A state trooper raised in the Southtowns was killed Wednesday by a fugitive gunman, who shot two other troopers before apparently dying in a fire in a Catskill Mountain farmhouse surrounded dozens of heavily armed police.
Trooper David C. Brinkerhoff, 29, who was married and had a 7-month-old daughter, was slain when he and members of the State Police's elite Mobile Response Team were searching for Travis D. Trim, 23, a college dropout who allegedly shot a trooper the previous day during a routine traffic stop in this rural community.
After a nearly nine-hour standoff, the farmhouse erupted in flames Wednesday evening after troopers fired tear gas into the building. A badly charred body, holding a rifle, was recovered in a second-floor doorway.
Acting State Police Superintendent Preston L. Felton said there is a "possibility" the man had been shot. He also said that it was not the intent of troopers to set the house on fire.
Felton said it could take a day or two to identify the body and, while he would not say whether it was Trim, he does believe that it is the same person who shot two troopers in the house Wednesday morning.
"It's reasonable to say he had no intention of coming out of there alive," Felton said.
Brinkerhoff died in Margaretville Hospital shortly after he was shot in the head at least once at 8:45 a.m. when he went to search the farmhouse. Another member of the team,
Trooper Richard Mattson, was shot in the left arm and listed in serious but stable condition after surgery in Albany Medical Center, where he was flown by helicopter.
Tuesday, body armor saved Trooper Matthew Gombosi from serious wounds, police said. It was that shooting that touched off the search that led to Brinkerhoff's death.
"This is a tragic, tragic day for the State Police," Felton said just hours after the death of Brinkerhoff, a Hamburg High School graduate who grew up in the Town of Boston.
"Today the State of New York suffered a tremendous loss," Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer said after visiting Mattson and his family in the hospital. Also in the hospital room during an emotional visit was Donald Baker Jr., a trooper who was severely wounded last summer during the manhunt for Ralph "Bucky" Phillips in Chautauqua County.
Brinkerhoff is the second member of the Mobile Response Unit to be killed in less than a year; Joseph Longobardo, Baker's partner, was killed by Phillips in the woods of Chautauqua County.
Besides Longobardo and now Brinkerhoff, the State Police has suffered its largest string of deaths within its ranks in the history of the agency. In the last year, it also lost one trooper who was on leave from his state job as a Marine in Iraq; another was felled by a bank robber; and another died in a crash while pursuing a suspect.
Weapons teams spent most of a rainy day Wednesday surrounding the farmhouse where Trim was holed up, using special devices and a robot to conduct surveillance. "Every tool in our toolbox is available to us today," Felton said.
Troopers attempted to communicate with the man throughout the day, but he did not respond. About 6 p.m., the State Police made their move, sending tear gas into the house. Minutes later, the house burst into flames.
Tuesday afternoon, Gombosi had stopped Trim, who lives in St. Lawrence County, for driving a van with a missing license plate, according to Felton. Trim appeared disoriented and could produce no identification, authorities said. When Gombosi told him he was being arrested, Trim pulled out a gun, shot the trooper and fled, according to authorities.
Felton said Trim has no known felony convictions, but has been arrested in the past for petty larceny, criminal mischief and unlawfully dealing with a child, which reportedly dealt with providing alcohol to a minor. The Associated Press reported he dropped out of a motor sports performance and repair program at the State University of New York at Canton last fall.
After an all-night manhunt following Tuesday's shooting, a burglar alarm was tripped at a seasonal home in Arkville, a community near Margaretville.
Mobile Response Unit members, who led the hunt for Philips last summer in Western New York, responded "and were met with gunfire," Felton said. Brinkerhoff and Mattson were immediately struck. Felton said the police returned fire, possibly wounding the man they believed was Trim.
Police sources said that Brinkerhoff was shot in the face and that he was wearing a ballistics helmet. Brinkerhoff joined the State Police nearly nine years ago; he was assigned to the Troop F barracks in Coxsackie, located about 20 minutes south of Albany. He resided in Catskill with his wife, Barbara, officials said.
Brinkerhoff's family traveled to Margaretville on Wednesday afternoon.
In a late-night news conference, Felton said, "Brinkerhoff was an outstanding trooper, and we will miss him."
At the Capitol, pressure was already mounting on Assembly Democrats to revisit the death penalty, which was struck down in New York by the state's highest court in 2004 over its sentencing provisions that judges said swayed jurors to select capital punishment over life sentences.
Just four hours after Brinkerhoff was shot, death penalty advocates in the State Legislature were calling for a bill to legalize capital punishment for people convicted of killing police officers.
"We can send a message, a message of deterrence, a message that if you attack a police officer, it's bigger than that police officer. It's us, it's all of us, and you're going to pay the price for that violent act," said State Sen. John J. Bonacic, a Republican who represents the community where the troopers were shot. Republicans called on Spitzer to push his fellow Democrats who control the Assembly to pass the death penalty for cop killers.
But death penalty advocates say the killing of Brinkerhoff is only the latest in a disturbingly high number of police officers killed in the line of duty in New York in the last couple of years. Senate Republicans said 10 officers have been killed statewide in the last 16 months.
"It's easy to say I'm supportive," Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, said of Spitzer's death penalty support. In light of the rash of police killings, Bruno said, Spitzer needs to push the Assembly Democrats to pass a new death penalty bill -- which corrects the past legally flawed sentencing provisions -- that targets those who kill police officers.
"The governor could get this done if he has the will to get this done," Bruno said.
"Now is not the moment for that debate. There will be much time for that later," Spitzer told reporters later. Asked if the governor believes Bruno's comments Wednesday were inappropriate, Darren Dopp, a Spitzer spokesman, said, "I think you can deduce that from what he was saying."