The muffled screams escaped through the narrowly cracked window and into the frigid winter afternoon air. That’s what drew attention to the blue pickup truck, otherwise inconspicuous in the grocery store’s side lot.
Wrights Corners is a hamlet within the towns of Lockport and Newfane, some 35 miles north of Buffalo, and Tops Friendly Market is in the bustling part of town. It sits just off a two-lane highway, a little past a quiet stretch of modest ranches and colonials; unspoiled land where a property line has room to breathe, some playing host to a pop-up camper or ride-on lawnmower. A man could wash his car, get insured, buy a case of beer and order a Big Mac Value Meal all within a few hundred yards.
This is where James Moscato, a decorated police officer seven years out of the academy, found himself, responding to a dispatch about a distressed man in the back seat of a parked vehicle. Moving closer, he saw the guy’s neck was tied to the metal bars that support the driver’s seat headrest with a length of rope. His hands and feet were bound together with duct tape.
A thick snow flurry moved through, piling on the windshield as Moscato pulled out his knife to slice the tape and bag it for DNA evidence. Ever-so-slight ligature marks peeked out from behind his black hooded sweatshirt. He was older, in his 60s. Sandy hair, hazel eyes, goatee. He told Moscato how he’d been kidnapped two days earlier by a pair of men, robbed of the $16,000 in cash he was carrying and forced to drive around the area—everywhere from Rochester to Lewiston—while the captors plotted their next move. He told them of the first night, when he slept in a hallway of a stash house with a cap pulled over his eyes but couldn’t risk running even when he was sure his captors had fallen asleep; he was certain he’d be shot. The second night, he said, they’d discarded him here along with his truck, just off where New York routes 78 and 104 merge, a good 30 minutes north of his North Tonawanda home.
He might have recognized one of the two—he was from work, Tim. Maybe. But he wasn’t sure and didn’t have a last name. The other guy? No clue. But he figured they were ducking security cameras based on their erratic movements when they arrived at Tops.
As he told his story the man shook, maybe because he was scared, or cold, or both. Moscato handed him a protein bar and a water, letting him sit in the back of the cruiser to calm down. After about 20 minutes, there were multiple police SUVs on the scene, with a second officer combing through the pickup to bag evidence and a third speaking with the Tops employee who first heard the man’s cry for help and phoned the local dispatcher. This time of year, after weeks of slush and ice, it seems most police work is devoted to cars sliding off the road. A kidnapping case would involve resources from all over the county: a forensic team, a fingerprint tech, a video unit to document the scene. They’d probably have to borrow investigators from two towns up the road, a 25-minute drive in bad weather, but it might be a necessity. Moscato’s adrenaline spiked. Now 35, he was in his late 20s when he left a desk job to join the force. This is why: days like today, cases like this.
As the man’s account of the abduction weaved its way into a full picture of how and why he ended up here, it only got stranger. He’d been running a big-money Super Bowl pool at work, and he still owed a few people money. Lots of money. That’s where all this trouble started, he said, why things got out of hand.
And so began one of the most bizarre kidnapping cases Western New York has ever seen, right there amid the afternoon coupon crowd buying shampoo and lunch meat; a collision course between sharp cops, sloppy criminals and the Super Bowl no one expected. In less than two hours, an arrest was made.
* * *
The Unifrax plant sits just off I-190, before the highway crosses the Niagara River onto Grand Island, situated at the approximate midpoint between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Lit up at night in the fast-closing dusk, it looks like a Costco made almost entirely of metal roofing with an American flag waving out front. Driving around the area, one might feel as if they’re circling the edge of our universe—black sky above bleeding into black water somewhere in the near distance below, the burning nasal sensation of endless cold barreling in, few signs of life between the refuge of car and workplace heat. Inside, they make specialty fiber products; perhaps your car’s fiberglass insulation was manufactured here.
This is where Robert Brandel was employed for the better part of a decade. Those who know him describe a wiry, “grandfather” type with a surprising amount of energy for someone his age. Bobby was the kind of guy who would bring candy bars into work to break up the monotony of a long shift. Or if he saw a group he knew out at the bar, he’d make sure to pick up the tab. He’d talk about a big family, a bum knee and his blackbelt. He was always available to take shifts for other people.
“One of the nicest guys we worked with,” said one Unifrax worker. “And one of the best workers too.”
Brandel began a version of the Super Bowl squares pool seven years prior, and his affable disposition seemed to make him the ideal friendly neighborhood bookie. In February 2018, only days after the Eagles beat the Patriots in one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, Brandel began simultaneously paying winners of his seventh pool and collecting for next year—he would always start the collection process immediately after the previous year’s Super Bowl payouts. He offered payment plans and jotted all his clients down in a little notebook.
The $500-per-square buy-in price attracted the kind of relative high rollers who craved a meaningful piece of action. This was potential vacation money. New-truck money. Maybe even fresh-start-someplace-warmer money.
“Word spreads when you have a pool for $500,” said one participant.
Brandel told coworkers he took the game over from a bar he frequented, which would explain why more than a few names were unfamiliar to the people from work who bought squares. The finished product was a scribbled tapestry of two worlds coming together, the full Christian names one might use in an office, alongside eloquent sobriquets you might use at the bar. Like “Stretch” or “The Twins.” Or “Boner.”
His payout structure and schedule for dues were listed in a handwritten flier given out around the plant, laying out the $50,000 in prizes and that Unifrax employees had cashed in for a combined total of $12,000 the previous year.
It was hard for anyone throwing their money down to imagine that, in less than a year, thousands of dollars would be unaccounted for. Or a Xeroxed copy of the squares would be in a police evidence locker. Or that, if you spend a few moments disassembling and reshaping the bits of anecdotal knowledge one might collect and store on coworkers, it becomes clear how little you really understand the people who pass through your life every day.
* * *
Super Bowl squares are set up similar to that of a Battleship board or a cow flop grid.
A pool consists of 10 vertical columns and 10 horizontal rows thatched together and numbered from zero to nine. One Super Bowl team gets the columns and the other gets the rows, and each of the 100 squares inside are purchased individually. At the end of every quarter, the person whose square corresponds with the intersection of the second digit of each team’s score wins a prize (for example, a 14–7 score at the end of the first quarter pays out the owner of the square at row 4, column 7). The final score usually pays out the highest sum.