Watertown Daily Times (NY)
May 3, 1998
Author: Todd Lewan, Associated Press
Only after pumping three bullets into Moshe Pergament did officer Anthony Sica learn the brutal truth: He had killed a college student who had threatened him with nothing more than a toy gun.
Sica stood over the bleeding body, wondering what had happened here.
The 19-year-old had raced his new Honda Accord up and down the Long Island Expressway in a rainstorm for 40 minutes, sideswiping cars and trucks. He had pulled over as soon as the police cruiser’s lights flashed and jumped out with a plastic replica of a .38 revolver in his hand.
Sica had screamed, practically begged, for him to drop the gun. Why didn’t he drop it? Why did he keep coming closer? Twelve feet. Ten feet. Seven feet … Until the semiautomatic Sig Saur barked in Sica’s hand.
It was only after an ambulance took the body away that detectives found an envelope on the front seat of the Honda. It was addressed “To the officer who shot me,” and inside, on a Hallmark card, was a neatly written note.
“Officer, It was a plan. I’m sorry to get you involved. I just needed to die. Please remember that this was all my doing. You had no way of knowing. Moe Pergament.”
The coroner’s report certified Pergament’s death as a homicide caused by “gunshot wounds of torso with perforations of lung, heart, liver, stomach and intestine.” The police report classified it a justifiable homicide. But what happened that stormy November night has another name: Police-assisted suicide.
“It’s another form of euthanasia, like when people reach out for Dr. Kevorkian,” said Dr. Harvey Schlossberg, retired director of psychological services for the New York City police. “Only here, people are in mental pain and the doctor is the cop.”
No one knows how many people manipulate police into killing them; no national studies have been done. But two recent regional studies suggest that it is surprisingly common. Researchers who examined police shootings in British Columbia and in Los Angeles County found that in at least 10 percent of cases, the dead and wounded had wanted to be killed.
Every time it happens, there are victims on both sides of the gun. “It’s an officer’s worst nightmare,” said Clinton Van Zandt, an FBI supervisory special agent who teaches hostage negotiation at the agency’s Quantico, Va., headquarters. Van Zandt is an expert on the phenomenon. He also knows it firsthand.
On June 17, 1981, Van Zandt commanded police and FBI forces during a 3 1/2-hour standoff with William Griffin, who had taken hostages inside a Rochester bank. Griffin’s only demand: that police execute him.
Van Zandt refused. So Griffin ordered teller Margaret Moore, a single mother of a baby boy, to stand by the front exit. With his shotgun, he blasted her through the doors. Then he walked over and pressed his face against a full-length window, allowing sharpshooters to kill him.
In a diary entry dated 13 months earlier, a diary filled with passages about a failing marriage and a lost job, Griffin wrote: “I’m going to make the sheriff take my life.”
“At night,” Van Zandt said, “I still picture the teller being blown out the door of that bank.”
It’s not just a big-city phenomenon: Police-assisted suicide has stung communities across the United States, from leafy, suburban towns to rural outbacks.
Shortly after 1 p.m. Feb. 6, Joseph Hoffman, 35, held up a First Union Bank in Burlington, N.C., with a pellet gun. Then he strolled out the front door and through a mall next door, carrying a red sack full of cash on his shoulder.
On the way to his car a quarter-mile from the bank, he walked right past a marked police cruiser. When two officers ordered him to drop his gun, Hoffman aimed it at them and was shot 10 times.
A note addressed “Dear Police,” was found in his apartment. It read: “Please make sure my sister in New York gets these books and no one else.” An entry in another notebook dated four days earlier read: “My only worry is that the calibre of shot will not put me fully away.”
At 5:20 p.m. Jan. 13, Robert Clermont, 36, entered a Quik Mart convenience store in downtown Tucson, Ariz., and slammed a .22 revolver on the counter. He told the clerk he wanted a shootout with police and to call 911. Then he strode outside and into the middle of a five-lane boulevard, pointing his pistol at pedestrians.
Ten officers tried to talk Clermont into surrendering, but he staggered toward an apartment complex, raising the gun to his head. As he neared the condo, a SWAT officer shot him in the chest. Almost simultaneously, Clermont shot himself in the head.
Notes found in Clermont’s home indicated he planned to kill his former girlfriend in front of police and then force the officers to kill him.
In rural Melvina, Wis., Mario Cenin, 43, a Vietnam veteran with post traumatic stress syndrome, got drunk after midnight on Dec. 4, 1995, and shot out the windows of his house with a rifle. He shot at his wife and son as they fled.
