Police May Have Allowed Real Heroin Use in Drug Prevention Film

By Paul Gaita 06/15/17

A man battling addiction was featured in a drug education film where the police allegedly stood by as he snorted heroin on-camera.

cameraman holding onto camera

An evidentiary hearing has been called by a city court judge in Buffalo, New York to investigate a police officer's level of involvement in a drug education video that featured a scene in which a person battling heroin addiction uses the drug on camera.

Robert Sagliani, 37, claims that he was recruited by officer Elizabeth Baker of the Buffalo Police Department to participate in the film in exchange for dismissal of drug possession charges he was facing. Baker was allegedly aware that Sagliani was allowed to obtain drugs and reportedly arranged for the use of a syringe, which he demonstrates in the film.

While police confirm that Sagliani was introduced to the film's director by police officers, they dispute his claim that Baker was aware of the on-camera drug use. Lawyers for both sides will present their evidence at the hearing on June 26.

According to Sagliani, Baker approached him about the video shortly after arresting him and his 63-year-old mother on heroin possession charges in December 2016.

In a motion filed by defense lawyer Mark A. Sacha, Sagliani claimed that Baker told him that "real heroin addicts" were needed for the project, and if he participated, she would "deal with his criminal charges in return." Baker reportedly put Sagliani and his mother in touch with Greg Robbins, an independent filmmaker with a background in Christian entertainment.

Robbins had approached Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown about making a dramatic film that could be used by state agencies to educate viewers about the nationwide heroin epidemic. With the cooperation of Steven Nichols, a Buffalo police captain for community policing and special events, he began work on Blink of an Eye, a 16-minute film detailing a teenager's addiction to opioid painkillers, which leads to her overdose death.

Nothing in the original proposal for the film asked for or required the actual use of heroin, and according to Nichols, any drug use or purchase would not have been condoned by the Buffalo Police Department.

But as noted in the motion, Baker arranged for Sagliani's girlfriend to obtain a syringe, and a member of the production crew gave him money to purchase heroin.

Sagliani's scene, which was filmed in the restroom of an area restaurant, shows him snorting heroin and then mixing the drug for injection, which he prepares to use on himself before being discouraged by his mother and Robbins, both of whom can be heard off-camera. The next scene showed Sagliani outside the City Court building, thanking the city police department and the White Deer Run rehabilitation program for helping him achieve sobriety.

While Baker was photographed with the crew and Sagliani at the restaurant, accounts differ as to where she was during the filming of the scene. Sagliani alleges that she was outside the restroom as the scene was being shot, though police state that she was only at the restaurant to coordinate filming before leaving to continue her detail. For Nichols, Baker's involvement in any capacity is a troubling issue. "If she was there, she was there on her own," he said. "That is just totally in violation of everything we do." 

According to Sagliani, he's grateful for participating in the department's "Angel" program, which brought him to White Deer Run. But the 2016 charges against him and his mother have yet to be dropped. At a city court appearance in May 2017, Sacha asked for immediate dismissal of the charges on the basis that the cases had gone on "for much too long in light of what happen."

Both Judge Joseph A. Fiorella and Erie County District Attorney John Flynn declined to drop the charges without a hearing, but Fiorella described the events described in the motion as "bizarre." Fiorella called for the June 26 hearing to address both sides of the argument, while assistant district attorney Michael J. Hillery, who called the Sagliani's account "a provocative series of unsworn claims," will monitor an internal investigation into the matter by the Buffalo Police Department.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.