No indictment of FBI agent in shooting

Pasadena man mistaken for bank-robbery suspect

'Serious breakdowns' revealed

Anne Arundel grand jury deliberates 20 minutes

July 03, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel and Laura Barnhardt | Andrea F. Siegel and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County grand jury decided yesterday not to indict an FBI agent who mistook an unarmed Pasadena man for a suspected bank robber and shot him in the face.

The grand jury deliberated 20 minutes before declining to indict Special Agent Christopher Braga on charges of first-degree assault, second-degree assault or reckless endangerment in the shooting, county prosecutors said.

Braga shot Joseph C. Schultz, 20, in the face with an M-4 rifle March 1. Schultz was riding in a car driven by his girlfriend when FBI agents, searching for a suspect believed to be armed, pulled the car over on Fort Smallwood Road.

Schultz had nothing to do with the bank robbery; he and Krissy Harkum, 16, were returning home from Marley Station mall in Glen Burnie.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said the grand jury decision "does not in any way excuse or justify what has occurred here." FBI and county police reports on the shooting -- which led to a public apology from Baltimore's top FBI agent -- "revealed serious breakdowns in planning, supervision and communication, which contributed to this incident," he said.

Weathersbee also noted that though not every mistake results in criminal liability, civil lawsuits still could follow.

None of those at the center of the shooting -- Braga, Schultz or Harkum -- would comment on the grand jury decision; they have been told by lawyers not to speak publicly about the case.

Braga's lawyer, Andrew C. White of Baltimore, said the grand jury reached the "obviously appropriate" conclusion.

"While Agent Braga feels terrible for Mr. Schultz and his family, we were very confident that once all of the facts came out that it would be clear that Agent Braga and his fellow agents acted appropriately," White said. "This would not have been a problem if the people inside the car had complied with orders and raised their hands, which they did not."

Schultz' uncle, Will Shelley, said, "We were hoping for the best. But we figured this would be a whitewash.

"It doesn't surprise me. But you'd think after the grand jury heard Joey's testimony they would have come back with a favorable result."

Krissy Harkum's mother, Diane Harkum, said she "would've liked to have seen something come out this. I mean, after all these kids have been through, even if it was only that this [agent] got a permanent desk job and couldn't carry a gun anymore, that would've been something.

"We're just disgusted by all of this."

In the bizarre mix-up, FBI agents were looking for Michael J. Blottenberger Jr., 32, the suspect in the robbery of a Pasadena bank branch Feb. 20. He is in jail on a federal bank robbery charge, and no other suspect has been publicly identified.

According to interviews with authorities and others involved, agents were working with an informant and expected Blottenberger to pull up to a 7-Eleven at Baltimore-Annapolis and Marley Neck boulevards, wearing a gray-white baseball cap. But he passed by in a red car, apparently spooked by seeing unmarked police cars.

The informant's cell phone died, but from the store, he relayed a message that Blottenberger was in a red Honda Civic with a female driver.

Meanwhile, Schultz, wearing a white baseball cap, got out of Harkum's red Pontiac Grand Am and walked into the store to buy a Slurpee. As he left, agents keyed in on him and followed Harkum's car. Minutes later, the shooting occurred.

Weathersbee, who is seeking re-election, said he took the case to the 23-member grand jury because the FBI and county investigation reports left open questions that he wanted answered under oath, and Braga had not spoken with county investigators.

Braga testified "without immunity and voluntarily for several hours" last Tuesday, Weathersbee said, characterizing parts of that testimony as "very emotional."

Before appearing in front of the grand jury, Braga told prosecutors that "the person he thought was an armed and dangerous bank robber who wasn't going back to jail and was possibly suicidal was going to injure someone because he moved," Weathersbee said. "Even in response to commands of `show me your hands' he couldn't see his hands."

Braga said he thought Schultz was moving, perhaps reaching for a gun, Weathersbee said.

That contrasts with previous reports that Schultz moved only to comply with agents' orders.

Schultz's lawyer, Arnold M. Weiner, would not discuss the details of the shooting.

But he faulted the FBI, saying an agency that has been apprehending bank robbers for more than 50 years should have handled this incident better. The agency, he added, should not sanction an agent who has shot two unarmed people in recent years.

Braga was one of three law enforcement officers involved in the fatal shooting of a murder suspect in Laurel in February 2000. The suspect had a loaded firearm nearby, and the shooting was ruled justified.

Schultz is being evaluated for more reconstructive facial surgery, his lawyer said.

The grand jury heard 15 hours of testimony last Tuesday, Friday and yesterday from 10 people: Schultz, Harkum, Braga, FBI agents and Anne Arundel County police.

Weathersbee acknowledged problems leading to the botched traffic stop.

For example, he said, "communications were horrible." FBI radios were "spotty at best," and only one FBI car had a county police radio, a situation he said "could lead to errors and misunderstanding. And it did."

FBI officials would not comment on the grand jury decision.

Braga, who took a brief voluntary leave after the shooting, has returned to duty.

But he still faces the possibility of federal criminal charges from a pending review by the Justice Department's civil rights division. He also faces the possibility of internal discipline, termed "highly unlikely" by White.

Sun staff writer Gail Gibson contributed to this article.

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