Next February marks the 25th anniversary of the unsolved double homicide at the former Ski Wing resort on Five Mile Road in Allegany.
While the case has been buried by time, it has not been forgotten. In fact, the extensive police file was recently sent to Albany where it will get a fresh look by forensics investigators with the New York State Police.
On Feb. 6, 1978, two nighttime ski slope groomers were gunned down inside the Ski Wing lodge in what police believe was a ßburglary gone sour.à The two apparently surprised burglars who were chipping away at a safe set in concrete in the floor of a closet in the managerÞs office.
Police theorize a third employee, a janitor, likely escaped death when he fell asleep watching TV at home and didnÞt show up for work until about 3 a.m. He was supposed to report at midnight, about the time his colleagues were shot.
The victims, Stephen Bender, 30, and Michael Forness, 29, had come in off the slopes when one of the grooming vehicles broke down. They were each shot three times, once in the back of the head, execution style.
ßIt was callous, no question about it,à recalls retired State Police Sr. Inv. J. Thomas Stofer, part of a small army of investigators assigned to the case.
The killers got away with an estimated $18,000. About a month later, the 175-pound safe they chiseled from the floor was found in the Allegheny River beneath the now-closed Vandalia bridge.
The safe was sent to a Canadian lab in hopes of identifying the tool the killers used to cut a hole in its side. Composite sketches were released of two of three men seen in the area where the safe was dumped.
Police were hopeful, even though the probe dragged on without an arrest. ßWeÞll get them,à vowed one investigator.
There were ßpromising leads … some substantial physical evidence,à said Inv. Stofer, now a part-time investigator with the Cattaraugus County District AttorneyÞs Office.
But the leads ran cold and the killers were never found.
Nearly 25 years later, police havenÞt given up on the case. To them itÞs not a matter of if the killers are found, but when.
ßSomebody knows something. Who they are, I donÞt know. But I think somehow, someplace, sometime, somebody will just cough it up,à said Inv. Stofer.
Police hope a new look at the case will lead them to the killers. The Ski Wing file has been sent to the State Police Crime Lab in Albany where a unit known as Forensic Investigative Support Services will give it a fresh look, said State Police Inv. John Ensell of Olean.
ßWe call them the Ýcold caseÞ consultants,à said Inv. Ensell, who inherited the Wing Hollow file when he came on the force. ßTheyÞll go back and start going through the file page by page.à Part of the effort is to see if forensic investigative tools that werenÞt around 25 years ago might lead police down a fresh path.
ßAre there new techniques, new possibilities since these homicides occurred? Most certainly,à said Inv. Ensell. ßIÞm not afraid to say it: Even with all the time and effort and personnel involved in the case, there might be something that slipped through a crack. It will be refreshing for some new eyes to look at it with the expert knowledge they have.à
The investigative effort at the time of the killings was second to none, said Inv. Stofer.
ßWe had quite a turnout in manpower ã state police, the sheriffÞs department, Olean police ã everybody assisted us right from the start; even the FBI opened a file. But no matter which avenue we took we kept bumping into dead ends. It was truly frustrating,à he said.
Police went down trails that led all the way to Texas. Later in the investigation when 400 suspects were rounded up in an unrelated sting operation in Erie County, police offered a ßfree rideà to anyone who could offer information into the killings, hoping someone would take the bait. No one did.
ßWe certainly had some things surface that looked promising, but as we moved further along the normal links and ties you would look for to build a case on didnÞt exist,à said Inv. Stofer.
ßWe kept hoping that somebody would give something up that you could go with. Today we still put the same appeal out ã please, if you know something, tell us,à he said.
Authorities believe more than one person was involved in the killings and hope that may be the loose thread that causes the case to eventually unravel.
ßOnce you get beyond yourself the ability to keep a secret becomes more difficult,à said Inv. Stofer. ßAfter 25 years a person may have built up a comfort zone where he might slip and say something.à
Twenty-five years is a long time, but the book never closes on the Ski Wing killings, he said, adding someone out there knows what happened that night.
ßToday we still put the same appeal out there: Please, if you know something, give us a call,à he said.
Inv. Ensell added, ßMaybe there is something we havenÞt heard before. No matter how insignificant it might seem, let us know. Maybe we have heard it before, maybe we havenÞt.à
The state police can be reached at 373-2550.