By Dan Herbeck
Chuck Bracey was never the same man after a gang of thieves and arsonists burned his logging and tree removal business to the ground in February 2002.
The fire destroyed his business in Newfane — he was not insured – – and within a month, the lumberman’s reddish-brown hair turned gray.
Less than four months after the blaze, Bracey died of a heart attack at age 68. Friends and family members are convinced that the stress caused by the fire killed him.
“He was the finest, strongest, hardest-working man I’ve ever known,” his wife, Carol, recalled in a recent interview. “But on the day of the fire, I knew I was looking at a broken man. He never got over it.”
But police say the fire that ruined Chuck Bracey also was the beginning of the downfall of the man who ordered the arson — David R. Cain Jr., 37 — and his rural gang of thugs who became known as the Backwoods Sopranos because of their thuggery.
Cain Jr. — who ran his own logging and tree removal business — and his brother and cousin were convicted earlier this month in federal court of racketeering, arson and other charges. They are awaiting sentencing and pursuing appeals.
Cops in both Niagara and Orleans counties are hoping the convictions will bring an end to a crime saga that goes back more than 30 years, involving members of the Cain family and their close relatives, the Rutherfords.
Crime victims, witnesses — and even some cops and judges — had feared members of the two families for decades, according to Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein and other police officials. Members of Cain’s gang were heavily involved in drug dealing, burglary and other crimes, police say.
“When the Cains or the Rutherfords came up in a criminal investigation, people would become fearful and reluctant to cooperate,” said Patrick Weidel, a Niagara County sheriff’s investigator who worked on the case for years with his partner, Raymond Degan.
“We even had burglary victims who wouldn’t want to file a complaint if those two names came up.”
But after the fire at Bracey’s, police received information that Cain Jr. had talked about destroying Bracey’s and other businesses that competed with him for logging and tree removal contracts.
That prompted Beilein to ask for help from powerful federal agencies — the U.S. attorney’s office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives and the FBI. A task force was formed, combining federal agents with personnel from Beilein’s office, the Niagara County district attorney’s office and the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office.
Their investigation turned up a lot of intimidation linked to Cain Jr. and his family.
In the early 1970s, someone threw a firebomb into the home of Beryl T. Coleman, a Somerset town justice who had several cases involving the Rutherfords. A trash bag filled with animal carcasses was left on the judge’s front porch. No one was ever charged in the two incidents. But Coleman started carrying a gun in court.
Five months after a Niagara sheriff’s deputy ticketed Cain’s pickup in 1994, Cain went to the deputy’s Newfane home and set his private car on fire. Cain and his brother, Christopher, were convicted of that crime at the federal trial.
In August 1995, a Barker police officer went to Cain’s home to serve a warrant on him. Cain knocked the officer out cold. Cain eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
In 2003, Cain Jr. discussed a plan to kill Coleman — who is now retired — and last year, he allegedly made threats to kill Weidel and Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce, federal prosecutors have alleged.
In November 2004, Cain and his father, David Sr., were accused of assaulting federal marshals and a state trooper who went to their home with a warrant. The assault charges were dismissed in late 2006, after two mistrials.
>People start talking
After the fire at Bracey’s logging business, authorities decided to pursue a racketeering case — similar to the prosecutions that have been successful against the Mafia in New York City. Individual crimes, such as arsons and extortions, would be pieced together to show a pattern of racketeering activity.
“People who would never speak to us about the Cain family before began providing information after the feds became involved,” Degan said. “We were interviewing people in Dave’s inner circle, his associates. They were scared, but little by little, we got some information.”
When a federal judge put Cain Jr. in jail after his alleged assault on federal marshals, more people began to talk. One of them was Cain’s cousin, Paul Rutherford Jr., 32, who was charged with a violent home invasion robbery at the home of an Orleans County woman in October 2003.
Rutherford admitted that he had spent most of his life as a thief. He took a plea deal, received a 13-year federal prison sentence and agreed to testify against Cain Jr.
“Witnesses began implicating themselves and Dave Cain,” Weidel said. “With federal agents involved, they realized we were serious about this investigation and it really was going somewhere.”
One by one, more than a half-dozen other Cain associates took plea deals and began to cooperate. And in May 2006, a federal grand jury indicted Cain, his brother, Chris, and their cousin, James Soha, on racketeering and other charges.
U.S. Attorney Terrance P. Flynn says it was a perfect case to get involved in. “This is exactly the kind of case where the federal government should be helping the smaller local police agencies,” he said.
But not everyone agrees that pursuing a racketeering case was the right thing for the federal government to do.
“The government took a series of state crimes involving Dave Cain and some personal disputes he had, and turned it into a racketeering case,” said James P. Harrington, Soha’s attorney. “There are some very serious issues with the trial that we’ll be looking at on appeal.”
Cain is “the hardest-working man I’ve ever met,” said George V.C. Muscato, a Lockport attorney who represents Cain’s mother, Ann Rutherford Cain.
“He’s a very intelligent guy who worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Muscato said. “He is a tough man in a rough-and- tumble business. He would blow off some steam, but I never saw him do anything violent.”
Prosecutors say Ann Cain, 53, tried to cover up her sons’ crimes. After a trial in September 2006, she was convicted of felony witness tampering. Jurors convicted her of telling one of David Cain Jr.’s henchmen, Sean Cooper, to lie to police. Her sentencing date has not yet been scheduled.
Carol Bracey is thankful that the feds took up the Cain case.
After her husband died, she got a big Great Dane named Lady for protection and companionship. She said the dog, her horse Charlie, and her friends at the Grace Bible Church in Newfane helped her deal with her losses.
Slowly, with the help of several loyal employees, she has been rebuilding the business her husband built. She tries not to dwell on David Cain Jr., but can’t help but wonder about him at times.
“My husband was loved by so many people . . . Five hundred people came to his wake,” Bracey said. “I think about David Cain and I wonder, how could he destroy a man and his life’s work like that? If he knew how much pain he was causing, would he do it anyway?”
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Originally published by NEWS STAFF REPORTER.
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