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Departments : Shots Fired

Shots Fired: Old Saybrook, Connecticut 05•03•2005

Called to clear a squatter out of a motel room, Officer Bill Bergantino soon realized that things were about to go south.

March 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author


They advertise a home away from home and promise to leave the light on for you. But however helpful their staff, however hospitable the accommodations, motels are in the business of making money. So guests who don't adhere to their policies quickly overstay their welcome.

The disheveled man in room 218 of Old Saybrook, Conn.'s, Knight's Inn had definitely worn out his welcome. After paying cash for his room, the man agreed to leave by the 11 o'clock check out time. After the appointed hour came and went, the motel manager, Tushar Dadarwala, figured it was time for the deadbeat guest to do likewise.

But the man had refused to leave, leaving Dadarwala with little option other than to call the Old Saybrook Police Department.

Officer Bill Bergantino arrived at the motel a little past noon. Beyond a physical description, the only additional information Dadarwala could provide about the unwanted guest was his name: Michael Harris.

Bergantino and the manager made their way upstairs to the room via the elevator. A first knock yielded no answer. A second, more assertive knock elicited a choice expletive from the other side of the door. Then it opened.

The sight that greeted Bergantino momentarily took him aback. Beyond the threshold stood a man as naked to the world as when he'd first entered it some 50 years before. It was not a pretty sight.

The officer set about explaining the reason for his presence, how it was time for Harris to leave, and that he needed to enter the room to verify that none of the hotel's property had been damaged.

"F___ you! You're not coming into the room!"

And with that, Harris slammed the door in the officer's face.

Room Service

By the time Dadarwala reopened the door with a passkey, it was apparent that Harris had made an effort to put on some clothes. He was pulling up his pants when Bergantino walked in. The officer took little note of the long towel that was draped over Harris's shoulder, covering part of his midriff.

Indeed, Bergantino consciously averted his gaze away from Harris's midsection so as to allow the man some decency. Stepping further into the room, the officer took inventory of his surroundings. As he did, Harris donned a button-down flannel shirt, being careful to work beneath the towel.

That Harris did not simply remove the towel as he dressed struck Bergantino as odd. But then, Harris didn't exactly seem to be on an even keel, so Bergantino attributed his actions to one of doubtlessly innumerable eccentricities. Once the shirt was buttoned, Harris let the towel drop.

"Get your stuff together," Bergantino encouraged Harris. "You need to get out of here."

As he spoke, a pile of syringes and narcotics paraphernalia on top of the bed caught the officer's eye. Bergantino was getting a clearer picture of just what he was dealing with, but he didn't want to let on.

For his part, Harris was perfectly content to share in this state of willed ignorance of the objects on the bed. At that moment, both officer and suspect shared a common agenda: buying time. Each was formulating a game plan, and each knew the other knew it, as well.

Making Small Talk

Bergantino sized up the suspect. Besides possibly operating under the influence of something other than anger, Harris had nearly a foot of height advantage over the officer. While Bergantino had never run from a fight, he was determined to avoid one if he could.

Attempting to keep the man at disgruntled bay until the cavalry arrived, Bergantino made small talk in the way most cops do. He asked Harris for some identification. The man went to a bedside table, retrieved his driver's license, and handed it to Bergantino.

The officer called in the info and asked Harris to sit on the bed while he waited for a return over the radio.

"Are you wanted?" he asked Harris. "Is there anything I need to know?"

"I don't think so." The man paused then added, "Maybe."

When advised of a return on the subject, Bergantino stepped out of earshot. Harris was a wanted person out of New London, just a couple of towns east of Old Saybrook on Long Island Sound.

Returning his attention to the man on the bed, Bergantino asked, "What's the warrant about?"

"Well, it's probably just a motor vehicle charge, or an unpaid ticket or something," Harris explained.

Bergantino's concern escalated.

From the moment of his first contact with Harris, Bergantino had a bad feeling in his gut. Something told him that things were going to go badly. At the very least, a physical altercation was in the offing. In the meantime, he would do what he could to mitigate the prospect, consciously downplaying events as much as Harris had done. Anything to keep the man calm while he radioed for backup.

While they waited, Bergantino kept the man talking and let him have a cigarette. 

Contraband

At one point, Harris looked behind himself on the bed and reconsidered the syringes. Dispensing with any overtures of subtlety, he began grabbing the contraband in an effort to conceal it.

"I've already seen it," Bergantino said. "I don't want you to touch it. Leave it where it is."

But Harris' attentions remained fixed on the paraphernalia.

"Listen," Bergantino cautioned. "Leave it. If you pick that stuff up, we're going to have a problem. I'm not going to let you stab me with one of those needles."

With that, Harris finally abandoned the effort. He gazed around the room.

From the bedside table Harris grabbed a glass and a bottle of juice. Bergantino assumed there had to be some kind of alcohol in the glass because he topped it off with the juice, threw his head back, and chugged its contents down.

Later, recalling that moment, Bergantino would be reminded of a training video in which a suspect who had smuggled a handgun into an interview room took an emboldening shot of a drink just before shooting himself. At the time the similarities didn't register with him. In the aftermath of what followed, Bergantino would come to recognize what that shot of liquid courage was all about.  

Backup Arrives

Detective Sgt. Eugean Heiney was the first officer to arrive on scene.

A plainclothes detective, Heiney was not wearing a bulletproof vest or the usual accoutrements found on a uniform belt. Bergantino hoped that things wouldn't go south before more backup arrived.

