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BYSTANDER HIT BY POLICE BULLET FIGHTS FOR LIFE

Amber Keller has always been high-energy, a young woman with plans.

The 20-year-old Cheektowaga resident was pursuing a career as a real estate agent and told friends she wanted to move to Arizona in September.

Keller was fighting for her life today, listed in critical condition with a bullet wound in her head.

The former Maryvale High School student was an innocent bystander caught in a gun battle Thursday morning between a Buffalo police officer and a felon on parole.

Police suspect one of at least four shots fired by the police officer, who was returning fire, struck Keller in the eye and passed through her head as she peered out of a window at a friend's house on Genesee.

Her friend, Christopher Milam, who was in his apartment with Keller, said everything happened so fast, but he didn't believe she was looking out the window.

"I was sitting on a reclining chair on the other side of the room. She was sitting on the couch next to the window. We both heard shots. We thought it was bullets, and we both dove," Milam said.

Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina described the actions by Officer Thomas P. English as justified.

"From our preliminary reports, the officer acted in accordance with the rules, and he had justifiable reason to believe that his life was in danger. He was out there doing his job," said Diina.

Police officials said English remains on duty and the Professional Standards Division, the department's internal affairs unit, was conducting an investigation.

Mario Pittman, 31, of Freund Street, the man with whom English reputedly exchanged fire, is in police custody.

Keller grew up on Clover Place in Cheektowaga, where she lives with her father, Richard.

She never sits still -- a bundle of energy, friends said. She got around town in her green Dodge Neon. She bowled Wednesday nights. She likes shopping, going to clubs and talking on the telephone with friends.

Angela Bauer, a close friend, said Keller recently got a tattoo -- the Chinese symbol for spirit and energy -- which she said describes Keller's personality.

Police believe this is what happened:

At about 2 a.m., Gregory Braswell of Wyoming Avenue was walking west on Genesee when Pittman confronted him and they exchanged words.

As Braswell walked away, Pittman fired multiple shots at him from a .38-caliber revolver. All missed.

English, a 10-year police veteran, was on routine patrol, driving east on Genesee when he spotted Pittman with a gun in his hand.

English ordered Pittman to drop the gun and shined the patrol car's headlights on him.

As English got out of the car, police said, Pittman fired at least three shots. English crouched behind his cruiser and fired about four times in return.

In the nearby living room, Keller was struck by a bullet.

"I looked over, and I saw blood," Milam said.

Friends said she underwent surgery Thursday evening in Erie County Medical Center, where about 30 family members and friends waited.

After dropping out of Maryvale High School at age 17, Keller earned a general equivalency diploma, friends said.

For several months, she had held a real estate job in Buffalo and recently finished a class needed to get a realtor's license, Bauer said.

Keller, who most recently was working at Macy's Place Pizzeria in Cheektowaga, told Charles Maciejewski, her boss, that she was planning to move to Arizona in September and pursue a job as a realtor.

In fact, Keller was scheduled to leave April 20 on a weeklong visit Arizona. "She's got her plane tickets," Bauer said.

Pittman, who was arrested after a brief foot chase, was charged with two counts of attempted murder, criminal possession of a weapon, resisting arrest, criminal possession of a controlled substance and obstructing governmental administration.

Pittman has been arrested 13 times -- mostly on gun possession charges. He was on parole at the time of his arrest, police said.

On Feb. 12 1998, Pittman was accused of pointing his gun at Officer Levino Johnson, who was investigating a report of a fight, and pulled the trigger. But the gun failed to discharge.

Officers said they found a .38-caliber gun in a Floss Avenue back yard and confiscated a bag containing an eighth of an ounce of crack cocaine, in his pants.

Police said he also had five rounds of ammunition.

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com
and jrey@buffnews.com

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