Assemblyman Bill Nojay, a long-serving public official who was running in a primary Tuesday, committed suicide Friday morning at a Rochester cemetery, according to local officials.
Bill Reilich, the Monroe County Republican chairman, confirmed Nojay was found dead. He said he received a call from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office that it appeared Nojay was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A second call confirmed the ID, he said.
Rochester police were called to Riverside Cemetery at 9:22 a.m. to check the welfare of an individual on the grounds, and the responding officer witnessed the suicide.
"We have an officer that did observe an individual shoot himself inside the cemetery," said Rochester Police Investigator Frank Camp.
Police released few other details, other than that the man was pronounced dead at the scene.
"It’s tragic news," Reilich told the USA TODAY Network's Albany Bureau. "It’s terrible to hear this about anybody, but certainly somebody who has been a public servant and somebody who I personally knew."
Nojay, R-Pittsford, was first elected to the Assembly in 2012 and has been an outspoken voice for upstate interests. He also hosted a radio show that was broadcasted throughout the region. He was 59.
He was facing a GOP primary Tuesday and had a major fundraiser planned Saturday. Reilich said that Nojay was "upbeat" heading into the election and "always anticipated he would do well." Reilich was already on the phone Friday morning with election officials to sort out what might happen with the primary. Should Nojay win, he said, it appears the county chairs of that district would nominate a replacement candidate on the ballot.
"I don't have absolute certainty" on that process, Reilich said, "because, fortunately, I haven't had to deal with something like this."
His opponent in the primary, Honeoye Falls Mayor Richard Milne, said he was in contact with Reilich on Friday and planned to release a full statement. He declined comment when reached by phone, other than to say: "I'm devastated. I really am. This is just a terrible, terrible day."
Nojay also was facing a fraud trial in Cambodia along with two other men. A wealthy Phnom Penh dentist claimed she was bilked out of $1 million from Nojay and his co-defendants. They were accused of persuading the dentist to invest in their company to process and export rice.
Nojay had told the Democrat and Chronicle repeatedly that no fraud was committed, but it was unclear whether the trial had been scheduled.
U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, issued a statement that read: "We are deeply saddened by the passing of New York State Assemblyman Bill Nojay. He was our friend. We will remember him for his dedication and commitment to public service and our community. Bill was a commendable leader. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Debra, and his three children. He will be deeply missed."
And from Sen. Rich Funke, R-Perinton: “A loss like this transcends politics and government, leaving only hollowness and heartbreak in its wake. Assemblyman Nojay was always a strong voice for Upstate who dedicated a great deal of his life to championing a core set of beliefs, whether in elected office or over the airwaves. My thoughts are with Bill’s family, friends, and constituents on this most difficult of days.”
Reilich, who has known Nojay for 20 years, and served with him in the Assembly, spoke of his former colleague as "outspoken on issues on the floor, but also mindful. ... He articulated issues with a high degree of intelligence in a very professional way," earning him the respect of colleagues.
One of those was Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester.
"He was a great guy. He believed in giving everybody an opportunity," Gantt said. "That’s why he and I we were great friends. Even though I am a liberal, and he was a staunch conservative. He was an honest and open guy who believed in people getting a fair shake."
Previously, Nojay served as chairman of the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority.
Nojay was born Nov. 24, 1956. He grew up on the city’s east side on Furlong Street and went to School 22 — the site of his self-described “first act of political rebellion,” when he started a petition drive after the school fenced off an area of a playground that had been available to students so that it could be used by teachers.
His father Norman Nogaj was a finance manager for Eastman Kodak Co. His mother Kay was a teacher. His older brother Rob, who was severely disabled, died in 1999. He would later change his last name from Nogaj to Nojay because that is how his birth name is pronounced.
For junior and senior high, Nojay transferred to The Harley School, a private school in Brighton. There he played sports, headed the high school debate team (``He was pretty good at that; wasn't too good at baseball,'' his father said), chaired the ``Walk for Water'' fundraiser and interned in the office of then-Mayor Thomas P. Ryan Jr., a Democrat.
In the summers, Nojay visited Europe, the Middle East and Asia as an exchange student. That affinity for travel was key to a friendship years later.
Nojay earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Colgate University, and a law degree and MBA from Columbia University.
In a 2003 Democrat and Chronicle profile, Nojay talked about his outlook on life, saying: “You can't be distracted or discouraged by naysayers. You have to keep working toward your goals.''
And others spoke of him, including former Monroe County Democratic Party chairman Ted O’Brien: “He's a person who operates with a singlemindedness of purpose. If you disagree, he is not one who is easily inclined to change his mind. It's not that he's self-promoting. He takes on tasks with a kind of zeal.''
Numerous official statements were being made in reaction to Nojay’s death.
“It is difficult to imagine the grief his family and friends are experiencing, and our deepest condolences go out to them,” said state Sen. Catharine Young of Allegany County.
Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo lamented the loss of a friend and a voice for the region.
“Bill was a partner in government with a strong voice for upstate New York and a champion for the people he represented. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Nojay family and all of Bill’s many friends."
Former television reporter Rachel Barnhart, who is running for said she and Nojay have had a long association going back to the fast ferry era in Rochester.
“Bill was a conservative Republican,” Barnhart said in a statement. “I was a progressive Democrat. That didn't matter to Bill. He always wanted the best for me, whether it was in my journalism career or politics. Today is a very sad day. I offer my condolences to his friends, family and colleagues."