A New York State judge whose home was searched by law enforcement authorities last month against the backdrop of the federal prosecution of one of his former clients killed himself on Tuesday, one of his lawyers said.
The judge, John L. Michalski, an acting justice of the State Supreme Court, was found dead at his home in Amherst, NY, a Buffalo suburb, shortly before noon, said the lawyer, Terrence Connors.
“It’s difficult to explain what a tragedy this is,” said Mr. Connors, a longtime friend of Justice Michalski’s, adding that “it would be difficult to find a judge who was more respected” in the Western New York legal community.
The Amherst police were not able to provide information about Justice Michalski’s death late Tuesday. A spokesman for the state court system did not respond to a request for comment. Justice Michalski was appointed to the Court of Claims in 2006 and named as an acting Supreme Court justice the same year, according to his official court biography.
Justice Michalski’s death, at 61, came a little more than a year after another apparent suicide attempt in which, according to police records, he was struck by a freight train after lying on the tracks in a rail yard near Buffalo in the middle of the night. He sustained a serious leg injury but was otherwise unhurt, Mr. Connors said.
The episode prompted him to take a leave from his $ 210,900-a-year seat on the bench. He returned to work in January after meeting every requirement for doing so and had begun taking on a full caseload, Mr. Connors said.
But last month, Justice Michalski came under renewed scrutiny, and his cases were once again reassigned, after federal and state investigators raided his home. He had not been charged with any crime, but he had drawn the authorities’ attention because of his ties to Peter Gerace Jr., the owner of a strip club in Cheektowaga, another Buffalo suburb.
Mr. Gerace was charged in federal court in Florida last year with sex trafficking, drug distribution and bribery of a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent. He denies the charges, and the case has since been transferred to the Western District of New York.
The former agent, Joseph Bongiovanni, has been charged with bribery, obstruction and conspiracy. An indictment detailing the charges against the two men says that Mr. Bongiovanni’s associates included people “he believed to be members of, connected to or associated with” organized crime.
Another man identified in the indictment as having links to organized crime is Michael Masecchia, a longtime Buffalo schoolteacher now facing up to life in prison after pleading guilty to gun and drug charges.
The episode in which Justice Michalski was struck by the train occurred the same day that Mr. Gerace was charged. At the time, a different lawyer for Justice Michalski told The Buffalo News that the federal authorities had contacted the judge two weeks earlier to ask about Mr. Gerace.
The relationship between the men went back decades, to when the judge was in private practice and did legal work for Mr. Gerace’s club, the lawyer, Anthony J. Lana, told The News.
In 2006, The News reported, Justice Michalski wrote a letter to a federal judge seeking a lenient sentence for Mr. Gerace, who had been convicted of wire fraud in connection with a sweepstakes telemarketing business. In the letter, The News reported, the judge said he and Mr. Gerace had been friends for a decade.
Mr. Connors said on Tuesday that Justice Michalski, a town prosecutor in Amherst and an assistant district attorney in Erie County earlier in his career, had “conveyed to the authorities repeatedly that he had no knowledge of any of Mr. Gerace’s allegedly illegal activities. “
“He was a client,” Mr. Connors said of the men’s relationship. Based on the information in the search warrants executed on Justice Michalski’s home last month, he added, the investigators appeared to be focused on an online business the judge’s wife ran from home selling clothes on consignment.
“If they would have called me and asked for what they were looking for, we would have given it to them,” Mr. Connors said. “We would have cooperated the same way we have cooperated all along.”
The judge was also the subject of an investigation by the state attorney general’s office related to possible corruption, according to a person familiar with the matter. No charges had been brought against him related to the inquiry.
Justice Michalski’s professional and personal behavior, including his mental state during and after the apparent suicide attempt last year, was also being examined by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, an independent agency that investigates allegations of misconduct involving New York’s judges.
The commission’s inquiry, according to The News, focused on accusations that he had received $ 5,000 for performing Mr. Gerace’s 2014 wedding – well above the $ 100 allowed by state law.
Mr. Connors predicted that Justice Michalski would be widely mourned in the days ahead.
“I can not tell you how many calls I’ve gotten today,” he said. “People are just in shock.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Here’s what you can do when a loved one is severely depressed.