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Saturday, November 19, 2005
By DOUGLASS CROUSE, STAFF WRITER
Frank Sanabria had finally heeded his family’s urgings and gotten help. His mental problems held fast, however. On Wednesday, paranoia and depression had turned to violent delirium, authorities said. Within hours, the father of two lay shot dead beside his Wayne driveway after charging at a police officer with a 15-inch kitchen knife.
Based on a preliminary investigation, the two township officers who fired at the 43-year-old ironworker took initial steps to avoid using their weapons, said John Latoracca, chief assistant prosecutor for Passaic County.
“There wasn’t any rush on their part to take aggressive action against Mr. Sanabria, and they took every action to get him to calm down,” Latoracca said. “They kept saying, ‘Nothing has happened yet. It’s not too late to turn back from this. Just calm down and put down the knife.'”
Sanabria was 6 feet away in a heavy rain and running directly at Officer James Arnold when the 30-year-old policeman fired four rounds, Latoracca said. Officer Edward Wolf, 33, fired one round from several feet away to defend Arnold, he said.
“Given [Sanabria’s] physical proximity to Officer Arnold and the fact that he was on the move, at that point I frankly don’t think you have any option,” Latoracca said. “There’s no time to discern what this person’s intent was or could be. At that point you’re looking death in the face.”
Sanabria was hit once in each arm, and once each in the hip, chest and head. An ambulance arrived at the Summer Hill Road home, near High Mountain, within a couple of minutes, but Sanabria was dead.
A request to the Sanabria family for an interview had not been answered at press time.
Latoracca gave the following account:
For about 12 minutes, the four officers tried to reassure Sanabria as they stood in a cold rain and under the glare of a floodlight. When the muscular Sanabria moved toward them, they backed off, Latoracca said. They had called a hostage negotiator and asked for an ambulance to wait nearby.
A neighbor said he observed some of the exchange. “They kept saying, ‘Calm down. Calm down,” the man said, requesting anonymity. “I could see the reflection of the knife. I’ve never seen a knife that [wide.] I dreamed about it.”
About 6:50 p.m., Sanabria lunged toward Malenich and Scully, forcing them to back up, then turned sharply and ran toward Arnold. Arnold and Wolf had a 3-foot wooden fence at their back, limiting their movement, Latoracca said.
“It’s impossible to know what at that moment he was thinking, whether his primary intention was to hurt an officer or just create that appearance,” Latoracca said.
After he was shot, Sanabria’s momentum continued to take him forward until he ran into the fence and fell, Latoracca said.
Wayne police referred all calls and requests for interviews to the Prosecutor’s Office.
A department spokesman on Thursday had characterized the four officers as traumatized. Wolf has been on the force for 10 years. Arnold joined in February after working as a detective for the Prosecutor’s Office for about seven years. Latoracca said he took the Wayne position for economic reasons.
Both officers had been involved in life-threatening situations on the job.
Last year, while with the Prosecutor’s Office, Arnold shot an alleged drug dealer in the arm while being dragged by the suspect’s car in Paterson. He was cleared by state police of any wrongdoing
In June 1997, Wolf barely jumped out of the way as a motorist attempting to flee from a motor vehicles office drove in the officer’s direction.
The officers’ status and ability to work will be reevaluated next week, a Wayne police spokesman said.
As is the case for all fatal police shootings, a grand jury will consider the officers’ actions, Latoracca said.
Sanabria had been suffering from psychological problems for about 18 months, and his wife, Denise, and teenage daughter and son repeatedly had urged him to see a psychiatrist. Last week he did, returning home with two prescriptions, one for the antidepressant Wellbutrin.
It was unclear whether he had begun taking any medication, Latoracca said.
On Wednesday, Sanabria was up by 3 a.m., appearing confused and irrational to family members. When his 15-year-old daughter came home from Wayne Hills High School about 3 p.m., he had damaged a wall and ceiling with a knife and looked troubled.
He expressed concern about his mother, who had been having health problems. Lately, the two had been out of touch.
“He seemed to be upset that he wasn’t with his mother while she was going through that,” Latoracca said.
Soon after, Sanabria pulled a television cable out of the wall and told his family that people were spying on him. After threatening to hurt himself, he grabbed another knife and slashed his own neck, chest and abdomen.
His wife called police. This panicked Sanabria, who believed he would be taken to a psychiatric hospital, Latoracca said.
Returning to the kitchen, he grabbed the largest knife he could find, one with a blade 10 inches long and more than 2 inches wide. He left to go outside in a heavy rain, followed by his daughter, who was concerned for his safety.
Hysterical, his wife called police, saying, “He has a knife. He has a knife. He’s got my daughter.”
Officer John Malenich was the first to respond, at 6:35 p.m., to the dispatch call about a possible hostage situation.
Malenich tried to calm Sanabria, who was outside his garage holding a knife in one hand and wrapping his other arm around his daughter. She told Malenich her father couldn’t comprehend what the officer was saying. Wolf, Arnold and Officer John Scully arrived within a few minutes.
Sanabria’s daughter pulled free of her father, and the officers told her to go inside the home.
“She doesn’t believe she was ever in danger of being harmed,” Latoracca said. “Her concern was for her father.”
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