On the last day of January in 2005, Carmine Pellechio of the North Bergen (N.J.) Police Department was working as a sergeant with a motor vehicle anti-theft detail.
Two hours into his shift, Pellechio monitored radio traffic concerning a developing domestic situation in the 8800 block of Boulevard East. An on-scene officer had requested additional units regarding a barricaded suspect at the location; the excited tone of his voice underscored the volatility of the situation.
Pellechio dialed up the on-scene officer on his cell phone to get some intel on the disturbance. At first, nothing that the officer ran past him rang a bell: a medically retired North Bergen fireman upset over a domestic falling out.
But when Pellechio called a sergeant at the department's headquarters, he recognized the name of the disturbing party and realized that it was a friend of his family. He started to roll.
Arriving on scene, Pellechio was greeted by a very fluid situation. Off-duty firemen were milling around the apartment complex where their friend John DiTursi—"Butchy" as he was known to his buddies—had barricaded himself on the fourth floor, threatening to kill anyone who approached.
Pellechio had come to know the man well enough to believe that this situation would eventually blow over. Having been through a divorce himself, he also understood all too well how maddening marital discord could be. This hard-earned empathy, coupled with his personal friendship with DiTursi, gave Pellechio some optimism that he might have a figurative shot in dealing with his agitated friend. Upon his arrival on the fourth floor of the apartment building, Pellechio was briefed by the handling unit.
The sight that greeted Pellechio at the end of the fourth floor hallway put a damper on his optimism. The gregarious, fun-loving John DiTursi that Carmine had known was replaced by a volatile, shotgun-wielding evil twin, a pissed-off shadow that cursed and ranted and threatened imminent death to others in the area.
Hoping for the best, but planning for the worst, Pellechio took up a surveillance posture at the opposite end of the hallway.
It wasn't an ideal position. Being right-handed, Pellechio would have preferred being able to post up around some opposite corner where only a small portion of his body would be exposed.
But there was no opposing corner, only a straight run of apartments continuing past that portion of the hallway that forked off to a "Y" configuration near the elevators where Pellechio was positioned. Nor was there anything in the hallway itself that offered cover or concealment in the remaining 30 feet to DiTursi's door. Far from ideal, that corner would be all that Pellechio would have to work with for the better part of the next five hours.
Calling a Friend
As DiTursi fulminated in the hallway, Pellechio looked for positives. DiTursi didn't exactly exhibit a change of heart upon seeing Pellechio, but he was at least willing to talk with the officer. Pellechio reasoned that if his presence could have some calming effect on the man, the presence of another of DiTursi's friends might further reduce his agitation. Recalling a mutual friend, Pellechio asked Officer John Martin to start rolling.
Twenty minutes later, Martin arrived. As Pellechio briefed his partner on the situation, fellow officers went to work evacuating surrounding apartments and others who could be affected by it. Where evacuations were not feasible, residents were told to stay indoors.
The firemen on the fourth floor proved to be a dangerous distraction. DiTursi also made it clear that they were not welcome in the area, so the firefighters also joined the list of evacuees.
DiTursi promised that he wouldn't shoot Pellechio or Martin. Something about DiTursi's manner convinced Pellechio that the man was telling the truth, another plus. Thus began a standoff wherein Pellechio and Martin would tag team, talking with the distraught man in an effort to try to calm him down.
While happy to see Martin, DiTursi left no doubt that the sight of any third officer on scene would have dire consequences for all involved. He retreated into his apartment and onto an exterior terrace where he yelled at the people congregated below just to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Pellechio was appreciative that his friend had at least enough lucidity to refrain from wanting to shoot him or Martin. But DiTursi's disconcerting habit of pointing his guns in both officers' direction only underscored the possibility that they could still get shot. Pellechio's concerns of an accidental discharge by the agitated and freewheeling DiTursi were validated when DiTursi's shotgun fired into the floor of his foyer.
DiTursi appeared to be as surprised by the reverberating shotgun blast as Pellechio and Martin. Startled, Pellechio immediately yelled out for the benefit of other officers on scene that it was only an accidental discharge and everyone should stand down.
DiTursi peered out of his open door and down the hallway. Pellechio and DiTursi stared at one another. A sheepish grin crossed DiTursi's face.
"You should see the hole I just put in the floor."
"Did it go through the floor?" Pellechio asked.
"No," DiTursi said, a friendly New Jersey tone seeping back into his voice. "Come on—it's made of concrete."
And with the gunshot, something incongruous happened: The tension broke and the two men actually shared a giggle. Pellechio's optimism returned. If DiTursi still possessed some sense of humor, there was a chance the three men could communicate and bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion.
But as the night wore on, so did DiTursi's nerves. His mood soured, and it was obvious he was on an emotional roller coaster ride, one that was taking the two officers along with him.
At one point DiTursi thought he had locked himself out of his apartment. He rested on the floor of the hallway and appeared to fall asleep. Pellechio and Martin considered making a quiet approach to disarm the man. But as luck would have it, DiTursi shifted his body and rolled on top of the apartment keys in his back pocket. As DiTursi awoke and regained his second wind, Pellechio realized that a chance to peacefully resolve the situation had passed.
