By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — A traffic stop involving two men driving a car with Massachusetts license plates touched off a scare Friday morning in the neighborhood surrounding the City Market in Niagara Falls.
After a lengthy investigation involving city police, the New York State Bomb Disposal Unit, the FBI and several other agencies, law enforcement officials pronounced the area all clear early Friday afternoon.
The incident began around 8:30 a.m. when an Air National Guard member driving on the I-190 took notice of the black Nissan and thought the car's occupants looked suspicious. Police said the guardsman called 911 to alert authorities as he followed the vehicle on its way to the Falls.
City patrol officers eventually pulled the car over on Elmwood Avenue, between 18th and 19th streets behind the City Market.
Niagara Falls Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto said the officers spotted what they considered to be "suspicious-looking" packages in the vehicle during the traffic stop. The two occupants of the vehicle were immediately taken in to custody for questioning and the New York State Police Bomb Squad was called to the scene.
By 9 a.m., the block of Elmwood Avenue was closed off as an investigation began.
State Police used their bomb-detecting robotic device to examine the car. It removed several packages for further inspection.
"We couldn't see what was inside," DalPorto said during a press conference at around 1 p.m. following the close of the investigation. "Through the officers' observations, they felt they were suspicious."
DalPorto and State Police Capt. Craig Hanesworth said the packages contained nothing potentially harmful, only papers and other personal items.
"With recent events, we erred on the side of caution," DalPorto said, referring to the heightened awareness surrounding a pair of bombings earlier this week at the site of the Boston Marathon. "Safety is our No. 1 priority, to the citizens and the officers that responded."
DalPorto said the two men, whom he described as being in their early 20s, told police they were traveling up to the Falls to take in the sights and visit some friends in the area. He said the vehicle was owned by the driver's father, a Massachusetts resident who had to be contacted by police for permission to search the vehicle.
The driver is being charged with failure to stop at a stop sign and failure to use a turn signal. Both men were released by police, their belongings were returned and they were allowed to drive away from the scene in the Nissan.
Some early media reports suggested the two men detained by police were Russian nationals. In briefings with reporters throughout the day, DalPorto insisted the individuals were not Russian. He declined to comment on the specific citizenship of either individual.
"Both parties and the father were cooperative through the whole event," DalPorto said.
The events of the day drew dozens of onlookers to the intersection of 19th Street and Elmwood Avenue. The block where the vehicle was initially stopped by police was closed off to pedestrians and traffic throughout the day while the bomb squad conducted its investigation. Residents living on the block were told by police to remain inside their homes. On two occasions Friday morning, officers asked bystanders to move away from the intersection as a precaution. In the second warning, police demanded onlookers move over another block away from the scene to 20th Street.
State Police Capt. Craig Hanesworth said the strong response from authorities was appropriate and necessary under the circumstances.
"Any time you're involved in a situation like this, you have an abundance of caution," he said.
DalPorto agreed and praised the actions of the man who called police about the car. He also encouraged all residents to be on alert for suspicious activity, saying they should not hesitate to report unusual individuals or activities whenever they feel it is warranted.
"The Air National Guard member did exactly what he was supposed to do," DalPorto said. "His instincts were right on."