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By Mike Hudson

A joint task force, consisting of investigators from the Niagara County District Attorney's office, the county Sheriff's Department and the Niagara Falls City Police, last week launched an investigation into the alleged theft of more than $12,000 worth of asphalt millings from the city.

Investigators got a break in the case when the Niagara Falls Reporter turned over a series of photographs, taken at a location on Hyde Park Boulevard on Aug. 3, showing dumped loads of the millings. The photos had previously been given to the newspaper by a former city official.

As many as 120 truckloads of asphalt milling -- generated through the resurfacing of Niagara Street and other area roadways -- were reportedly dumped in a parking lot adjacent to IDS Lakes Pipe Supply on Hyde Park Boulevard, in the parking lot of National Vacuum Corp. on Packard Road, in a private lot in an alley between Eighth and Ninth streets and in a lot outside of a Third Street tavern.

The city received no remuneration for the material.

District Attorney Matthew Murphy assigned a top investigator, Allan Brooks, to the case. Brooks, in turn, enlisted the aid of Niagara County Sheriff's Department Investigator Edward Garde and city police Det. John Humphrey to provide a coordinated approach to the investigation.

Normally, the millings are used by the city to surface unimproved alleyways and municipal parking lots. Any material left over can be sold to individuals and businesses, usually for $100 to $180 per truckload.

An assistant city Streets Department foreman, Willie Santiago, took a 30-day unpaid leave of absence after officials learned that the material had gone missing. City Council members told the Reporter they were originally led by administration officials to believe that Santiago had been suspended and only learned he'd taken the leave after filing Freedom of Information Act requests for the information.

Santiago reportedly claimed he thought he was doing the city a favor, getting rid of the material without any cost to the city.

But others in the Streets Department pointed out that the assistant foreman had worked for the Streets Department long enough to know the value of the asphalt millings.

City Administrator Al Joseph told media sources that as few as six truckloads were taken, and described the dollar loss to the city as "less than $100." But sources close to the case told the Reporter last week that each truckload is worth $100 to $180, and that as many as 120 to 150 truckloads were taken.

City Councilwoman Barbara Geracitano has charged that the administration is attempting to cover up the incident, and said city officials other than Santiago "must have been involved" in giving away the quantity of material that is apparently missing.

"We're going to get to the bottom of this and let the chips fall where they may," she said.