The Scout, the suspect and the SWAT team

Shooting: On March 1, FBI agents had a clear plan to catch a man wanted in a bank robbery. What unfolded was a remarkable series of mix-ups with a near-fatal outcome.

March 18, 2002|By Gail Gibson, Michael James and Laura Barnhardt | Gail Gibson, Michael James and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

The order from an FBI commander to a SWAT team waiting outside a Glen Burnie 7-Eleven was simple and direct.

"Follow the red car."

To FBI Special Agent Christopher Braga, it signaled that the man inside the car, the one wearing the white baseball cap, was the bank robbery suspect agents had been tracking. Braga, with other members of the elite FBI team, moved in to make the arrest.

What unfolded next could hardly have been worse.

Within minutes, a bullet from Braga's M-4 rifle crashed through the front passenger window of Krissy Harkum's red Pontiac Grand Am and hit Joe Schultz in the face.

Schultz was the man in the car, the one in the white baseball cap - but he wasn't the suspect. He was a former Boy Scout coming home to Pasadena from a trip to the mall with his girlfriend and stopping for a Slurpee.

The details of that botched traffic stop are under investigation and, in some instances, very much in dispute. But interviews with federal and local law enforcement officials, family members and legal sources - and a key informant who was supplying the FBI with information as agents searched for their man - suggest that what unfolded March 1 was a remarkable array of coincidences with a near-deadly outcome.

FBI agents had a clear plan that day to catch a wanted man. They had a photograph of him, and they had the weapons they believed were used in the crime. They also had crucial information about where he would be and when. At the last minute, though, the agents found themselves reacting to an abrupt change of plans and scrambling to recover from a critical communication lapse, caused in part by a dying cellular phone.

In the end, the FBI had the wrong man.

Two opposites

Michael J. Blottenberger Jr. and Joseph Charles Schultz may be linked by the mix-up, but they couldn't be less alike.

At 20, Joe Schultz is just figuring out what to do with his life. Quiet and respectful of his teachers and authority figures, he earned the rank of Star Scout.

Schultz was a 2000 graduate of Anne Arundel County's Northeast High School and had worked since he was 16 in fast-food restaurants, in construction and at other jobs.

In December, he was laid off by a medical company and was looking for work. But on March 1, when he and his steady girlfriend headed to the mall to shop for accessories for the Grand Am she had received as a gift for her 16th birthday, Schultz was carefree.

Blottenberger, on that day, was a wanted man.

At 32, Blottenberger has been in and out of jail for more than a decade. He struggled to avoid drugs and alcohol and to keep up support payments for his young son. Blottenberger had found work with a Glen Burnie painting contractor this year but had recently told his boss he was again struggling with old demons, "screwing up his life on drugs."

Federal investigators would allege that Blottenberger's troubles went far deeper. By the end of last month, they had zeroed in on him as the primary suspect in a robbery Feb. 20 at an Allfirst Bank branch in Pasadena in which a masked gunman had stolen more than $26,000.

That Wednesday-morning holdup would bring together the former Boy Scout, the bank robbery suspect and the bureau.

The robbery happened at 9:42 a.m., at the branch at 8493 Fort Smallwood Road. According to court records, the robber wore a ski mask and carried a black-and-silver handgun as he shouted orders.

"Get down on the floor," he told Angela White, who sank to her knees and emptied stacks of cash from her teller drawer, according to an FBI affidavit by Special Agent Lawrence S. Brosnan.

"Give me your money," the robber said as he moved to the next teller, Laura Bucklew, the court document shows. "You've got 10 seconds, or I'll blow your [expletive] brains out."

Witnesses said the robber jumped into the passenger seat of a dark green Ford Ranger pickup. That vehicle and an anonymous tip eventually led investigators to Blottenberger. He is in jail on a federal bank robbery charge, and no other suspect has been publicly identified.

Working with a 1998 photo of Blottenberger and surveillance photos of the robbery, Brosnan steadily built his case.

The agent interviewed Blottenberger's boss, Will McMinn, who said his employee had not worked Feb. 20. According to Brosnan's affidavit, McMinn also said Blottenberger had told him he was involved in drugs.

Brosnan also talked to one of Blottenberger's co-workers, Timothy King, who rented him a room in his southern Baltimore home. King looked at the surveillance photos and told the investigator that the masked robber looked like Blottenberger.

"It's his eyes and build," King said.

On March 1, as FBI agents were closing in, Blottenberger confided to King that he had driven the getaway truck in the robbery, Brosnan's affidavit shows.

Turn yourself in, King said he told Blottenberger, the court record shows.

Blottenberger's response: No, but I am sorry.

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