Then he drove a mile outside town and waved down a squad car responding to the 911 call. He slid the rifle through the window, pressed the barrel into the officer’s ribs and said: “The difference between you and me is that you want to live and I want to die.”
After a six-minute standoff, the officer deflected the rifle barrel and rolled out of the car. A backup officer then killed Cenin with a rifle shot to the chest. Freak tragedies?
“Afraid not,” said FBI agent Van Zandt. “These aren’t flukes. This is real. And we better start recognizing that. This is not just going to disappear.” Suicide by cop may have implications for police-community relations across the United States.
It “raises a lot of questions about policing in America,” said Nicholas Pastore of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in New Haven, Conn. “It cries out for “smarter’ policing. We need cops who listen to communities instead of telling them what they need; cops who understand that mental illness is more than just disruptive behavior; cops who are trained to think, “Hey, is this a crook or a person crying out for help?”‘
Experts suspect suicide by cop has gone on for decades, but no one had studied it until 1996, when Richard Parent, a Canadian constable, examined cases of fatal police shootings in British Columbia from 1980 to 1994. His conclusion: 10 percent of the shootings were suicides by cop.
The figure seemed hard to believe until a recent study by Dr. H. Range Hutson, research director at Harvard Medical School , found even higher numbers in California. Hutson examined more than 425 fatal and non-fatal officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County from 1987 to 1997 and found that nearly one in six were suicides by cop.
These cases were unambiguous: Those who had been killed or wounded had left suicide notes, had told friends or relatives about their plans or had pleaded with police to kill them. Some had attempted suicide before.
Hutson found still more cases that looked suspicious. They lacked hard evidence, but those who had been shot appeared to have intentionally provoked police into pulling the trigger. If these cases are included, one in five police shootings in Los Angeles County appear to be suicides by cop.
What’s more, these were only cases in which shots were fired, said Dr. Deidre Anglin of Los Angeles County University Medical Center, who helped conduct the study. “There are probably a lot of other cases that didn’t escalate to the point where an officer was forced to shoot the suicidal person.”
If the phenomenon is this common, why is it only now being recognized? For one thing, suicide experts have had little interest in studying it. “There are 31,000 suicides a year in the United States, and you’re talking about maybe 40 or 50 suicides by cop a year,” said Dr. Alan Berman, president of the American Association of Suicidology. “It’s just not that compelling a phenomenon for a researcher.”
Furthermore, getting information about it is not easy. Police rarely open case files to the merely curious. And “shoot reviews,” inquiries done every time an officer uses his firearm, are conducted in private by police-staffed committees.
When police reports are available, they often contain more questions than answers, said Dr. Howard Zonana, professor of psychiatry at Yale and medical director of the American Academy of Psychiatry. Suicide-by-cop cases often are lumped into catchall categories such as “justifiable homicide” or “criminal intent to commit assault on a police officer.”
Many police departments prefer not to acknowledge the phenomenon, said Vivian Lord, a criminal justice professor at the University of North Carolina who found 73 attempted suicides by cop in 30 North Carolina police departments from 1993 to 1997.
“It’s a sensitive area,” she said. “Officers don’t like to be second-guessed by Monday-morning quarterbacks.” They don’t like to second-guess themselves, either.
“You cannot second-guess yourself because if you hesitate and you’re wrong, it could cost a life – your life, or some innocent person’s life,” said Lt. Kevin Kaslin, of the Nassau County police department in Mineola, which investigated the Pergament killing.
Police are also wary of wrongful-death lawsuits. On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that cities can be sued for inadequate police training that leads to death or injury – even when mentally ill or suicidal people threaten officers with firearms. The ruling came in a case brought by the wife of suicidal man who manipulated Muskogee, Okla., police into killing him in 1994.
Some police say better training and improved police tactics might indeed help prevent some of these deaths.
Kevin Gilmartin, a former hostage negotiator who now works as a police psychologist for the Tucson police department, says some departments are too reliant on high-tech weapons and “surgical” shooting techniques. “The skills of the negotiator have taken a back seat to SWAT teams and techno-guns,” he said.
David Klinger, a former Los Angeles policeman who advises SWAT teams on training and tactical matters around the country, says: “It makes sense for police to approach a case and ask: “Could it be that suicide by cop is at work here?”‘ With better tactical training, he said, “more times than not, the officers won’t be in a vulnerable position so that they have to fire.”
