August 30, 2006

Was The Suspect Unsupervised?

"This was an absolute fiasco. This guy fell through the cracks and this is what we suffered on Barnes Road." So said a Wading River resident in the wake of an 11-hour standoff that left one police officer recovering from gun-related injuries, a man in custody on charges of attempted murder, and a quiet close knit neighborhood reeling. That the suspect, Wade Booth, 46, was a probationer who was not benefiting from regular home supervision, added ire to exhaustion for neighborhood residents.

Asking not to be identified for safety purposes, two eyewitnesses to the drama spoke to The Independent. They described tense hours listening and watching, evacuated from their homes.

It was just before eight Wednesday morning when representatives from a variety of enforcement agencies showed up at Booth's home looking to arrest him for violating probation. He's on probation for an earlier offense dating back almost two years. In 2004, cops say, he was pulled over for reckless driving and charged with resisting arrest and harassment. Later that year when he didn't show in court, an officer was dispatched to his home. He assaulted the officer and, when that case was adjudicated, was placed on probation.

During a press conference the next day Police Commissioner Richard Dormer related that once cops identified themselves, Booth shot through the glass panel of his front door. Glass splinters struck an officer in the face.

And the standoff began.

"I heard siren after siren coming up the block," a neighbor recalled. She thought it was an ambulance coming for an elderly resident of the cul de sac. She walked out to the street to investigate and, the eyewitness recounted, "A police officer runs up to me and starts shouting, 'Get in the house! Get in the house!'"

Close to two dozen residents gathered at a house down the street from the crime scene. They saw as many as 100 officers, some clad in SWAT gear and toting automatic weapons crawling through neighboring yards. An armored vehicle and robots were on the scene, too. "It was like a war zone," another witness said.

As the hours went by, evacuees relaxed enough to go outdoors. The calm didn't last long. At around 2:30 police told them get back indoors, eyewitnesses say. And then the sound of gunfire rang out. "That frightened all of us," the witness said. One neighbor began to count. Over the course of about an hour she tallied 61 rounds.

Evacuees later learned it was tear gas. The sound of police on bullhorns calling "Come out with your hands up. We're not going to hurt you," was a constant refrain. No one could understand how the suspect could endure so much tear gas.

Neither could police. Dormer said that the gas was so potent, investigators weren't able to get in to process the scene for hours. Eventually, cops crashed into the house through the garage and found Booth sitting on the floor of a linen closet, armed with a handgun. He was reportedly disoriented as he was taken away without injury.

On Thursday morning Booth was arraigned on charges of attempted murder and firearms possession and as of press time was being held without bail. By Monday, the house remained with windows shattered, the front door removed and the garage door "totally stripped down," according to neighbors who say traces of tear gas scent still linger in the air.

Neighbors recalled this wasn't the first time a team had visited the cul de sac. Approximately six weeks ago, according to neighbors, county cops were on the scene with a K-9 unit. The house was searched and police told them ammunition, which supposedly belonged to Booth's father Rudy, was found. No arrest was made.

During Dormer's press conference, officials evinced no knowledge of the earlier visit. Since the home is located in Riverhead Town Police jurisdiction, Dormer claimed it must have been an RTPD call. A representative from the department at the media event said nothing, and neighbors reported seeing county cars during the June engagement.

Probation officials were not in attendance at the press conference, even though the case had its nexus with their department. Probation Department Commissioner John Desmond affirmed a neighbor's take on what he called a "special visit" in June. He didn't opine regarding why his department hadn't been included in the press briefing. All officers involved in the standoff were alerted to Booth's probation history, he noted.

Desmond allowed that Booth was "technically" part of an uncovered case load, meaning he was among those in sectors that don't have staff to undertake field supervision. Last June Desmond's aide Thomas Henry said everything but field supervision was in place for those probationers, numbering around 160 on the East End, and that by the end of the summer vacant positions would be filled.

Union members complained it didn't happen soon enough to prevent drama in Wading River. According to Dan delValle, vice president of the probation officers union, the crisis might have been averted if Booth had been properly supervised. A probation officer would have noticed his emotional descent and taken action to get him treatment. According to union members, no one had visited Booth's home between October of last year and this past June. He was left in the community to spiral downward emotionally, "to decompensate," delValle said.

And that makes neighbors on Barnes Road angry. While quick to applaud how police handled the crisis, one said, "Why did this have to go so far? This man's emotional problems should have been picked up. He should have been taken care of."

North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine agreed. At the forefront of bringing attention to the public safety danger understaffing can mean, he, too, lauded the efforts of police on the scene. But, the lawmaker added, "The fact that Mr. Booth was on probation but did not receive proper supervision just highlights the need for additional officers on the East End. Thankfully no one was seriously hurt, but we need to prevent this from happening again."

Desmond rebutted the contention of union members. He said Booth did indeed have "a lot of contact" with the probation department. In fact, he said the nature of the probation violation that triggered the warrant Wednesday was Booth's failure to comply with an order that he seek mental health treatment.

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