City police sergeant indicted Manslaughter charge follows shooting in Feb. traffic stop

March 20, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Michael James contributed to this article.

A Baltimore grand jury yesterday indicted a city police sergeant on a manslaughter charge in the Feb. 7 fatal shooting of a 22-year-old man during a traffic stop.

Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto, a 15-year-veteran of the force, surrendered to detectives after the indictment was handed up shortly before 3 p.m. yesterday.

If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Sam Ringgold, chief spokesman for the department, said a hearing today would determine whether Sergeant Pagotto would be suspended with or without pay, pending the outcome of the charge.

He has been assigned to administrative duties since the shooting.

"It's not a happy day when a police officer is indicted," Mr. Ringgold said. "We said from the outset that this was a case that was troubling."

Police said Sergeant Pagotto and another officer stopped a white Subaru in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. in Northeast Baltimore about 8: 30 p.m.

The car, driven by Preston E. Barnes of the 3300 block of Cardenas Ave., was missing its rear license plate. The officers ordered Mr. Barnes and two passengers to show their hands and get out of the car.

But the vehicle began to move forward, and the other officer reported hearing a grinding noise. At that point, police have said, Sergeant Pagotto tried to open the door. Mr. Barnes kept driving, and the sergeant fired a single shot through the side window.

Mr. Barnes, hit in the left armpit, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police said they found no guns or drugs in the car.

The missing license plate was found lying in the back window.

Mr. Barnes, on probation from a 1995 drug conviction, had been convicted before on drug and handgun charges.

A passenger in the car, Damian Jackson, said after the shooting that Sergeant Pagotto approached the vehicle with his gun drawn, saying, "Turn the car off before I shoot." Mr. Jackson later testified before the grand jury, where proceedings are closed to the public.

Mr. Barnes' mother, Sylvia Smith, 46, reacted with excitement yesterday when a reporter told her the news of the indictment.

Barnes' mother pleased

"I am so glad," she said, standing in the living room of the family rowhouse in the 3300 block of Cardenas Ave.

"I'm waiting for the court date, and you can be sure I will be there. Rain, snow, sleet, it won't matter, I'm going to be there for some justice," she added.

Ms. Smith said she had been optimistic an indictment would be returned.

But she added that she had suspicions the police might cover up the facts of the case while trying to protect one of their own.

"Maybe even they realize now that we've got to get the killing police off the street. If the good police stop covering up for the bad police, then we'll get some justice in this town," Ms. Smith said.

Not a 'willful act'

But Sergeant Pagotto's lawyer, Henry L. Belsky, called his 39-year-old client "a good police officer" and said he followed proper police procedures during the traffic stop.

"It's a real crime that he's going to have to go through what he's going to have to go through," Mr. Belsky said.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the union that represents Baltimore police officers, would not say whether he felt the shooting was accidental, but he did say the indictment on a manslaughter charge, rather than second-degree murder, showed that the grand jury did not consider the shooting a "willful act."

"Car stops are one of the most dangerous things a police officer can do," said Officer McLhinney. "It was not unreasonable for Sergeant Pagotto to have his weapon out. Unfortunately, when something occurs, then the officer's career and freedom are on the line."

Sergeant Pagotto did not testify before the grand jury, but he did LTC submit a written statement of his version of the events, his lawyer said.

Mr. Belsky disputed reports that his client had not been cooperative with the state's attorney's office during the investigation.

A troubling aspect

Mr. Ringgold said yesterday that one aspect of the shooting the department still finds troubling is that the incident was called in as a regular shooting, without mention that a police officer had discharged his weapon. That delayed the arrival of supervisors and homicide detectives who normally respond immediately to shootings involving police.

Officer Shean D. Camper, the last city police officer to be indicted on criminal charges in the death of a civilian, was found not guilty of manslaughter in the shooting of an unarmed suspect a year ago. Officer Edward T. Gorwell faces a retrial on a manslaughter charge after his 1993 prosecution in the shooting death of a 14-year-old boy ended in a mistrial.

Sergeant Pagotto is scheduled to be arraigned May 13.

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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