Gerace Attorney 1 investigated by feds in Pharaoh’s case

Judge orders separate trials for ex-DEA agent, strip club owner

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Vilardo ordered separate trials Wednesday for Peter Gerace Jr., owner of Pharaoh’s Gentlemen’s Club, and retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent Joseph Bongiovanni.

Federal prosecutors are investigating one of the region’s most high-profile attorneys in connection with a conspiracy that reportedly caused the death of a witness in the Pharaoh’s strip club case to prevent her from testifying.

Although he is referred to as “Gerace Attorney 1” in an indictment made public on Tuesday, the indictment makes clear that attorney Steven M. Cohen is a subject of an investigation being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

It accuses Gerace Attorney 1 of being involved in a conspiracy to prevent a former Pharaoh’s Gentlemen’s Club stripper from testifying against Pharaoh’s owner Peter Gerace Jr., who Cohen represented.

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No criminal charges have been filed against Cohen, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to discuss the investigation Friday when contacted by The Buffalo News.

Crystal Quinn

Crystal Quinn was expected to testify for the prosecution at the trial of Peter Gerace Jr. before she was found dead Aug. 1, 2023. Prosecutors believe she was murdered and her death was staged to look like an accidental overdose or suicide.

“I’m not concerned about myself,” Cohen said Friday night in a statement sent to The News. “The evidence of my conduct will speak for itself. I do fear that such wild aggression by prosecutors may have a chilling effect on young defense lawyers who may fear repercussions for zealous advocacy.”

Cohen, who declined to be interviewed by The News, was described as a dedicated, ethical attorney who fights aggressively for his clients by Diane R. Tiveron, managing partner of Tiveron Law, where Cohen serves as chairman of criminal and litigation.

Cohen’s name does not appear in the indictment of Gerace, the president of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club and others. But the indictment quotes Gerace Attorney 1 as making several statements in court that Buffalo News reporters observed Cohen making.

The indictment does not accuse Gerace Attorney 1 of causing the death in August of witness Crystal Quinn, or of having knowledge that Quinn was going to be killed.

Before her death, Pharaoh's witness sent texts fearing for her safety: 'I think he's getting me set up'

“It’s the government’s position that Crystal Quinn was murdered, and it was staged to look like an overdose,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Cooper said in court Thursday.

But “it was part of the conspiracy that Gerace Attorney 1 would make efforts to prevent Crystal Quinn from becoming a government witness,” a grand jury alleged in the indictment signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Cooper.

Gerace faces multiple felony charges, including drug trafficking, sex trafficking, bribing a federal drug agent, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. He has pleaded not guilty.

Most of the indictment unsealed on Tuesday relates to the drug overdose death of Quinn, 37, of Depew, a former Pharaoh’s employee who died Aug. 1 at the Wellsville home of a previously convicted drug dealer, Simon Gogolack.

Gogolack, Howard Hinkle Jr. of Wellsville and “unknown bikers” associated with the Outlaws and Rare Breed motorcycle clubs were part of a conspiracy to “silence Crystal Quinn by any means necessary, including causing her death and making it look like an accident or suicide,” the indictment charges.

It alleges that Gogalack “intentionally provided Crystal Quinn with a lethal dose of fentanyl.”

Quinn died from a dose of the opioid drug that would have been lethal enough to kill 400 people, prosecutors said.

Peter Gerace Jr. mug from Niagara County Jail

Gerace Jr.

The indictment claims Gerace “in sum and substance” made a chilling threat last May about people who might testify against him.

“All rats should die,” Gerace reportedly stated. “No matter what, anybody can get touched, because when all this is over, I have very serious people to tie up loose ends.”

Behind the bar at the Outlaws Motorcycle Club‘s Buffalo clubhouse, the skeleton of a rat – with its neck in a noose – is displayed, the indictment also states.

“The Outlaws … have a motto that, ‘God Forgives, Outlaws Don’t,’ which refers to the Outlaws MC’s organizational commitment to intimidating, harming, or potentially killing individuals who pose a threat to their organization,” the indictment states. “Another phrase used by the Outlaws MC is ‘Snitches are a Dying Breed.’ ”

Gogolack, Gerace, John Ermin, Michael Roncone and two other men are charged criminally with obstructing justice by conspiring to stop Quinn from testifying against Gerace.

Outlaws Motorcycle Club president, 2 others charged with possessing guns

Ermin is the Pharaoh’s general manager and international president of the Outlaws, one of the world’s largest biker clubs, prosecutors said. Prosecutors identified Roncone as a leader of the Rare Breed, a local biker club associated with the Outlaws.

“Gerace Attorney 1,” Gerace, Gogolack and an associate of the Rare Breed, Frank Knight, are also accused of trying “to create and advance a cover story and false public narrative that Crystal Quinn’s death was a suicide.”

