future holds for him, the investigator said, “I don’t know, I’ve got to see what it’s like to be unemployed.” He has started painting and organizing things around the house and is fixing up the basement. He will continue to serve as Greenport fire chief.
He and his wife Alane, a nurse who works in quality management at Columbia Memorial Hospital, have three grown children and two grandchildren. His oldest son is a trooper.
“I never minded coming to work. I worked with a good group of people,” including at the District Attorney’s Office and the county court.
He doesn’t think mandatory retirement is a good policy, because valuable experience in crime-fighting is lost. He plans to work Christmas weekend “so my guys can be home with their families.”
“It has been a privilege to work with these troopers and investigators,” who he considers family. “They do a good job for the county,” he said.
To contact Diane Valden email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dinner fetes Mazzacano
A retirement dinner for Sr. Inv. Mazzacano will be held Saturday, January 21 at the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center, 660 Albany Shaker Road, Albany. A cocktail hour is from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. with dinner and a disc jockey to follow.
Dinner choices are: roast New York sirloin of beef, chicken Francaise or sole bonne femme. Tickets are $75 person and include a gift and a two-hour open bar. RSVP by January 9 to G.J. Mazzacano 518 378-9336, Bill Mulrein 518 653-1462, Kelly Taylor 518 229-5993 or email@example.com.