By Steven Cook
NISKAYUNA — On a frigid January afternoon in 2013, a man and his dog walking inside a Niskayuna nature preserve made a discovery that ended one mystery and started another.
The dog, running off-leash, returned to its owner with a pair of eyeglasses in its mouth. Following the dog’s tracks through the light snow into the woods, the man discovered the body of Michael T. Wallender, 62, a Niskayuna resident who hadn’t been seen in nearly three days.
Thirty-three months later, the mystery surrounding the death of Wallender, a prominent Albany attorney, remains. How did he end up in the woods? Why was his car found five miles away, parked in a garage at the Albany International Airport? How did he die?
“There are questions every step of the way,” Michael T. Wallender’s son, Michael D. Wallender, said recently. “I’ve got a thousand questions.”
The Niskayuna Police Department did its best to answer those questions, Chief Daniel McManus told The Daily Gazette.
But an extensive police investigation did not answer the question of why the body was found so far from the car. The autopsy and subsequent toxicology tests found no criminal conduct caused Wallender’s death.
“They certainly want to try to establish why,” McManus said of the family’s questions, “and we want to try to do that for them. You can’t always. You can only take what evidence is available, what evidence you can gather and try to piece things together for those questions.”
The story of Michael T. Wallender began and ended in Niskayuna. He grew up in the town, went on to graduate from Colgate University and then Harvard Law School. He practiced law in Albany, focusing on labor and employment issues. He was a partner at the law firm Couch White at the time of his death. He was the father of two grown children, Michael and Kristina Wallender.
On the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, he turned in for the night at the 209 Agostino Ave. house he owned with his longtime girlfriend, Erin Imgruth. Friends of his daughter, in town on personal business, were staying the night.
The last confirmed sighting of Wallender came early the next morning. Surveillance cameras at a Mobil station near the airport caught Wallender entering the store shortly after 5:30 a.m.
Two days later, the man walking the dog discovered Wallender’s body in the nature preserve bordered by River and Rosendale roads.
The preserve is near the Wallender home, with a trailhead directly across from Agostino Avenue’s intersection with Rosendale. But how did Wallender get there if his car was at the airport lot? And why? His family says he wasn’t known to walk in the preserve.
Wallender wasn’t dressed for the weather — the high temperature that Thursday was 15 degrees. He had a jacket, but no winter coat, his son said. His boots were off. His phone was with him. His clothing appeared to be the same clothing he wore in the Mobil station footage.
He also wasn’t dressed for a typical Thursday morning, in a suit for work, his daughter said. Kristina described her father as dedicated to both his family and his work as an attorney.
Imgruth declined to comment for this story.
Albany County Sheriff’s deputies discovered Wallender’s car, a 2013 Mercedes sedan, early Saturday morning on the third floor of the Albany International Airport parking garage. The car was backed into the space, the way Wallender always parked. The keys and the garage ticket were both found with Wallender’s body in the nature preserve. The ticket was tucked into his wallet.
Police checked with taxi companies at the airport, but no solid leads resulted.
The autopsy on Wallender’s remains was no more satisfying than the details surrounding his disappearance and death. His cause of death is listed on his death certificate as cardiac arrythmia, an irregular heartbeat due to thickening of the heart muscle and high blood pressure.
Creature of habit
Wallender’s son, a Rexford resident, would like to see the case reopened and the autopsy findings revisited. He’s hired a private investigator to review the police case file and the autopsy findings. The investigator is awaiting more case files before drawing up a final report.
“What I want done is I just want to revisit the analysis,” the younger Wallender said of the autopsy. “I want to reopen it and take another fresh look at it.”
Central to any reopening of the case would be information impacting the mechanism and cause of Wallender’s death, McManus said. He noted that the investigation looked at additional possibilities, but the cause of death remained the same.
“If someone wants to show us evidence that would lead us to believe that a crime was committed in his cause of death, obviously we’re going to look at that,” McManus said. He said no such information has been offered.
Michael D. Wallender son recalled last seeing his father that Monday, Jan. 21. “What I recall most vividly was actually physically hugging him,” he said.
He first realized his father was missing Friday afternoon. His father’s longtime secretary and friend Regina Sportman called to say he hadn’t shown up for work Thursday or Friday. The son was immediately concerned. He contacted police and the investigation began.
Sportman had known Wallender for 33 years. He was a creature of habit, she told The Daily Gazette. He wouldn’t have missed work.
“Everything that happened was bizarre and way of out anything normal that Mike would have been doing on his workday,” she said.
She recalled her late boss as “the best friend anybody could have. He would do anything for anybody.”
The son recalled being with Sportman in his father’s office when they received a call from the state police.
“I pretty much lost it — emotional breakdown,” the son recalled of that moment. “Kind of like a free fall.”
McManus said the overall investigation beyond Wallender’s cause of death spanned several areas, including his medical history, frame of mind, friends, family and work. Investigators shared their findings with family.
Among the documents Wallender’s son received through his investigator is a long narrative that gives an overview of much of the police investigation. It includes synopses of interviews police conducted with those who interacted with Wallender in the days leading up to his disappearance and death, as well as restaurant workers who served him when he ate out that week.
The narrative includes entries starting with the initial missing person report, which came in Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. Activity continued into May. McManus, then a detective sergeant, authored multiple entries.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney noted the legwork that the police did in the case., coming to the conclusion that the death was not a crime.
“From my review of the investigation, the Niskayuna police investigation, there is no evidence that was found that Mr. Wallender’s death was the result of criminal conduct by anyone,” he said.
So questions remain. Sportman said she believes more could have been done to find out what happened, and she’s interested in the private investigator’s report. She’s not sure what new could be found now. “I’d love,” she said, “to know what happened to Mike.”
Kristina Wallender, now 36 and living in the San Francisco area, tries to remember the father as the protective man that he was, the man who always had comfort to offer or advice to give. And, out of everything, there are some certainties.
“I know I love him. I know he impacted my life in such an unambiguously positive way,” she said. “I think about him every day.”