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Harris gets up to life in shooting of two officers

A troubled youth who shot two police officers last year told a judge Monday that he wished he could have that day back.

Varner Harris Jr., 19, was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison. Just before, in a barely audible voice, he said he wanted to apologize for shooting Officers Patricia A. Parete and Carl E. Andolina last December as they responded to a call about a fight at a downtown gas station.

"I'd like to say I am sorry for what I've done," Harris told State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang, as members of his family wept in the courtroom and Buffalo police officers looked on.

After Wolfgang sentenced him to a minimum of 30 years, Harris then appeared before Erie County Judge Michael L. D'Amico. The judge added another 1 1/3 to four years to his sentence for violating his robbery probation by shooting Parete and Andolina.

Harris' attorney, Paul Gordon Dell, told Wolfgang that Harris has apologized a number of times since the Dec. 6 shooting, and truly feels anguish for what he did.

"As he's been led to court, he could be heard mumbling, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' " Dell told the judge.

"In the end," Dell continued, "Varner knows he's the last person in the world who should have been carrying a loaded gun."

But he was carrying the gun last Dec. 6, while on probation for an earlier armed robbery of a pizza deliveryman.

Dell described Harris as borderline mentally retarded and said he had been hospitalized in the past for suicide attempts.

As Harris begins what Wolfgang said she hoped would be the "last of his natural days" in prison, his two victims, his family, and the Buffalo Police Department must deal with the aftermath of the shootings.

Parete was left a quadriplegic by one of Harris' bullets, which hit her in the chin and continued on to her spine. A second shot was caught by her bulletproof vest. She recently returned to Buffalo with her life partner, Maryellen Opalinski, after spending nine months in a West Orange, N.J., rehabilitation center.

Andolina, a bear of a man at 6 foot 7 inches and more than 300 pounds, was shot three times as he wrestled Harris to the ground.

A bullet that hit Andolina's neck did the most damage, but he too was spared further trauma by his bulletproof vest. The television series America's Most Wanted named Andolina its hero of the year in May for continuing to subdue Harris after he was shot.

Parete and Andolina, both 42, joined the department at the same time in 2001, were both laid off the following year during a budget crisis, and then returned to the department.

"I guess the sentence pales in comparison to the suffering Patty is going through," Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson said. "But I am very pleased that Judge Wolfgang recommended he never be placed on parole."

Parete, one of 138 women on the 708-member police department, is the first female officer to be shot on duty in Buffalo.

"Buffalo police officers just aren't shot," said Chief Donna Berry of the downtown B District, a friend of both Parete and Andolina. "It's unfortunate in this case that two police officers were shot."

"Patty has a life sentence," Berry added.

John P. King, a retired Buffalo police lieutenant and a friend of Parete who has been helping out since her shooting, said Parete wants to put all this behind her.

"She wants to get on with her rehabilitation," King said.

"In Patty's mind, she's going to walk again," said King. "I absolutely never want her to give up that thought."

Parete and Andolina remain on injured-on-duty status, still drawing pay as they recover. Andolina's rehabilitation was sidelined for a while when he was injured in a motorcycle accident months after the shooting.

Andolina is expected to return to duty, but Parete eventually will be placed on disability leave, Gipson said.

"I am very thankful that violence against police officers is not as rampant in the City of Buffalo as in many larger cities," the police commissioner said.

"We're fortunate here, but injuring one officer is one too many. We don't want to see this happening to any of our officers, particularly an injury like this that's catastrophic," he said.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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