Bill Trenery, chief of police in Woodbridge, N.J., isn’t so sure.
It happened in the little town of Woodbridge in the early morning of June 10, 1996, just 300 yards from the front door of police headquarters. Catherine Falzarano, 42, pointed a handgun repeatedly at three officers during an 11-minute standoff and was shot seven times. The gun she carried, a .22-caliber pistol owned by her husband, Dean, a policeman in a neighboring county, was not loaded.
The woman, who suffered from depression and had a history of suicide attempts, left a note in her apartment:
“I don’t have the guts to do it myself so I’m using this empty weapon just for show and if I am lucky W.P.D. will shoot to kill.”
Says Trenery: “I don’t see what you can do about this.”
Of all the questions that surround these deaths, the most puzzling is why anyone would choose this way to die.
Perhaps feelings of guilt or shame lead some people to seek punishment from an authority figure, said Parent, the Canadian constable. “The police are perfect for this. They play the role of surrogate parents in our society.” Or perhaps police-assisted suicide indicates anger at authority. “The person may be saying, “I’m so angry at you that I’ll have you kill me, and you’ll have to live with it,” said Dr. Michael Welner, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine.
In some cases, a skewed interpretation of the religious prohibition against suicide might be at work. “Suicide for most people is forbidden religiously, but if you do it confronting the cops, somehow it’s OK,” said Schlossberg, the police psychiatrist. For others, he said, being gunned down by police may seem a glamorous end.
Van Zandt thinks it may be simpler than all that. Perhaps, he said, they are just looking for a foolproof, dead-certain way to die. “Police have the guns,” he said. “They have the training to react to potentially life-threatening situations with accurate and deadly force, and they are as close as the telephone.”
That’s how Matthew Pyers saw it. If he ran his car into a concrete wall, he said in a recent interview, “I might have lived through it and been paralyzed. But with a gun at close range, it’d be more likely to kill me.”
Depressed, drunk and suicidal, the 19-year-old raced his 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass as fast as it would go in the predawn darkness of March 23, 1997, from a college party in Hoboken, N.J., to his hometown of Wallingford, Conn. His desperate hope: That a highway officer would chase him, catch him, kill him. But no one noticed.
So Pyers headed for the Wallingford police department. He circled the station, honking the horn, squealing the tires, and bolted off, squad cars in pursuit.
Pyers led police on a chase through four towns. When he noticed they had given up, he doubled back and rammed his car into the rear of one of the cruisers. Then he pulled over and jumped out with a champagne bottle in his hand.
He banged the bottle on the car hood and taunted the officers: “You better kill me or I’m going to kill you!” He ignored their orders to drop the bottle and fought off the pepper spray they shot at him. He waved the bottle and shouted, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” Officer Mark Poisson fired once. Pyers crumpled, a hollow-point bullet in his abdomen.
The bullet hit no bones or major organs. Today, he’s on a different regimen of medication for depression and has resumed his college studies in engineering.
“When I get into a depression,” Pyers said, “I don’t think of anyone but myself. But after he shot me, I thought about the officer, what I could be doing to him. Seeing his face, that horrible look, I realized how the officer would probably regret this for the rest of his life.”
“That’s the worst part about suicide by cop,” said Kenneth Lake, a deputy attorney general of California. He represented Riverside, Calif., police officers in the Jan. 5, 1995, shooting of a 17-year-old who led officers on a high-speed car chase to his high school . There, in front of dozens of parents and teachers attending an evening PTA meeting, the teen pretended to draw a weapon from his coat and was shot to death.
Taking a life believing your own is in jeopardy, only to find you’ve been manipulated into carrying out a suicide plot is devastating emotionally, Lake said. “Imagine the guilt an officer must feel.” Sheriff Dan Crawford knows. He’s seen three police-assisted suicides in 15 years in Shelby, N.C., a town of 15,000 people.
The last one happened Jan. 6, 1997, outside the police station. For 40 minutes, Crawford tried to talk Henry Brown, a 32-year-old security guard, out of his suicide-by-cop plan. With a .38 in one hand and a .357 magnum in the other, Brown screamed at the two dozen officers surrounding him: “Do your job! It’s gonna end today!”
Suddenly, one of Brown’s pistols discharged. Hearing the gunshot, a marksman put a slug through his heart.
“If that’s something he wanted to do, why didn’t he do it on his own?” asked Crawford. “Why did he have us do it? Why have the police do it? “Why in little old Shelby?”