FBI shooting settled

Arundel man mistaken as robber in high-profile '02 case

Sun exclusive

July 07, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

More than five years after an FBI agent mistakenly shot an unarmed Anne Arundel County man, the federal government has agreed to pay the injured victim $1.3 million, according to sources familiar with the settlement agreement.

The planned payout will end one of the more alarming chapters in the recent history of the bureau's Baltimore field office. Veteran FBI agent Christopher R. Braga mistook the 20-year-old from Pasadena for a bank robber and shot him in the head using an M-4 assault rifle.

Court documents, interviews and testimony during the civil case showed that an extraordinary array of coincidences led to a near-fatal calamity for Joseph C. Schultz. FBI agents had been searching for a bank robber when they stopped the car being driven by Schultz's girlfriend, Kristen M. Harkum. Believing Schultz was reaching for a gun, Braga opened fire.

Schultz's jaw was shattered by the bullet during the March 1, 2002, shooting, but he survived and underwent reconstructive surgery to repair his face.

Harkum, 16 at the time, was sitting next to Schultz and was not struck by gunfire. She received a $350,000 settlement, sources said. Her lawyer confirmed that the case has been settled but declined to name the amount.

"This was a drawn-out and difficult process to get the government to acknowledge the grievous errors that were committed by the FBI," her attorney, Steven A. Allen, said yesterday. "Krissy Harkum was a young high school student when she was forced to endure a traumatic and terrifying event that no innocent child should have to experience."

Schultz's attorney, Arnold M. Weiner, acknowledged the agreement yesterday but provided no details.

Two sources familiar with Schultz's agreement, which is signed by all the parties, said the settlement is not complete because the Pasadena man has not been paid.

Weiner said: "This was an important case, and it was important that an innocent civilian's rights be vindicated."

Schultz and Harkum, no longer dating, still live in the area, but Harkum continues to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court records. Through their attorneys, they declined to comment.

In the agreements with both victims, the government does not admit to wrongdoing in the shooting, sources said. "This agreement is not, is in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of Christopher Braga, the FBI and United States," Schultz's agreement reads, according to a source who has a copy.

The settlements are not filed in U.S. District Court, because the overall case was dismissed by Judge J. Frederick Motz on June 15 after all of the parties committed to resolve the case without a trial.

FBI officials in Baltimore and Washington declined to discuss the details of the settlements, other than to confirm the resolution of the claims.

"This case has been settled. We will not discuss the amount," FBI spokesman Richard J. Kolko wrote in an e-mail yesterday.

Authorities have described the shooting as a singularly tragic case of mistaken identity: Schultz was at a store where agents expected to find the suspect, and his baseball cap and girlfriend's car loosely fit the description authorities had for the man wanted in connection with a Feb. 20, 2002, bank robbery.

The case prompted the bureau's top agent in Baltimore to apologize for the "unfortunate accident."

A grand jury in Anne Arundel County later cleared Braga of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting. But county investigators concluded that the FBI's hunt for the bank robber was hamstrung from the start by radio equipment that was faulty and outdated.

When asked about reforms possibly made after the botched traffic stop that led to the mistaken shooting, spokeswomen for the Maryland U.S. attorney's office and the FBI's Baltimore field office declined to comment yesterday.

An internal FBI probe and a separate Justice Department civil rights review of the incident also concluded that criminal charges should not be filed against Braga, according to a source who has been briefed on both documents.

Currently assigned to the FBI's New York City office, Braga did not return a voice-mail message left for him yesterday.

After the shooting, Schultz and Harkum each filed $10 million lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, arguing that their constitutional rights were violated.

In their lawsuits, Schultz and Harkum allege that the agents disregarded bureau arrest policies and then played down the potentially deadly results.

On the day of the shooting, FBI agents were looking for Michael J. Blottenberger, who was suspected of driving the getaway vehicle in the robbery of a Pasadena bank branch. The agents assumed that Blottenberger would be at a 7-Eleven convenience store, riding in a red car and wearing a white baseball cap because of information from an informant.

But the agents wrongly targeted Schultz, who had on a white cap, after he walked from the store carrying a Slurpee and a Mountain Dew and got into Harkum's red Pontiac Grand Am.

A few minutes later, two FBI vehicles forced the couple to the side of the road and four armed FBI agents approached the car.

Braga fired his M-4 rifle when Schultz moved to unlock his car door to comply with agents' orders. Braga said in court papers that he shot at Schultz when the man appeared to reach for his waist, believing that Schultz was grabbing for a weapon.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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