More than fours hours into the standoff, a captain approached Pellechio and advised him of a plan. An ESU unit had scaled an exterior terrace and entered an apartment adjacent to DiTursi's. If Pellechio and Martin could draw DiTursi into the hallway, the ESU officers would rush him once he came abreast of the front door of the adjacent apartment.
Something had to be done. Pellechio knew it. Moreover, he knew some of the officers on the ESU squad and had every confidence in them. Pellechio and Martin agreed that they would do what they could to get DiTursi out into the hallway.
Resuming their conversation with DiTursi, Pellechio and Martin implored him to come back out and talk with them. DiTursi ventured into the hallway. All was going according to plan.
Then DiTursi, now holding a rifle, came abreast of the door that the ESU officers were hiding behind, something went terribly wrong.
The door flew open, and the ESU team was behind it. They tried to come through the doorway with their shield and equipment, but the doorframe was too narrow. They log-jammed, alerting the distraught DiTursi to their presence. Their mission immediately aborted, the officers retreated back into the room, slamming the door shut behind them.
Pellechio's heart cascaded. For as that door slammed shut, so had another. In that split second, all the trust that he'd shared with DiTursi vanished, replaced by the calcified hatred of what DiTursi saw as betrayal.
"Carmine!" DiTursi's screaming howl came through gritted teeth as he raised his weapon at the door separating the ESU officers and himself. DiTursi's finger went for the trigger of the 30-06 rifle.
There was no time to think, only to react. Pellechio fired two shots from his 9mm SIG P225.
It wasn't Hollywood. There was no Walter Hill propulsion of the body through the doorway, no sudden recoil and jerk of a dramatically downed suspect. There was only the slight mournful cry of a heartbroken and distraught fireman dropping a rifle and grabbing his lower abdomen before slowly collapsing back into the open doorway of his apartment. As his friend fell, Carmine became only vaguely aware of a backup ESU officer squeezing past him and firing two more rounds at the downed man.
Anger and rage hit Pellechio as soon as the last round was fired. Anger at his inability to bring the situation to a peaceful end. Rage at his friend Butchy for having forced his hand.
The emotions were so overwhelming that Pellechio was only vaguely aware of his legs moving down the hall toward DiTursi's body. Something gave way, and he collapsed against the hallway wall before sliding to his knees, his vision blurred, and his cheeks burned with tears.
For five hours both Pellechio and Martin had cajoled, bribed, and lobbied to get DiTursi to drop his gun and come to his senses. And they had failed.
Pellechio was vaguely aware of the gun still in his hand. He decocked his weapon but did not put it back in his holster. Somebody grabbed him, lifted him up, assisted him out of the hallway, then disarmed him.
Claustrophobia washed over him. In a desperate bid to liberate himself of the situation, he began unsnapping his keeper straps in a frustrated effort to rid himself of his duty rig.
"One of the things I never thought I would have to do in my career was fire my gun at someone, especially someone that I knew," Pellechio said in a recent phone interview. "It would have been different had the target been a criminal. But with the singular exception of this night in his life, DiTursi was a good guy. I genuinely liked him. Other situations you can justify in your mind. I recognize that I did what had to be done. But it doesn't make it any less difficult to deal with. The only thing that I'm happy about is that John (Martin) didn't have to do it. He was even closer to DiTursi than I."
An Emotional Toll
The shooting left an indelible mark on Pellechio. Repeated leaves of absence could not assuage the pain or remedy the guilt he felt. Throughout, he grew increasingly apprehensive of the possibility that he might be unable to perform in some future crisis situation: It would be one thing to put himself in danger; it would be another to expose another officer or citizen to harm because of it.
After consultations with psychiatrists and supervisors, Carmine was medically retired from the North Bergen Police Department on Jan. 1, 2007, citing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pellechio recognizes that despite the unfortunate outcome, Martin and he had enjoyed some success in dealing with DiTursi. They had been able to forestall the inevitable until such time that a tactical intervention could be attempted.
"We talked to him not like a suspect, but as a friend. We kept it personal, letting him know that we knew and liked him and didn't want any harm to come to him. John and I would've stayed there all night as long as everyone was safe," Pellechio says.
Pellechio also knows that he and Martin went above and beyond the call of duty during the incident. When he appraises the situation with hindsight and objectivity, he categorically asserts that basic sound officer safety practices had been violated on multiple occasions. He is not cavalier in that appraisal and openly wonders what would have happened to the other officers had he and Martin been shot and disabled.
"There were times when he was face-to-face with us, and John and I discussed the possibility of grabbing his rifle," Pellechio says. "I told John that I didn't know if the safety was on and as DiTursi had already discharged one round accidentally into the floor, I didn't want to take a chance he might do it to one of us, as well.
"I am proud as hell that John was with me that night. The courage and compassion that he displayed was outstanding. There was never any doubt in either of our minds that we could depend on one another. To this day, we share a unique bond," he adds.