Trooper describes chaos of shooting

2 officers slain in blasts at door of Centreville man's trailer, court is told

Defense claiming mental illness

May 14, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - Taking the witness stand here yesterday, a Maryland state trooper described the chaotic scene at an Eastern Shore trailer park where two local lawmen were gunned down in a barrage of shotgun blasts more than a year ago.

In the first day of testimony in the trial of Francis Mario Zito, a 43-year-old Centreville man who is facing a possible death sentence, Trooper Richard Corey Skidmore recounted the confrontation on Feb. 13 last year that left Centreville police Officer Michael S. Nickerson, 24, and Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Schwenz, 28, dead.

Skidmore, the only eyewitness to the shooting, said all three officers entered an enclosed porch at Zito's mobile home after making at least 10 attempts to persuade Zito - who has a lifelong history of severe mental illness - to come out of the dwelling.

The officers were called after Zito's next-door neighbor complained about loud music - a complaint that frequently brought officers to the small trailer park on the outskirts of Centreville, the Queen Anne's County seat.

The officers, who had been given a key to the trailer by Zito's mother, Betty, who owns the trailer park, first broke through a storm door to get onto the porch. Then, as Schwenz unlocked the trailer door, the first of six shots came from a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, Skidmore told jurors in the Wicomico County courtroom, where the trial was moved because of pretrial publicity.

"Immediately upon opening the door, the first shot rang out, hitting Deputy Schwenz in the face," Skidmore said.

In seconds, Nickerson turned his back, was hit by a second shot and staggered from the porch. Skidmore, who was behind the trailer door, slammed it shut and leaped over the dying Schwenz and through the damaged storm door, then dragged the mortally wounded Nickerson behind a patrol car.

Daniel T. Baxter, who is now a state police cadet, happened to be taking part in an Explorer Scout ride-along program that night with Skidmore.

Baxter, who is Nickerson's cousin, said he had been sent to watch the rear of Zito's trailer when he heard the first shot. The unarmed 18-year-old, who said he thought eight shots had been fired, frantically tried to enter two locked police cars to radio for help, but eventually found a phone at a nearby house.

Also testifying yesterday, Howard Douglas Larrimore, who lived next door to Zito for two years, said Zito repeatedly cursed and threatened him and his fiancee as they spoke with police, who were trying to persuade Zito to come out of his trailer. Zito warned the officers not to enter his home and called them "Nazi Gestapo," Larrimore said.

Larrimore said when he heard the first shots, he rushed his girlfriend to another neighbor's trailer, shouting, "Let's get out of here, Frank's killed the cops."

It was Larrimore who held Zito to the ground after he had been subdued by pepper spray and arrested by Skidmore, who then gave CPR to Nickerson.

In her opening statement, defense attorney Patricia Chappell said Zito's 20-year history of schizophrenia will leave jurors with little choice but to convict Zito of manslaughter, not first-degree murder.

Chappell said Zito is psychotic, paranoid and delusional. "Frank has a mind that does not work like ours," she said. "Frank has a broken mind."

For years, he has complained of police harassment, a complaint he repeated in a tape-recorded call to Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest's office on the night of the shootings. The tape, at times inaudible, was played yesterday.

While blaming the incident on Zito's illness - doctors diagnosed schizophrenia, and he has been admitted to psychiatric hospitals more than 25 times since 1989 - Chappell said inexperience by police who are untrained in dealing with the mentally ill was a factor.

The "bravado of the badge, the bravado of the uniform" also helped inflame the confrontations, she said.

Prosecutor David W. Gregory urged jurors to ignore attempts by defense attorneys to use the mental illness as an "excuse."

"I don't want you to leave your common sense at the door," he told jurors.

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