More than 7,000 police officers, including ones from the Genesee County Sheriff's Office, Batavia PD, and Le Roy PD, lined the streets off Buffalo on Wednesday, saluting fallen comrade Craig E. Lehner, a Buffalo K-9 handler and member of underwater recovery team in Erie County who died two weeks ago during a training exercise.
“The most striking thing was to see his mother step out of the car, look left and right and up and down, all she could see were police officers on the streets, lined up, saluting her son,” said Chris Erion, Genesee County Sheriff's Deputy. “She just stopped, and her mouth opened.”
Lehner, 34, went missing on Oct. 13 in the Niagara River during a training exercise, after he failed to resurface. More than a dozen agencies joined forces, including the Coast Guard and Canadian Port Authorities, to find Lehner. His body was recovered five days later near Strawberry Island, about two miles from where he disappeared.
Erion said the experience was something he could not articulate.
“You can’t replicate it and you can’t put words to it,” Erion said. “You really can’t adequately describe it, when you’re a part of it.”
Erion met Lehner through a K-9 training group with the Niagara Regional Police Service in Ontario, Canada. They met a year ago and got to know each other during regular training sessions, twice a month. A couple weeks before the accident, Erion trained with Lehner and a couple other handlers for a week straight with the dogs.
“You have a group of people you train with regularly and get to know each other’s dogs and each other’s personalities,” Erion said. “He was a good guy. He was a good human being."
Lehner had the nickname of “the surfer” because of his laid-back attitude. Until it was time to work, then he hustled, Erion said.
“He was a very laid-back guy who treated everybody right,” Erion said. “But when it was time to get serious, he got serious.”
Erion said the funeral had a different tone because everyone was worn out and worried for so long.
“It was a little bit different because it wasn’t a single, quick incident that took him,” Erion said. “It was a long process, over five days they were looking for him.”
More than 8,000 people, officers, and members of the community attended the funeral at the KeyBank Center, sending Lehner on his way and supporting his family.
“I’d like to say I was surprised, but knowing Craig’s personality, I’m not,” Erion said. “He attracted people from all different walks of life. He let everybody in. He didn’t care what you were made of, he was a friend to a lot of people.”
Photo: Le Roy police officers after returning from the funeral detail. Photo submitted by Greg Kellogg.