Heiney engaged Harris in more conversation as he scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to Bergantino. Bergantino read the words: "weapons charge."

It was now apparent that the subject had some kind of violent history. But the true significance of the words were lost on Bergantino, who envisioned something like a knife or a bat.

Just then, Officer Charles Mercer arrived in the parking lot of the motel. When Mercer asked for directions to the room over the working frequency, Bergantino removed his radio from his belt.

With the officer's attention diverted, Michael Harris got up off the bed and made for the opposite corner of the room. He was still a few feet away from Bergantino when the officer realized that the man had moved.

"Hey, listen, we're going to place you under arrest for the warrant in New London as soon as the other officer gets here."

Suddenly, Harris reached beneath his untucked flannel shirt and pulled out a handgun.

"Well, let's end this now!" Harris yelled. "You're dead!"

The Dead Zone

No man's land is nowhere to be, especially for a cop staring at the business end of some dirtbag's gun. Yet that was where Bergantino found himself: neither close enough to seize the suspect's weapon nor in a position to get off a shot of his own. His thoughts immediately went to cover.

Heiney apparently had the same idea, as both officers darted toward the doorway at the same time.

As they cleared the door, Bergantino heard gunshots. The first hit Heiney in the head, ricocheted upward and into the door jamb.

A second round center-punched Bergantino in the back, embedding itself within the fibers of his Point Blank bulletproof vest, its blow not unlike that of a Barry Bonds bat swung in full steroid bloom.

If there was a saving grace to having been shot, the round's impact spun Bergantino around just as he drew his 9mm Smith & Wesson. He found himself right on target as he completed his 180-degree turn.

Harris's revolver was still leveled directly at Bergantino. The officer didn't want to exchange rounds with Harris standing just a few feet away from each other. But  if he was going to avoid getting shot a second time, he needed to put some distance and cover between himself and the man.

His feet somehow became entangled and the officer fell hard to the landing outside of the room. Now two doors down from Harris' room and flush to the wall, Bergantino recalled a scene from the movie "Blackhawk Down" in which a character noted that a bullet will travel along a wall.

Leaning away from the wall, Bergantino adjusted his aim toward the doorway where Harris stood. But all the suspect exposed of himself was an occasional glimpse of his shoulder and gun—targets too small and brief in duration to allow the officer to get a good shot.

Fortunately, Harris stopped shooting. During the lull, Bergantino realized that the man had either been shot or was reloading. In either case, if Harris stepped onto the landing, Bergantino didn't want to be found there exposed.

Tandem Tactics

By this time, Officer Mercer had followed the sounds of gunfire to the landing where he helped the wounded Heiney to safety.

With Heiney safely downstairs, Mercer and Bergantino coordinated their efforts on the landing.

Harris stepped out of the room and fired at the two officers before retreating back into the room.

Mercer yelled for him to drop the gun and come out. Harris refused.

As Mercer continued to shout commands, Bergantino tried to update responding officers about their status. But radio traffic was heavy with officers stepping on one another to no profit.

In the midst of this frustration, Harris decided to make a run for it. He exited the room, aimed a gun at the officers, and ran in the opposite direction toward a door, his portal to the downstairs parking lot and freedom. Mercer and Bergantino both discharged their sidearms.

But Harris made it out the door.

Bergantino charged after him. He was halfway down the hall when Mercer yelled for him to fall back. Deferring to the 17-year patrol veteran, Bergantino rejoined Mercer.

Hearing a disturbance emanating from downstairs, the two officers went to the elevators where expansive windows afforded a clear view of the front of the motel and the bottom of the stairs.

Harris had collapsed and was lying on the ground. Several state police officers approached him, guns drawn. One of Bergantino's rounds had done its job, destroying the would-be killer's spleen.

After handcuffing Harris, state police troopers met the officers and escorted them downstairs.

While Harris was sent to Hartford Hospital by helicopter, Bergantino and Heiney were sent to Yale-New Haven Hospital by ambulance for treatment of their injuries. As some point during the shootout, Bergantino had sustained a bullet wound to the foot, possibly when he fell on the landing. Both officers would return to work full duty.

Life Sentence

Harris was subsequently sentenced to 20 years, which, given his failing health, is tantamount to a life sentence.

Despite the foot injury, it was the round that had struck his back that was most disturbing to Bergantino.

"It was basically pretty much in the center. If I hadn't been wearing my vest, it would have gone straight through me. It would have ruptured my aorta and I would have bled out within two minutes. It also would have went through and hit Det. Sgt. Heiney because he was directly in front of me as we both cleared the doorway."

Among the things that Bergantino felt helped him survive was his penchant for playing paintball.

"It's taught me how to engage and find cover wherever it may be," he says.

 

WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

Put yourself in the shoes of Officer Bill Bergantino, facing an uncooperative, unkempt, and initially nude motel guest who had outstayed his welcome. Then ask yourself the following questions:

  • When contacting detainees in various states of undress, how do you reconcile good officer safety practices with the person's desire for privacy?
  • Would you have waited to advise the suspect that he was going to be arrested until a third officer was on scene? Do you think it might have made a difference in this case?
  • In retrospect, Bergantino realized that the shot the suspect drank was part of the man's getting psyched up for an eventual confrontation. What similar telltale signs of impending resistance or aggressiveness have you experienced?

Tags: Shots Fired, Old Saybrook (Conn.) PD, Motels

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