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Never forgotten: The death of Schenectady policeman William Koenige

Never forgotten: The death of Schenectady policeman William Koenige

Koenige's former partner and peers want to make certain that public, current officers remember his sacrifice
Never forgotten: The death of Schenectady policeman William Koenige
William A. Koenige smiles while holding his daughter, Melinda, in this photograph from the late 1970s.
Photographer: Photo provided by Melinda Brown

The drama of Feb. 12, 1979, took only minutes.

On that night, two Schenectady police officers were sent to Baker Avenue -- in the block between Plum Street and upper Union Street -- to intercept a man believed armed and dangerous.

Two handguns, one rifle and 90 rounds of ammunition made Edwin Smith a threat. So did the 22-year-old Scotia man's emotional state -- his fiancee had recently ended their three-year relationship. The woman and her father had been at the Schenectady Police Department earlier in the evening, filing a harassment complaint against Smith.

Police had received reports Smith was on his way to 1092 Baker, the woman's address, and had a description of Smith's vehicle.

Bill Lachanski, one of the first officers to reach Baker, saw the car.

"He was already there," Lachanski said.

Police say domestic complaints are among the most difficult and potentially dangerous calls they must answer. Arguments can escalate. If emotions and weapons are in the mix, consequences can be deadly.

More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 9-15, 2019

Lachanski and his partner, William A. Koenige, rolled up to a domestic. Seconds after they arrived, the patrolmen heard a gunshot inside the two-family house.

"Bill looked at me, I looked at him, and he said, 'Let's do it,'" Lachanski said, remembering some of the Koenige's last words.

Forty years ago Tuesday, Koenige was shot and killed in the line of duty. He entered the Baker Avenue house shortly after 11:30 p.m. and was climbing the stairs to the second-floor flat. Smith had hidden behind a wall on a landing farther up the steps -- the officers didn't know that -- and fired eight rounds from a .30-caliber carbine.

The 35-year-old Koenige was struck in the neck and was mortally wounded. Lachanski, close behind, radioed headquarters: "Officer down, Code 3."

Police officers who were on the job that night are all retired now, some for many years. A small group recently gathered at the police headquarters building on Liberty Street to share memories of that night and ensure Koenige's sacrifice of 40 years ago is remembered.

In 1979, Koenige had been a police officer for 10 years. He was regarded as the best shot in the department. He was the father of two daughters, Tina, 13, and Melinda, 5. He was described as a kind man with a fun side, a guy who was also a top electrician.

Melinda Brown, now 45, said her mother Barbara woke the sisters and let them know what had happened on that snowy winter night. Melinda spent some time with her sister, who was more upset.

"It didn't register with me," said Brown, who lives in Schenectady. "I was too little to understand what it all meant."

Memories remain. Brown said when she was in the hospital after a tonsillectomy, she woke to the vision of her father with her, eating snacks and watching Tom & Jerry cartoons on a small black-and-white television in the hospital room.

Brown said her three sons -- ages 23, 14 and 12 -- know about their grandfather.

"They are well versed in who my dad was, what he stood for and what he wanted to do," Brown said. "They're not afraid of cops, they stand up for them, not to them. They have a soft spot for the guys in blue.

"He was a great man, from all the things I have heard," Brown said. "He was a great guy, he wanted to do the right thing by the people, for the people."

Brown has a few photos, and has a few mementos from her father's days on the police force. One is an "SPD" pin, for "Schenectady Police Department." Another is Koenige's "marksman" badge.

In her own way, she stays in touch with her father.

"I keep a journal, I write to my dad, I always talk to my dad," Brown said. "My mom passed 14 years ago almost, so I talk to both of them. When I say my prayers, I do my separate prayers for my parents. So it's all the time."

Lachanski, who joined the police department during the summer of 1978, had been partnered with Koenige for about two months by early 1979. He remembers the Baker Avenue call vividly.

Lachanski was two steps behind Koenige when the officers made their move.

"We rushed in because we heard the shot," Lachanski said. "We thought, 'He's inside, we can't wait for backup.' We were going to go in and do what we had to do."

"I don't think he actually saw the gunman but we heard movement," Lachanski also said. "I don't know if he saw the gunman or not, but I was right behind him. The next thing I know, there's a volley of shots. It just paralyzed us both."

Lachanski said he saw Koenige had been wounded. The younger officer steadied his service revolver with both hands. "It was tough," he said. "I didn't want to shoot Bill by accident and I didn't have a target to shoot at."

Lachanski also made the radio call: "Officer down, Code 3."

Shortly afterward, there was another gunshot. And other police officers were rushing to Baker Avenue, and the house across the street from the Howe Elementary School playground.

More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 9-15, 2019

Patrolmen Dan Moran and Jack Sims initially had been assigned the call. Moran, the senior man, was driving. The snowy weather had slowed down their car.

"I remember entering, having my gun drawn and looking up the stairs, looking at Bill," said Moran, who had been on the job since 1973. "He was bleeding. I had no idea he had been hit in the neck. I had taken off his tie and was trying to unbutton his shirt and check for a wound."

A large number of police officers converged on the scene, including Sgt. Frank Ranucci, the patrol supervisor. Lachanski and other police officers were able to get Koenige out of the house and into an ambulance.

The owner of the home -- and the father of Smith's former girlfriend -- had been the target of the first shot. He had escaped injury and announced to police that Smith had shot himself -- that gunshot had been the final shot heard by Lachanski.

Sims and other officers, at Ranucci's direction, entered the house from a back entrance. Sims said he saw Smith, a .357 Magnum revolver still in his hand, on the floor. Sims took the gun.

"I remember Ron McClosky asking, 'Who's got the gun?'" Sims said, of another patrolman who had reached the scene. "I handed the gun to Ronnie. I remember going back to the station later. I don't remember talking to anyone, I'm sure I did."

By now, Koenige was being rushed to Ellis Hospital. Lachanski was with his partner, in the ambulance. The policeman and emergency medical technicians administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"We got a pulse back for a very short time," Lachanski said. "We went to the hospital guarded but hopeful. Ten minutes later, doctors came out and said Bill was gone."

There are other memories.

Patrolmen Pat Smith and Gary Maher had been sent to the Ramada Inn off Nott Street, watching for Edwin Smith coming from the Glenville area.

Pat Smith said he and Maher were in separate cars; Edwin Smith's family had contacted Glenville police about possible trouble in Schenectady, Pat Smith said, instead of city police. Pat Smith believed the delay in communications gave Edwin Smith extra time; the city units missed his vehicle.

Once the officers heard the "Code 3" call, they rushed to Baker.

"I punched it and took off," Smith said. "Gary was right on my back bumper, he said we were doing about 101 miles per hour."

Smith also remembers seeing Koenige inside the house, slumped on the stairs. He was among the officers who brought the injured officer outside.

"A lot of the guys wouldn't even talk about it afterward," Smith said. "It was really traumatic for a lot of them."

"It was the worst nightmare, the worst scenario anyone can create in their minds in police work," Ranucci said. "To have a fellow officer injured, it really affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways."

Some things changed after that night on Baker Avenue.

"We began to evaluate policy and procedure on how we did things," said Ranucci, who became the department's first full-time training officer.

Lachanski went back to work the next day after his partner's death. He'll always remember the date.

"We don't want any of our current officers to forget," Lachanski said. "For their own sake and for the public's. The public needs to be a little more aware of the dangers of police work."

Lachanski said he would do the same things today he did 40 years ago.

"I'd do it all over in a heartbeat," he said. "We did what we had to do as good police officers. We didn't want anyone to die."

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]

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