February 9, 2006
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
George M. Gutierrez for The New York Times
|A police motorcade Wednesday escorted an ambulance leaving St. Barnabas Hospital with the body of Officer Eric Hernandez, who was 24.|
It is a hard-to-fathom chain of events: a rookie police officer, assaulted at a White Castle restaurant in the Bronx, is shot three times by a fellow officer responding to a 911 call. Given little chance of surviving, the young officer defies the odds and keeps living.
For 11 days.
Yesterday, at St. Barnabas Hospital, the painful episode reached a sorrowful moment: the officer, Eric Hernandez, died despite intense efforts to save him. After being told that a CAT scan showed he was brain dead, relatives decided to take him off life support machines, a hospital official said.
Officer Hernandez died at 1:03 p.m., 18 days shy of his 25th birthday.
The death was the darkest chapter in a case that has dealt a blow to the New York Police Department as it investigates one of the most disturbing instances of deadly mistaken identity in its history.
Officers from the 52nd Precinct in the Bronx, where Officer Hernandez worked a 4 p.m.-to-midnight patrol, kept a constant vigil at the hospital, and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly visited his bedside nearly every day after he was shot early on the morning of Jan. 28.
"This has been a roller-coaster ride for them," said the department's deputy chief chaplain, the Rev. Robert Romano, referring to the officer's family. "One day he was doing well, then three steps back.
"A miracle here, a miracle there, and then this."
Minutes after Officer Hernandez died, members of the department's Emergency Services Unit arrived on the fifth floor of the hospital to take his body away. The somber scene evoked the grief of a police force that has lost four officers in the line of duty since November.
As Officer Hernandez's body was wheeled out of his room on a gurney, officers both in and out of uniform, many from the 52nd Precinct, lined each side of the hallway. They stood at attention and saluted. Officer Hernandez's parents followed behind.
One officer said it seemed as if the hospital stood still for a moment. On the first floor, other officers lined a hallway and a ramp that led to an ambulance outside.
"This is not supposed to happen," said Sgt. Thomas Black, who took part in the fifth-floor salute. "He was very young."
Detective Ed Gardner, the general manager of the department's football team, on which Officer Hernandez was a star running back, left the hospital yesterday, his face grave. He carried, of all things, a trophy. It was the golden, football-shaped prize the team won at last year's national championship in Philadelphia. "That's the trophy," he said, "we kept by his bed."
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly announced Officer Hernandez's death in a joint statement. "Officer Hernandez was a young and vibrant police officer dedicated to serving the people of New York City," the mayor said in the statement. "His death weighs heavily on our hearts and minds."
Officer Hernandez, who joined the force in July 2004, had put up a valiant struggle, Commissioner Kelly said in the statement. The officer required more than 300 pints of blood, and last week doctors amputated his right leg at the knee. "He fought courageously to the very end, and he will be missed by us all," he said.
As if to underscore the unusual way the officer's death unfolded over such a long period, neither the commissioner nor the mayor made the announcement at the hospital, as they often do when an officer dies. But they were there in the chaotic hours after he was shot.
In the days that followed the shooting, the commissioner and other police officials went over a security videotape of the attack on Officer Hernandez in the moments before the shooting and said they had been revolted by the ferocity of the assault. The officer, fresh from his night shift in the Bronx and an off-duty swing through at least one local bar, was assaulted by a group of men inside a White Castle restaurant on Webster Avenue in the Bronx.
At least one witness told the police that the confrontation started when someone in the group ridiculed the officer, who was in street clothes, saying he should buy them sodas.
In the parking lot outside, he pulled his gun on a man he believed to be one of his attackers, and one of the officers responding to a 911 call, Officer Alfredo Toro, 43, shot him three times after he failed to drop his weapon. A question raised by the videotape was how the blows and kicks he suffered may have damaged Officer Hernandez physically, but the fact that he had been drinking that night raised other questions.
Police officials were anxious to learn the results of an autopsy on Officer Hernandez to determine whether the findings might result in greater criminal charges against the suspects.
Six men have been arrested in the beating. The Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, said in a statement that a grand jury hearing evidence in the case had been set to conclude on Friday, but that its term had been extended as the authorities awaited the autopsy results.
Mark J. Heller, an attorney for a man who the police say was involved in the attack, Edwin Rivera, 25, said his client was saddened by the officer's death but maintained that he had acted in self-defense. "He does not consider himself responsible, and I think a jury will agree," he said.
Yesterday, fellow officers and friends recalled Officer Hernandez, who lived in White Plains and spent part of his youth in central New Jersey. He was, they said, a hard worker eager to score touchdowns and make the streets of the Bronx a little safer.
"He gave it his all, just like he fought through this," said Odain Mitchell, 25, who played football with him at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., from which Officer Hernandez graduated with a business degree.
Officer Louis Segarra returned to the red-brick 52nd Precinct station house yesterday from the hospital, wearing his dress-blue uniform, a black cloth covering his badge. Black and purple bunting hung on the station door. "It's like losing a family member," said Officer Segarra, who fondly recalled the times he and Officer Hernandez lifted weights together at the precinct's gym.
Another officer in the 52nd Precinct, who declined to give his name, said he and other officers had no animosity toward Officer Toro, a 20-year veteran of the force. The officer, who lives in Orange County, has not spoken publicly about the shooting, and again chose not to yesterday.
Reporting for this article was contributed by Al Baker, Kareem Fahim, Janon Fisher, Andrew Jacobs, Nate Schweber and Jeremy Smerd.