GOWANDA - If the alleged victim is to be believed, the shooter who hit a Gowanda police officer in 2008, setting the community on edge and igniting a massive search, never existed.
According to the Erie County District Attorney's Office, former Gowanda officer Jason Miller, 36, of North Collins, confessed that he staged his own shooting off East Hill Road on Sept. 26, 2008. Miller reportedly said that he had hung his bulletproof vest on a tree branch and fired a .22 caliber bullet - not standard police-issue - into the chest area. He then struck himself in the chest with a piece of wood to fabricate the impact bruising.
The news was first officially released to Gowanda residents in a letter addressed to them by Gowanda Police Chief Joseph Alessi that was read at the Tuesday meeting of the village board.
"Our department is grateful to the community for the patience and understanding during this ordeal," the letter states, "and (it is) a relief to know that someone is not out to shoot a cop."
Miller's confession came as part of a plea deal toward charges of official misconduct, to which he pleaded guilty in May. It was alleged that, on June 4, 2009, Miller let off an individual who had reportedly been driving with a suspended license in return for three large pizzas. He processed the individual at the Gowanda Police Station but never filed the necessary paperwork with courts. Miller was placed on administrative leave in July 2009 and resigned from both Gowanda police and his county investigator position that September.
It was also revealed that Miller allegedly took about $600 both from members of Gowanda Police and the Cattaraugus County District Attorney's Office, where he had worked as an investigator.
In both cases he reportedly collected money for emblem-emblazoned clothing, which was delivered, but the company who created the designs was never paid. Miller has also been required to reimburse these funds.
Chief Alessi said any additional charges stemming from the confession would be determined by Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III and the State Police.
"If anyone's going to press charges, it would be the State Police because, at the time, Officer Miller gave them a statement," Alessi said. "Because it was one of our officers - we worked side-by-side with him - we pretty much turned it over to the State Police at that time."
With the question of how the shooting took place apparently out of the way, the most prominent mystery now is Miller's motive for staging the shooting in the first place. Miller was not under suspicion at the time of the incident, according to the police chief, who said Miller had been talented and communicated well with people.
"We don't know what was going through his head," Alessi said. "I knew they had a newborn; if he was under a lot of stress, I don't know. Everything that we uncovered and turned over was just shocking; you never expected it."
On the night of the alleged shooting, Miller said he had been on patrol when an unknown individual threw something at his police vehicle. He chased the suspect on foot into the woods, where he said he had been shot in his vest. A search for the gunman began almost immediately after the incident was reported, bringing out State Police, sheriff's deputies from Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties and a helicopter from the U.S. Border Patrol.
Alessi said the investigation continued on following the initial manhunt and that leads on several other cases were found while scouring for answers to the shooting. As investigators continued to find no one who knew or heard anything about the incident, however, and with Miller's continued refusal to provide more details himself, the possibility the shooting had been staged did begin to cultivate in the minds of some.
"It was talked about," Alessi said. "We played out a lot of scenarios; we talked to a lot of people - a lot of bright investigators. A lot of people from other agencies stepped in whenever we wanted them to help out. We would get the information and then lay it out on the table to ask, 'What do you think?' ... It was nice to have a second or third opinion from veterans that have been doing it for 25 years."
Suspicion against Miller grew with other reports, eventually leading to his arrest for the June 4, 2009 incident.
Miller was scheduled to appear in Collins Town Court Thursday, but that date has been reportedly postponed. Whenever the new date is established, it would be a surprise not to see any of the Gowanda police force in attendance.