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Haunted by his fatal decision
David D'Amico recalls the events that led to the tragic shooting of David W. Park

Editor's note: This is the first of two stories that deal with the use of deadly force by civilians.

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The events are like a recurring nightmare. David D'Amico has gone over the scenario in his head dozens of times since the morning when he shot and killed David W. Park.

Each time, D'Amico reaches the same conclusions -- that Park's death was a horrible tragedy and that he wishes it had never happened.

But it was not his fault, he says.

"I know that I did the best I could with the information I had at that moment," D'Amico said, standing a few feet from the spot in his home where he shot Park. "I gave David Park every opportunity to leave my home, or to explain himself. If he had just said to me, 'I'm sorry, I'm drunk, I walked into the wrong house,' he would still be alive today."

D'Amico, now 35, and Park, 31, were the central figures in a tragedy that caused pain and grief for one family, and emotional turmoil for another.

Shortly after 1 a.m. last March 28, D'Amico shot Park as an intruder in the D'Amico home on Millbrook Court in the Maplemere section of Amherst. After an Amherst police investigation, an Erie County grand jury found no cause for criminal charges against D'Amico.

Earlier this month, Park's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against D'Amico in state court, but the family abruptly withdrew the suit last week.

Hours after the lawsuit was withdrawn, D'Amico and his wife, Julie, spoke to a Buffalo News reporter for nearly three hours. They said they want to put the tragedy behind them, especially with their first baby due in the next couple of weeks.

But they said they also wanted the public to hear their story. They were upset by lawsuit papers that had accused D'Amico of "willful, intentional, malicious" conduct.

D'Amico said he shot Park -- an Albany school teacher whom D'Amico had never met -- because he feared that Park was armed and intended to cause harm to him or his wife. Police said Park, who was intoxicated, entered the D'Amico home after leaving a party at a home next door.

"I was mostly concerned for Julie," said D'Amico, an executive with a local construction and engineering firm. "I did not know if [Park] was armed, or if he had other people with him. I've never been so scared in my life."

D'Amico said he had no way of knowing, until much later, that Park was an award-winning school teacher. To D'Amico that morning, Park was "an intruder, a burglar, a criminal" who illegally entered his home and refused to leave.

"At that time, I had no way of knowing if he was some kind of psychotic or stone cold killer," D'Amico said.

Step by step, D'Amico took a reporter and photographer through his home and gave his version of the events.

>A noisy intruder

The D'Amicos said they had gone to bed in their upstairs bedroom about 10 p.m. As usual, their dog Jack, a yellow Labrador retriever, slept on the bed with them.

Around 1 a.m., Jack suddenly stood up in the bed and began to bark, which was highly unusual behavior for the dog. D'Amico and his wife awoke, and D'Amico went downstairs to try to find out what startled the dog.

Still a bit groggy, the homeowner looked around the living room, the kitchen and the family room, all on the first floor. He saw or heard nothing unusual. At that time, he did not check the dining room, which faced the backyard and had a door leading out to a wooden deck.

D'Amico went back upstairs, but almost immediately, he and his wife heard noises that made them certain someone was downstairs. It sounded like someone bumped into some chairs in the dining room, and possibly opened and closed a folding closet door in the family room.

"Call 911," D'Amico told his wife, and he grabbed and loaded his shotgun, a weapon he used for turkey hunting but kept in a bedroom closet for protection.

"At this point, we knew someone was downstairs, and from all the noise, it sounded like it could be more than one person," D'Amico recalled. "Julie was on the phone with 911, and I started yelling that I had a gun and that he needed to leave our house immediately."

D'Amico did not go back downstairs. He said he yelled down from the doorway of his bedroom "over and over again, as loud as I could yell."

Soon after that, D'Amico said he heard the "loud, slow and deliberate" footsteps of someone moving around downstairs. From the sounds, he could tell that someone was moving toward the stairway that leads up to the bedroom.

As D'Amico held his 20-gauge shotgun loaded with birdshot and looked downstairs, a stranger's face -- Park's -- came into view, peering up from the living room, just off to the right of the stairway.

"I was crouched down with my gun, making myself as small a target as possible, and there was this man, just staring up at me," D'Amico recalled. "I yelled at him, 'Show me your hands so I can see that you don't have a weapon.' [Park] didn't say anything. He just stared up at me with this totally blank look on his face."