The indictment states that on Aug. 4, three days after Quinn’s death, “Gerace Attorney 1” claimed in court that Quinn took her own life because of pressure put on her by federal authorities to testify against Gerace. A News reporter heard Cohen make that statement in court on that date.

And while “Gerace Attorney 1” was restricted by a court order from telling Gerace the identities of any prosecution witnesses, the attorney “circumvented” that restriction by putting Quinn on his own witness list for the defense, prosecutors charged in the indictment.

That maneuver enabled “Gerace Attorney 1” to discuss Quinn’s potential testimony with the Pharaoh’s owner, according to court papers. Cohen was the attorney who submitted that witness list, which was discussed several times in court with News reporters present.

On June 30, Cohen told a judge in court that he could not start the Gerace trial on Sept. 25 because of a long-planned family vacation. A News reporter was present to hear that conversation. The indictment quotes “Gerace Attorney 1” as having that discussion with the judge.

Cohen battled with prosecutor

Cohen told the judge and News reporters last year that Gerace fired him because of disagreements over legal strategy.

The indictment says he represented Gerace for more than two years until Sept. 6, 2023.

Amherst police detective charged with lying to FBI about strip club owner Gerace

An Amherst police detective has been charged with lying to FBI agents about his dealings with Peter Gerace Jr., the Cheektowaga strip club owner who faces bribery, sex- and drug-trafficking charges.

Before Cohen left the case, he and Joseph M. Tripi, the lead prosecutor, had many heated arguments in the courtroom, with a judge ordering both attorneys to lower their voices and tone down their rhetoric.

“This is not going to happen in my courtroom,” District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo told Tripi and Cohen during one verbal brawl in the fall. “If you do this in front of the jury, I will not hesitate to make you look bad in front of the jury.”

During legal arguments and in interviews with The News, Cohen last year accused Tripi and federal agents of causing Quinn’s suicide by pressuring her into “lying in court” about Gerace.

Cohen continues to represent Gerace in other legal matters, including a libel lawsuit against Gerace’s ex-wife, Katrina Nigro, who is expected to testify as a prosecution witness in the Pharaoh’s case.

Cohen, 61, has been an attorney for more than 30 years.

An outspoken advocate who often takes on unpopular causes and battles with opposing counsel, Cohen over the past two decades has become one of Western New York’s most high-profile attorneys.

His clients included Lynn DeJac Peters, who received $2.7 million from New York State in 2012 after she was wrongly imprisoned for 13 years for the death of her teenage daughter.

Cohen represented the family of Amanda Wienckowski, 20, whose frozen body was found in a Buffalo garbage tote in 2009. Her family has sued the Erie County medical examiner and the District Attorney’s Office, accusing them of covering up the young woman’s murder.

After a 2004 incident at the Rainbow Bridge that caused international controversy, Cohen successfully represented Robert Rhodes, a Customs and Border Protection officer who was accused of assaulting and violating the civil rights of a Chinese citizen. A federal jury acquitted Rhodes of multiple criminal charges. Cohen later got Rhodes reinstated to his job, with full retroactive benefits.

The combative lawyer has also represented many other families in disputes with law enforcement and other government agencies.

Cohen has “an outstanding track record of successes” in both criminal and civil cases, Tiveron said.

“Steve is a different kind of bulldog,” said Joseph J. Terranova, a former prosecutor and local defense attorney for 45 years. “He has a reputation for having a strong backbone and doing everything he can to defend his clients, regardless of any backlash. He’s had some real battles, with prosecutors and other attorneys.”

Although prosecutors and defense attorneys often disagree, Terranova said it is “very unusual” for a prosecutor to accuse a defense lawyer in an indictment of conspiring to prevent a witness from testifying.

He also called it “extremely unusual” for Cohen to claim in open court that Tripi and law enforcement colleagues were to blame for Quinn’s suicide.

“I’m not in any position to say whether what Steve did was right or wrong, but I think attorneys in Buffalo will be watching this case closely,” Terranova said. “Some attorneys will push the envelope very hard to protect their clients, but I think most of them stay within the boundaries of what ethical standards allow.”

Tripi also has a reputation in legal circles as a courtroom battler whose tactics sometimes anger opposing attorneys, Terranova and other Buffalo defense attorneys said.

Second attorney under attack

Another attorney for Gerace, Eric Soehnlein, is also under attack from Tripi in this case.

Tripi has repeatedly asked Vilardo to remove Soehnlein from Gerace’s defense team, but Tripi has never publicly revealed his reasons for doing so.

Soehnlein’s attorneys, Rodney O. Personius and Brian M. Melber, declined to comment on the situation to The News.

“Every document related to this has been sealed, so we cannot talk about it,” Personius said.