The shooting death of Trooper David C. Brinkerhoff was made all the more tragic Friday when State Police officials revealed they believe he was killed by friendly fire during an intense gunbattle earlier this week in a rural farmhouse in the foothills of the Catskills.
Brinkerhoff, who was raised in the Southtowns, was hit in the back of the head by a bullet from a gun used by one of his fellow members of the elite Mobile Response Team, according to preliminary findings of an internal investigation. The Hamburg High School graduate and six other troopers had stormed a house where a fugitive gunman, who already had shot another trooper, was holed up Wednesday.
"While it is clear something went wrong, nothing can ever detract from the bravery and dedication of the men who entered that house in Margaretville on Wednesday, April 25, 2007," said Preston Felton, acting superintendent of the State Police.
The somber news, revealed by autopsy and forensic evidence, shocked members of the State Police, who are preparing to bury Brinkerhoff on Wednesday. His was the latest in a string of trooper deaths over the past year.
Brinkerhoff's specially trained SWAT-like team entered a farmhouse early Wednesday after a burglar alarm was set off by Travis Trim, a fugitive who the day before shot a trooper during a routine traffic stop. Going room by room, Brinkerhoff and his team came upon Trim in a second-floor room.
State Police officials said Trim fired a small-caliber handgun, hitting Brinkerhoff in the chest, which was protected by an armored vest. Brinkerhoff fell back, likely on one knee, as fellow troopers came to his aid and began returning fire.
In the confusion and "tunnel vision" that police said often occurs in such firefights, Brinkerhoff was shot in the back of his head, a shot police now believe came from a fellow MRT member's gun. Brinkerhoff, who was wearing a Kevlar helmet, died later at a local hospital.
Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer said State Police officials are conducting a thorough examination of the shooting. "In the meantime, nothing should detract from Trooper Brinkerhoff's honor and dedication to duty, or that of his fellow MRT team members," Spitzer said in a statement. "When asked to confront a heavily armed man intent on causing harm to others, they acted decisively to protect the rest of the community."
The Police Benevolent Association of the New York State Troopers, in a statement, called the friendly fire death "a tragic accident and a terribly unfortunate result of the chaotic events."
The union also praised Felton for "being honest and forthcoming to the troopers' families, the PBA and the public regarding this issue."
Officials said Friday they believe Richard Mattson, a second officer shot during the search of the farmhouse, was struck in the left arm by a bullet fired from Trim's 30-30 rifle. Mattson is in Albany Medical Center in serious condition and is expected to recover from his injuries, officials said.
Brinkerhoff, who was assigned to a State Police barracks south of Albany, was felled by a .223 tactical round, Felton said. Officials don't know yet which member of the MRT fired the fatal round that killed the 29-year-old Brinkerhoff, who had a wife and a seven-month-old daughter. They also could not say if Brinkerhoff died from a direct hit or a ricochet.
Felton described the scene as "an intense firefight" in which two members of the team, including Brinkerhoff, first entered a second-floor room. They were met with a volley of bullets as Trim, carrying at least two weapons, moved about the room between different points of concealment.
In all, four MRT members ended up firing 69 rounds during the gunbattle. Officials did not say how many shots Trim fired.
Trim, a 23-year-old college dropout from northern New York who had several petty criminal offenses over the years, was likely killed "almost instantaneously" during the firefight, officials said.
Trim broke into the rural summer house as he tried to hide from a manhunt following Tuesday's shooting of another trooper, whose armor vest saved him from serious injury.
Wednesday's confrontation began sometime after 8:30 a.m., and soon more than 100 police surrounded the house.
Not knowing if Trim was alive or dead, police during the day tried to communicate with him and sent in a robot to locate him. At about 6 p.m., troopers raided the house. But a tear gas canister landed on a bed and within minutes, the house was engulfed in fire that consumed most of the structure.
Trim, officials said Friday, was struck three times -- once in the face and twice in the chest. His charred body was found Wednesday night, a "possibly cocked" rifle in his arms, Felton said.
"On April 25," Felton said, "Trooper David Brinkerhoff entered that house to defend the people of this state to keep them safe. He entered that house as a hero and he left that house as a hero and he will always be remembered as a hero by members of the New York State Police."
Brinkerhoff, whose wife, Barbara, is from the Albany area, will be buried Wednesday in a cemetery not far from his police barracks.