Justice still reviewing FBI shooting of motorist

1 year later, man mistaken for robber tries to recover

March 01, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

One year after an FBI agent mistook an unarmed Pasadena man for a suspected bank robber and shot him in the face, the U.S. Department of Justice has yet to conclude its review of the incident and civil lawsuits remain a possibility.

The legal maneuvering surrounds the events of March 1 last year, when Joseph C. Schultz was shot in the right jaw by Special Agent Christopher Braga after agents pulled over a car carrying Schultz and his girlfriend outside a 7-Eleven convenience store. Agents mistook Schultz, then 20, for a 32-year-old bank robbery suspect who was to have been lured to the store by an informant.

Since then, Schultz, who was unemployed and uninsured, has run up thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills for recovery and reconstructive surgery, according to his lawyer, Arnold M. Weiner.

"He is doing better, but he is still experiencing medical problems and he is still under care," Weiner said of Schultz, who suffered a shattered jaw. "They've completed the first round of reconstructive work, and we are hopeful that further work may not be necessary."

He said Schultz, who has since landed a job repairing water coolers, "is still suffering the effects of the severe trauma," including nightmares and pain.

He and Krissy Harkum, 17, are no longer dating but remain close friends, Weiner said.

"She has recurring thoughts and memories about this," said Harkum's lawyer, Steven A. Allen. "She never should have been placed in this position by the FBI."

Through their lawyers, Schultz and Harkum declined to comment. Their attorneys would not discuss possible lawsuits, but during the past year, they have been gathering information on the incident.

The shooting has so far been the subject of a Justice Department review and two local probes. The FBI forwarded its report to the civil rights division of the Justice Department, where a review is pending.

Braga, 36, who briefly went on leave after the shooting, was reassigned from a SWAT unit. He remains based in Calverton, and was one of two agents who signed an affidavit filed in October with weapons charges, since dropped, against sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad.

"He is fully assigned as a regular agent. He is just not on a squad that would involve violent crime or a fugitive task force," said FBI spokesman Barry Maddox.

The spokesman said he cannot say more about Braga or issues surrounding the incident, such as whether the FBI has changed procedures, policies or agent training in the aftermath of the shooting, because the outcome of the federal probe is pending and because of potential litigation.

Maddox stressed, however, that the reassignment "is not a punishment."

"Whenever an agent is involved in a shooting, depending on the circumstances, they are put on a squad that is not likely to involve the use of a firearm," Maddox said.

He said Braga's assignment might be re-evaluated by the FBI's Baltimore office and by headquarters after the Justice Department completes its review.

This was the second time Braga had been involved in a shooting. He was one of three law enforcement officers involved in the February 2000 death of fugitive Donald Lee Thompson Jr., who was wanted in a West Virginia killing. The Justice Department ruled that shooting was justified, FBI officials said. Braga's lawyer, Andrew C. White, said his client was "back at work and doing his job," and declined to comment further.

After hearing 15 hours of testimony, including from Braga, an Anne Arundel County grand jury decided in July against indicting Braga on criminal charges.

But county police, in a 128-page report, described the incident as troubling. Braga did not speak with police investigators.

According to the police report and interviews with authorities and others involved, agents working with an informant expected the bank robbery suspect to pull up to a 7-Eleven at Baltimore-Annapolis and Marley Neck boulevards, wearing a gray-and-white baseball cap.

The informant's cell phone died. From the store, he relayed a message that the suspect was in a red Honda Civic with a female driver. FBI agents were having radio transmission problems. The bank robbery suspect circled in a red car, saw unmarked police cars and left unnoticed by agents.

Meanwhile, Schultz, wearing a white baseball cap, got out of Harkum's red Pontiac Grand Am, went into the store and bought a frozen drink. Agents focused on him. They followed Harkum's car, and then pulled it over. Minutes later, Braga shot Schultz through the glass.

Many details - including whether agents who thought the car held a potentially armed suspect shouted conflicting orders to the two young people inside and Schultz's movements - are in dispute.

Anne Arundel County police and prosecutors said they have not changed operations as a result of reviewing the shooting.

Michael J. Blottenberger Jr., 33, the suspect sought by the FBI on March 1 last year, pleaded guilty to federal bank robbery charges in September. He is awaiting sentencing.

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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