Zito admitted shooting two Shore lawmen, investigator testifies

Police, jail personnel take stand in 2nd day of murder trial

May 15, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- A half-dozen police and correctional officers, including the investigator who interviewed the Eastern Shore man charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of two law enforcement officers, told jurors yesterday that the accused, Francis Mario Zito, repeatedly talked about the shootings.

In the second day of Zito's trial, Robert E. Williams, an investigator with the Queen Anne's County prosecutor's office, testified that Zito admitted turning a shotgun on the officers who answered a routine call at the trailer park where Zito lived on the outskirts of Centreville, the county seat.

Williams, who with a state police detective and an investigator from the Queen Anne's sheriff's office, interviewed Zito, said the accused talked readily in the hours after the Feb. 13, 2001 slayings of Centreville patrolman Michael S. Nickerson, 24, and Deputy Jason Schwenz, 28.

"I drew up my 12-gauge [shotgun], I just shot," Williams said Zito told investigators in the hour-long interrogation. "I shot him once. I shot the other guy. I know I bagged that bastard; he tried to get away," Williams said Zito told him.

According to Williams, police and correctional officers who overheard Zito's telephone conversations while he was being held at the Wicomico County Detention Center near Salisbury, Zito often gave conflicting versions of his feelings about the shootings, sometimes expressing remorse.

The trial was moved to Salisbury because of pre-trial publicity.

"I wasn't sure they were Gestapo cops," Williams said Zito told him. "They wanted to beat me up and have my mother sign a petition against me."

Zito, 43, has a history of mental illness and has been hospitalized for schizophrenia more than 25 times since 1989.

He is well-known to police and residents of Centreville, population 2,300, and got into frequent scrapes with neighbors and the law. He has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible. Zito faces a possible death sentence if convicted.

In a jailhouse telephone conversation overheard by Correctional Officer Sherry Adkins, Zito said he wouldn't get the death penalty because of his mental condition, Adkins testified yesterday.

On the night of the shootings, Nickerson, Schwenz and Maryland State Trooper Richard Corey Skidmore tried repeatedly to coax Zito to come out.

The trio broke through a storm door and entered an enclosed porch. Then Schwenz opened the trailer door with a key provided by Zito's mother, Betty, who owned the trailer park.

Schwenz was hit once in the face, once in the abdomen and once in the neck. Nickerson was struck in the upper back, just above his protective vest, according to Joseph Kopera, supervisor of the state police ballistics unit. Skidmore was not injured.

Three of the shots were fired when the trailer door was open, two passed through the hollow door and the sixth shot came from above the stricken Schwenz, who lay on the porch floor, Kopera said.

For more details about the events that led up to the shootings in Centreville, published in The Sun in June, log on to www.sunspot.net/zito. : ]

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