SPINE SEVERED FROM SHOT FIRED BY TEEN — (Buffalo News)

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Buffalo News

By MAKI BECKER, VAN and ESSA THOMAS JAY REY,  News Staff Reporters

12/7/2006

Injured partner who tackled suspect is in fair condition

Patricia A. Parete – one of two Buffalo police officers shot Tuesday night – was fighting for her life late Wednesday, her spine severed by a bullet fired by a teenager who was on probation.

If Parete survives, she likely will be paralyzed from the neck down.

“If she lives, she’s probably going to be a quadriplegic,” said a fellow officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I’m just so angry right now. It’s horrible.”

Sources also told The Buffalo News that police believe Varner Harris Jr., 18, who police say confessed to the shootings, opened fire on Parete and her partner, Officer Carl E. Andolina, because he feared being sent to prison now that he is of legal age and no longer eligible for youthful offender status.

Parete, the first female Buffalo police officer shot in the line of duty, was listed in serious condition late Wednesday night, while Andolina was in fair condition. Both are in Erie County Medical Center.

Tuesday night, Parete and Andolina were riding together on a special detail downtown investigating a rash of car break-ins. At 9:01 p.m., they were dispatched to a Valero gas station on the corner of Chippewa Street and South Elmwood Avenue, where a fight had been reported.

The officers spotted Harris running from the scene and chased him in their cruiser.

They got out of their patrol car and ordered Harris to turn around and take his hands out of his pockets.

They didn’t know until too late that Harris was carrying a gun.

Harris “knew once the gun was found that he would go back to jail and finish his time and he wouldn’t be a young offender anymore,” a police source said. “He’d be going to the men’s jail.”

Harris began shooting at the two officers, nearly emptying the gun, as Andolina tackled him to the ground.

Neither officer discharged a weapon.

Parete was hit twice. Her bulletproof vest blocked a round aimed at her chest, but a second bullet pierced her face and ripped apart her spine.

As Andolina tackled Harris, he was hit three times – in the neck, arm and chest, protected by his vest.

“Andolina charged at him and took him to the ground,” Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson said at a morning news conference at ECMC. “He physically charged at an individual who was firing at him at point-blank range. He charged at a blazing gun.”

At the news briefing, Mayor Byron W. Brown commended Andolina’s “heroic actions.”

Harris was arraigned Wednesday morning in City Court, where Judge David M. Manz entered a not-guilty plea on Harris’ behalf on attempted murder and weapons charges.

Manz ordered Harris to remain in jail without bail and said he will appoint a lawyer to represent him.

Law enforcement sources revealed Wednesday that Harris had been arrested Jan. 24, 2005 – when he was 17 – for attempting to rob a pizza deliveryman with two other youths, one of whom had a gun.

He spent nearly two months in the Erie County Holding Center before he was released on $5,000 bail.

His case came before the grand jury, and in May 2005, he was sentenced to five years’ probation as a youthful offender.

Police believe Harris may have bought the gun used in Tuesday night’s shootings off the street just a couple of days ago to protect himself from former gang members.

While Harris has a gang tattoo, he had “disassociated himself with the gang,” a police source told The News. “But there was pressure to re-engage with the gang.”

Harris’ 15-year-old girlfriend said he told her he was in some sort of trouble and was carrying the revolver for protection.

“It’s hard for me to believe he was involved,” the girl said. “He’s not violent. He didn’t act violent.” The News is withholding her name because of her age.

Family members, as well as probation officials and other people charged with looking after him, said Harris had been showing signs he was turning his life around.

He was enrolled in the day program at Hopevale School in Hamburg, a program for seventh- through 12th-graders who have run into trouble with the law or at their neighborhood schools.

His mother, Theresa Moore, produced a report card that showed his latest grades were in the 80s and 90s.

She said he had taken a liking to his home economics class and brought home pies he had baked.

He also was an aspiring rapper and had recently recorded a demo CD.

Harris, who is a week shy of his 19th birthday, came from a troubled family. Records show his father, Varner Harris Sr., was arrested in 1989 in a series of violent home invasion robberies of the elderly. He spent nearly three years in prison and another three years on parole.

Probation officials said Harris had been under “intensive supervision” following his conviction last year.

“We were keeping a close watch on him because of the nature of the crime,” said George Alexander, Erie County probation commissioner.

Harris always was at home as required when curfew checks were made and was meeting with his probation officer as scheduled.

Gregory Brice, director of the Bissonette House, who had worked as a behavioral specialist at Hopevale, said Harris was a quiet loner who was respectful to authorities.

“The Varner I know is a quiet, almost humble, and respectful young man,” Brice said.

“I was shocked when I read the paper and saw his name,” he said. “I know when I deal with him as an authority figure, he was always respectful.”

Moore said her son had been having behavioral problems earlier in the year and was so prone to angry outbursts that she took him to a doctor.

“He was acting up,” Moore said. “Like when I asked him to do something, he would just spaz out. I wanted to know what the problem was.”

The doctor prescribed Prozac, and Harris seemed to improve on the medication, she said. But he didn’t like taking it and had recently stopped.

“If he was still taking [his medication], this probably wouldn’t have happened,” his distraught mother said.

“One side of me believes it,” she said of the police shootings her son is accused of committing. “The other side doesn’t.”
News Staff Reporters Michael Beebe and Matt Gryta contributed to this report.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com
and vthomas@buffnews.com