Officer defends acts on a deadly night 'A good cop' in trouble: Baltimore Police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto shot a man with his service handgun in February. Now he's gone from soldier in the war on illegal guns to manslaughter suspect.

April 08, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

On the night of Feb. 7, Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto's job was to concentrate on one thing: getting guns off the street.

But the most dangerous gun of the evening ended up being his own. Sergeant Pagotto, 39, had killed a man with his service handgun -- a man who was driving away. And he'd gone from soldier in the war against guns to criminal suspect.

At his Baltimore County home, under indictment for manslaughter and suspended without pay, Sergeant Pagotto has had plenty of time to ponder that night. So has the family of Preston E. Barnes, the 22-year-old Northeast Baltimore man who died in his aunt's white Subaru.

Sergeant Pagotto, speaking publicly for the first time about the incident, says he did nothing wrong.

"I feel for the family," he said. "I'm a parent, too. I'm not a bad person. And I'm a good cop."

Sylvia Smith still wakes each day at her home in Northeast Baltimore expecting to see her son "Pressie" on the stairs or in the kitchen.

And she waits for the time when Sergeant Pagotto will answer her many questions about what caused his fatal encounter with her son.

"I'm still trying to figure out why," she said. "I'd like to see this man face to face and have him tell me why he killed my child."

For the moment, Ms. Smith will have to keep waiting. On the advice of his lawyer, Sergeant Pagotto has declined to discuss how he came to shoot Preston Barnes, though he has provided a statement to prosecutors that has not been made public.

He is scheduled to be arraigned May 13.

Unlike the last two Baltimore officers prosecuted for shooting suspects, Sergeant Pagotto was a veteran officer, with 15 years on the Baltimore force. He'd been a detective, he'd been promoted to supervisor, and he'd been chosen to be among the first district officers to help carry out Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's highest priority of the year: taking guns out of criminal hands.

His service record was clear. He received a commendation in 1985 for saving a 2-month-old infant who was drowning in a bathtub.

"My impression of him is he's a good hard-working sergeant," said Maj. Bert Shirey, commander of the Northeastern District, where Sergeant Pagotto was working when the shooting occurred.

Sergeant Pagotto said he designed his whole life around the idea that one day he would be a cop. He started in the Western District in 1980, making $13,000 a year. He went on to assignments in the Northeastern, Eastern and Central Districts, and spent six months in homicide, the unit now investigating him. Along the way he suffered personal tragedy, losing his wife, Rosean, to cancer six years ago, and waging a battle with the city over whether his health insurance covered the experimental drug therapy she needed.

"I've been shot at, cut, had guns put down my throat," the sergeant said. "I put everything into this job. I like to think I'm damned good at it."

Six days before the shooting, he stopped a 15-year-old boy because it was midmorning and the boy wasn't in school. The boy pulled a .38-caliber revolver, according to a police report, and aimed it at the sergeant. Sergeant Pagotto drew his gun and told the boy to drop his weapon. The youth complied.

The sergeant was to work on the gun detail for two weeks. In the first four days, he said, the squad logged five felony drug arrests and took three handguns off the street. Part of the job was to look for suspicious cars, on the theory that with stolen cars often come drugs and guns.

Sergeant Pagotto and another officer pulled over Mr. Barnes' car in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. because it did not appear to have a back tag.

According to a passenger in the car, the sergeant approached with his gun drawn, saying: "Turn the car off before I shoot."

Mr. Barnes was on his way to the movies that night, his mother said. He was on five years' probation, court records show, stemming from a February 1995 conviction for possession of drugs with the intent to distribute. He also had a prior handgun conviction.

"Pressie was trying to do the right thing," Ms. Smith said. He was also fearful of going back to prison. "Whenever Pressie saw the police, he was, like, paranoid."

The car began rolling forward, with Sergeant Pagotto running alongside. A single shot from his gun shattered the rear side window and hit Mr. Barnes in the left armpit. Ms. Smith was told her son's last words were: "Ah, man."

Some of the things that troubled the Police Department most about the shooting occurred immediately afterward. Sergeant Pagotto's backup officer called in the shooting without mentioning that an officer was involved. The sergeant left the scene to go to the homicide unit to give a statement, but by the time he arrived a lawyer had advised him not to do so because he was too "shaken up."

Henry L. Belsky, Sergeant Pagotto's lawyer, said that after the shooting, the officer was trying to help Mr. Barnes and simply shouted to his colleague: "Call it in."

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