In his youth, Nick Paonessa found a fondness for a fictional English sleuth.
And strolling his neighborhood, with his English bulldog at his side, he recalled how that passion for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes ended up shaping his more than three decades in law enforcement.
“Years ago I read all the (Sherlock Holmes) stories,” Paonessa said. “I was always taken by the concept of looking at minute details and building from there.”
So whether he knew it at the start of his career, or not, Paonessa would go on to become a modern day Sherlock Holmes in Niagara Falls Police Department. It’s a niche he admits kept him on the job far longer than he expected.
“No,” he said, laughing, “I thought I’d be 20 and out. Then 20 became 25 and there was always another challenge.”
On Friday, 33 years and four months after he first walked in the door of police headquarters, leaving his then job as a martial arts instructor, Paonessa was piped out to begin a retirement that he said he’s now ready for.
“I want to take a little break and clear my head,” Paonessa said. “I loved the work. I loved the challenge. I think we did a lot of good work.”
Paonessa earned his black belt training with, among others, actor Chuck Norris. He envisioned police work would be like Norris’ iconic TV role as “Walker: Texas Ranger.”
He said training with Norris was “nerve wracking” and police work was nothing like his TV show. So within his first two years on the job he moved into NFPD’s Crime Scene Unit as an investigator.
He later became the unit’s lieutenant and retired as its captain and commander. It was a perfect match.
“I started attending every (forensic training) school I could,” Paonessa said. “When I started out, it was really just the beginning of crime scene investigations. The first use of DNA in a criminal case was in 1987 in Great Britain. There were no computerized fingerprint data bases. It was (fingerprint) powder and pictures.”
In those early days, Crime Scene Unit investigators would fingerprint defendants when they were brought in to be booked. Paonessa hit on an idea to improve the crime solving capability of fingerprints.
“To compare fingerprints then, you needed to have a suspect,” he said. “So when I had fingerprints from a burglary, I’d hang them where we did the fingerprinting (of people who were arrested) in booking. And then as we rolled the prints, I’d look at (the crime scene prints) to see if there was a match. I caught a lot of burglars that way.”
Retired Falls Police Detective Captain Kelly Rizzo said Paonessa’s dedication to his work was always exemplified by his desire to experiment and test out new forensic theories.
“So one day Nick sticks his head in the office and he says, ‘Anybody know where I can get some pig’s blood?’,” Rizzo said. “I mean, who’s looking for pig’s blood? But he had read an article about interpreting blood spatter patterns and he wanted to test it out.”
Asked about that story, Paonessa begins to laugh heartily.
“Yeah,” he says. “I found a place to get that. It was always a challenge to see what we could do better.”
When Bluestar Forensics introduced a new reagent product, designed to reveal blood stains that have been washed out, wiped off, or are invisible to the naked eye, Paonessa wanted to put their product to the test.
He went to Gettysburg, scene of the largest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and convinced the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association to let him conduct an experiment at two locations. One was Shriver House Museum, where a Confederate sniper had been killed in a second-floor window by a shot to the head.
The other was the Daniel Lady farm, which had served as a military field hospital.
“I knew that they still had the same wood (in the floors) from the time of the battle,” Paonessa said. “And that blood (from the wounded and the dead) had dripped onto the floor boards.”
Paonessa proceeded to treat the floor boards with the Bluestar product.
“And it actually visualized the blood stains,” he said.
The results of Paonessa’s work were published worldwide in a number of forensic sciences journals. His Gettysburg experiment became the oldest death scene ever processed using blood reagents.
The findings of the experiment have recently been put to use in the Falls in the investigation of the cold case homicide of Terri Lynn Bills. The discovery of blood stains in a Pierce Avenue home helped determine what police believe was the location where Bills was murdered and her body dismembered.
Paonessa has been recognized as one of the foremost crime scene experts in Western New York. In addition to handling the crime scene investigations for NFPD, he was frequently called on by other police agencies to assist them in their forensic work in complicated and high profile cases.
Asked to identify cases that left a lasting impression on him, Paonessa said, “That would be tough.” He said he often times doesn’t remember the names of the victims of particularly awful crimes.
Paonessa called it “a coping mechanism” to help dull the trauma of working horrific cases He said processing the discovery of the body of a small girl, in a garbage bag left in a trash bin, might have been the worst.
“That was a sad case,” he said.
He’s not sure exactly what retirement will hold. Paonessa talked, like many retirees, about getting work done around his house and talking more walks with his English bull dog.
“It’s been terrific working with my team,” he said. “I’m really going to miss them.”