With his wife still on the phone with an Amherst police dispatcher, but police not yet present, D'Amico said he made a decision.

"I told myself, if this guy takes one more step toward coming up these stairs, I'm going to shoot," he said.

According to D'Amico, the still silent Park took a step toward the landing leading up to the stairs. D'Amico fired one shot, hitting Park in the upper body.

Park fell out of view, landing in the living room.

>Police arrive

Amherst Police officers arrived about two minutes later.

Their dispatcher told Julie D'Amico that the house was locked, and D'Amico yelled, "Tell them to break down the door and come in!"

"These officers came bursting into our house, and I give them credit for their bravery. They had no way of knowing if there was an armed man waiting for them," D'Amico said. "When I saw all these officers, I was never so happy to be paying Amherst taxes for police protection."

D'Amico put his gun down on the floor, held his hands up in the air and told the officers what happened. He told them he and his wife would not come downstairs until they had fully searched the house and made sure there were no other intruders.

Finding Park on the floor, police called for an ambulance. Emergency medical technicians tried to help Park, but later he was pronounced dead at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

Later that morning, a relative of the D'Amicos who is a police detective called attorney Thomas H. Burton, a former cop who has represented many police officers who have shot criminal suspects.

After talking to the D'Amicos, Burton said he told the couple to cooperate completely in the investigation. Later, he accompanied D'Amico as he spoke to a grand jury about what had happened.

"My one position throughout this whole thing has been to tell the truth, exactly as it happened," D'Amico said, "and I think the grand jury saw that."

The D'Amicos said they feel deep sympathy for Park and his family, but they wish they knew why Park entered their home, and why he acted so strangely that night.

According to the couple, Park's behavior went far beyond that of a drunken man who wandered into the wrong home by mistake.

"We have a six-foot privacy fence all around our backyard, and from what the police told me, they believe [Park] climbed over that fence to get into our yard," D'Amico said. "The police found a hat and a beer can next to the fence."

After getting into the backyard, Park had to walk up onto the deck, open and close the gate to the deck, and then open a screen door and a heavy door made of glass and wood to get into the dining room. The D'Amicos said they had mistakenly failed to lock the door after grilling some food on the deck three days earlier.

"When he came into our house, he closed both doors behind him," D'Amico said of Park. "Then, when I went downstairs after Jack started barking, he must have stayed perfectly still and quiet in the dining room while I was looking around."

>Living with the memory

A day or two after the shooting, the D'Amicos learned for the first time from a newspaper story that Park was not a known burglar with a criminal record, but a highly respected and beloved school teacher in Albany.

"Finding out that he was a teacher was not the part that upset me," D'Amico said. "What upset me was finding out that he had been at a 'diaper party' next-door. All I could think of was, 'Did I shoot a guy who was about to become a father?' "

The D'Amicos learned that Park had been attending the "diaper party" in honor of an old friend whose wife was expecting a baby.

An avid pheasant hunter since boyhood, D'Amico said he sometimes lectures young hunters on gun safety. He said he never pointed a gun at a human being until the incident last March.

Someday, the D'Amicos said, they would be willing to sit down with Park's widow, Deanna Ripstein, and talk about what happened that morning.

"Dave and I have been through a lot of emotions through all this It has not been easy," said Julie D'Amico, who -- like Park -- is an elementary school teacher. "For weeks after it happened, I would go to sleep sitting up in bed, with my glasses on, so I could call 911 if I had to Some nights, I couldn't sleep.

"But Dave and I have had each other's help to get through this," she added. "[Ripstein] has lost her husband."

Sitting in the family room of their immaculately clean home, the D'Amicos said they would like to thank the Amherst police and people in their community for helping them through a difficult time.

"The Amherst police were professional and caring at all times," Julie D'Amico said. "And people in this neighborhood have been very kind to us. There have been times when I was out walking the dog, and neighbors would stop me and hug me."

Although he said he is certain he did the right thing in the circumstances he faced, D'Amico has worried at times that God would be angry with him for killing Park. He has talked to his priest about it.

He said his pastor told him not to blame himself, that he only reacted to a situation that was beyond his control.

"I'm not living in the past," D'Amico said. "We have our first baby on the way. It's time for Julie and I to move on with our lives."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com