Hubbard shooting revives bad memories

October 24, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Barry Hamilton is this year's Danny Shanahan, a white city cop who shot a black civilian to death in what police call a struggle over a gun and others contend was murder compounded by racism.

"It looks like my case," Shanahan was saying the other day. "Only the names are different."

But our reactions are not. We leap to secondhand conclusions, when only the principals know exactly what happened out there, and what went through their minds in the struggle and the raw aftermath.

In his own highly publicized shooting -- of a motorcyclist named Booker Lee Lancaster -- Shanahan's life, and his emotions, went to pieces. It was 16 years ago but, in the current, charged moment, he hears its echoes again: in the accusations of racist brutality over Officer Hamilton's struggle with Larry "Fat Herb" Hubbard, in the sound of attorney Billy Murphy on the television set, in the shrill voices gathered in the street calling for retaliation against Hamilton.

And in the sheer sense of emotional isolation, the belief that no one else understands what it is like in that instant, when weapons are out and the end of someone's life has irretrievably arrived.

"I know what it's like," Shanahan said. He called to talk about the unraveling of his life after he killed Booker Lee Lancaster on that summer day in 1983 -- of a descent into prescription drugs and alcohol and crime and, years later, police cars chasing the out-of-control Shanahan for 10 miles and then shooting the ex-cop as he waved a gun in the air.

And he called, also, to talk about Hamilton and the other policeman, Robert J. Quick, and their struggle with Larry Hubbard.

It is nearly three weeks now since Quick stopped Hubbard as he rode in a stolen car in the 2000 block of Barclay St. Quick struggled to put handcuffs on him and says his gun came loose as Hubbard tried to get away. Hamilton came behind Hubbard and tried to separate the two men. The three of them, scuffling, fell to the ground, with Quick yelling, "He's got my gun."

Hamilton pulled out his own gun and shot Hubbard to death.

"I wonder who's talking to Hamilton," Shanahan said last week. "Nobody knows what he's going through. When I went through it, nobody sat me down and said, `Are you OK psychologically?' "

He wasn't. We know there are grieving families -- Larry Hubbard's, Booker Lee Lancaster's -- but the cops' psyches remain a mystery. Sixteen years later, Shanahan still remembers the struggle that day with Lancaster, a big man, 250 pounds, who was stopped for a traffic check. Shanahan said Lancaster pulled a knife and a struggle ensued. Shanahan went for his gun.

"It was the same as this case, an officer struggling with a much bigger man," Shanahan said. "He broke the safety snap on my gun. What do you think he was saying, `Let me clean it for you?' Somebody was gonna die. I was scared to death.

"I shot him in the arm to disable him and get him away from me. But the bullet ricocheted up his arm and hit his heart. Lancaster died in my arms. He took his last breath and said, `You shot me, you .' " The final words were racially charged.

All these years later, Shanahan pauses to freeze the moment.

"His eyes went real wide," he says. "All my anger went away. I couldn't believe he could say this in his last breath. And, after that, it was just me. Whatever else, nobody was directly responsible for taking his life but me. Whatever it was, I killed him."

He went to confession at St. Ursula's Roman Catholic Church on Harford Road in Putty Hill and said, "I took someone's life." He sobbed uncontrollably. "A big, tough cop crying like a baby," he says.

The priest told him, "God forgives you, Dan. You didn't murder the man, you did what you had to do."

This brought no consolation.

"First, I felt relieved," Shanahan says. "I'm a good Irish Catholic boy, and my priest, who's a spokesman for God, is telling me I'm not a murderer. But I took this man's life. I don't care what anybody says; I killed him and he died in my arms, and this is a horrible thought."

When he turned on the TV news the night of the shooting, Shanahan says, "There was Billy Murphy, claiming a cover-up." Sixteen years later, it is Murphy saying similar words about Hamilton and this time bringing in the famous Johnnie Cochran as part of a legal team.

When Shanahan went to court, he says, he coped with a steady ingestion of vodka and Valium. A jury acquitted him of killing Lancaster. Self-defense, it was determined.

It didn't matter. The pressure had been too much. His father was dying, his marriage was in trouble, and he'd had too much to drink.

"I went crazy," he says. "See, they'll try to demonize this poor cop Hamilton now. I don't know the man. I've never met him in my life. But he's not a monster, he's a person, and he's got to be going through a horrible time.

"I went crazy," he says again. He got involved in a holdup plan and was convicted of sharing money from it. He pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a handgun. He did some time behind bars.

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