State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski died by suicide at his Amherst home Tuesday, several sources confirmed, 12 days after police executed a search warrant there.
Defense attorney Terrence M. Connors told The Buffalo News he received a call about the death late Tuesday morning and has been with the family at the Michalski home since.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Connors said. “He was such a good guy. This just didn’t have to happen.”
Connors said he was “sick” when he got the news, especially since he was with Michalski last week and the justice’s legal troubles seemed “manageable.”
“We had a good support system in place,” Connors said. “He was strong.”
Michalski, 61, was appointed in 2006 as a judge to fill a vacancy on the State Court of Claims and has been assigned to handle cases in State Supreme Court in Erie County ever since then.
Federal and state law enforcement officers, who have been investigating the judge for several years, raided his home on March 24. But no charges were filed against the judge or his wife.
The judge has been under public scrutiny since he suffered a serious leg injury in February 2021 when he was struck by a slow-moving freight train in Depew in what another judge called a “suicide attempt.” The Buffalo News reported that the the train incident occurred days after federal agents contacted the judge to question him about his friendship with Cheektowaga strip club owner Peter Gerace Jr., a former client of Michalski.
Michalski was struck by the train on the same day Gerace was arrested on felonies including drug trafficking, sex trafficking and bribing a federal drug agent – charges that Gerace denies.
Michalski’s name first came to federal authorities’ attention in June 2019 as agents investigated Gerace and retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent Joseph Bongiovanni.
As agents executed a search warrant at Bongiovanni’s home and questioned him, Bongiovanni told them that Gerace was friends with Michalski, a federal Department of Homeland Security Investigations agent testified last year. The information surprised the agent.
“That was volunteered as it was a name I wasn’t familiar with leading up to this. We were talking about people that Peter Gerace knew,” testified Agent Curtis Ryan, according to a transcript from a court hearing.
The friendship between the judge and Gerace began decades ago when Michalski was in private practice and performed legal work for Gerace’s strip club, according to attorney Anthony J. Lana, who was also representing the judge.
In 2006, when Gerace was awaiting sentencing for a felony wire fraud conviction related to his sweepstakes telemarketing business, Michalski wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, asking him to show leniency for his friend. In his letter, Michalski described Gerace as a client and friend for nearly a decade.
After reading character letters from Michalski and others, Skretny gave Gerace a break, sentencing him to five months in prison when advisory sentencing guidelines suggested a prison term of eight to 12 months.
Less than three months after Michalski wrote the Gerace letter, then-Gov. George E. Pataki appointed Michalski as a judge on the State Court of Claims, although he was assigned to handle cases in State Supreme Court in Erie County. Former U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds had urged Pataki to make the appointment.
Police raid his home
Following the train incident, agents from the FBI and other agencies continued to investigate Michalski’s friendship with Gerace, owner of the Pharaoh’s Gentlemen’s Club in Cheektowaga, according to two government sources with knowledge of the probe. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office have never publicly disclosed why they wanted to question the judge.
But on March 24, police from federal and state agencies executed a search warrant at Michalski’s Amherst home looking for evidence of tax crimes, two government sources told The Buffalo News last week.
Judge Michalski’s entire court caseload was transferred from him the day after the search, and officials of the State Office of Courts Administration said no further cases will be assigned to him “until further notice.”
Lana confirmed that the police seized documents from the home relating to a small online business run by the judge’s wife, Susan.
According to Lana, the warrants that allowed police to search the Michalski home gave no indication that investigators were looking in the home for any evidence relating to Gerace or his strip club.
Michalski has also been under investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which reviews complaints of ethical misconduct by judges. It is investigating whether Gerace paid Michalski $5,000 in cash for performing his wedding in 2014, despite a state law that bars judges from being paid more than $100 for that duty, according to two government sources.
Mourned by friends
Attorney Michael A. Benson, who became friends with the judge while they were students at UB law school, said Tuesday he was “sick” over the news of the judge’s death.
“He was a wonderful friend with a heart of gold. He was a very caring friend,” said Benson, who was in the UB law school Class of 1987 with Michalski. “He was a real family man. He was the first guy to show pictures of his children when we got together. He carried those pictures with him all the time.”
In recent days, Benson, the judge and a third law school classmate had lunch together.
“John was upbeat and himself,” Benson said of the gathering.
Benson also described Michalski as the “funniest guy in our law class and he was also the hardest working member of our class.”
In recalling their friendship, Benson said that during one summer he worked with Michalski at landscaping.
“I only did it a couple of weeks and I couldn’t keep up with John. Nobody could keep up with him,” Benson said.
Michael S. Taheri, an attorney and spiritual adviser to Michalski, said the judge had turned to a weekly online Catholic prayer group for support when his situation became public last year.
“John was a regular member of the Rosary group of community members,” Taheri said. “John was an active participant. He certainly came prepared with prayers and petitions for friends and family and world events, such as the war in Ukraine.”
Many of the 32 friends and colleagues of Michalski interviewed by The News in 2021 described him as a gregarious, caring and fun-loving man. Several friends used the words “life of the party” to sum up his persona.
“We have an annual golf tournament, and he’d have this multicolored sports jacket and he’d have the winner wear it, like the green sports jacket the winner wears at the Masters,” one of Michalski’s judicial colleagues recalled last year.
A graduate of Maryvale High School, Michalski grew up on George Urban Boulevard.
He continued his studies at SUNY Oswego, where he would meet his future wife, Susan, a Long Island native. They would marry after he graduated from UB law school in 1987.
Michalski’s first job as a lawyer was at the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, where he specialized in domestic violence prosecutions. He later went into private practice.
Working as a criminal defense attorney during the 1990s, he handled several cases involving violent, high-profile drug gangs.
For several years, Michalski also served as a prosecutor for Amherst, the town where he and his wife settled to raise their family.
At the same time, he boosted his public and political profile. Michalski served as president at two Buffalo organizations – the Advocates Club, a club made up of Polish American lawyers, and the Professional and Businessmen’s Association.
In 2003, Michalski ran unsuccessfully on the Republican line for an Erie County Family Court judgeship. In 2005, he ran unsuccessfully for State Supreme Court judge.
Then he was appointed to the bench.
Besides his wife, the judge is survived by three daughters and a son.