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Pizza man, faced withgunman, 15, fires first Two other youths remain at large

The silver handgun was pointed at his face, some 5 or 6 feet away.

Pizza deliveryman Keith Backstrom had a quick decision to make.

"I scrutinized the gun, because I wanted to see if it was real," Backstrom said later. "It was too dark to tell, and it came down to him or me.

"So I made it him, rather than me," Backstrom added.

That's what happened in a split second, at about 9:45 p.m. Thursday, when Buffalo police say the 51-year-old Backstrom shot and wounded the 15-year-old gunman, thus foiling an armed robbery attempt.

The deliveryman, who works for Tomatoes Pizza on Kensington Avenue, walked up to a vacant house in the 400 block of Dartmouth Avenue and was confronted by the three would-be robbers.

Backstrom, who agreed to only a brief phone interview, did take issue with initial reports that he shot the gunman twice and that he shot him in the back.

"I shot him once, and it was in the shoulder, not the back," he said.

Backstrom declined further comment on the shooting.

Following the shooting, the wounded teen fled to Shirley Avenue, one block to the north, where he reportedly lives. Someone at the residence called 911 and the teen was taken from there to Erie County Medical Center by ambulance. Police caught up with the youth at the hospital.

The other two youths who tried to rob the deliveryman remained at large late Friday.

No charges have been lodged against the deliveryman, and the original police report states that he "did lawfully use" his handgun in fighting off the three would-be robbers. Police said Backstrom has a legal permit for the gun.

"At least initially, there haven't been any charges filed against him, but the department is still in the initial stages of the investigation," Buffalo police spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said Friday.

Thursday night's shooting once again underscored the tremendous risks of being a delivery person.

"What's the most dangerous job in the U.S.?" Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark asked Friday. "Pizza deliveryman. That's a fact. It's a hazardous profession."

And you don't have to look any farther than Buffalo to make that point. In March, city police issued a warning after at least nine food-delivery drivers were robbed in the first three weeks of that month.

Backstrom works for the same pizza shop where another deliveryman, Michael J. Sutfin, was fatally wounded during a robbery on New Year's Eve in 1992.

Sutfin, on his first day at a job he took to save some money for graduate school, was shot when he walked into Tomatoes to pick up an order.

Backstrom talked about the risks that any delivery person faces.

"You get on a porch, you ring the bell, and you have to look everywhere," he said.

Are most delivery people armed?

"I think they should be," he said. "It's just not a safe situation out there. With all the drugs, they're doing what they have to do, to get their money to buy drugs."

The shooting raised the issue of whether the deliveryman should be charged.

Clark pointed out that New York's penal law allows people to use potentially deadly force if they have a reasonable belief that someone may use such force against them. The law also allows such force against someone committing or attempting to commit a robbery.

So, based on the initial police report, both of those situations seemed to exist.

The only issue for law-enforcement officials concerned the initial report that the 15-year-old was shot in the back, raising the issue that he could have been fleeing when the deliveryman pulled out his gun. If that were the case, it could be argued that the robbery attempt was over and that the deliveryman no longer was in danger of being harmed.

Backstrom's comments, though, seem to indicate that that wasn't the case.

"These are tough calls," Clark said. "If it's a close call, the common man's sympathy almost always is with the person who's defending himself."

Late Friday afternoon, the 15-year-old was charged as an adult with first-degree attempted robbery, weapons possession and menacing, police said. Police did not say whether they have recovered the robber's weapon.

After being released from the hospital and then arraigned, the teen was sent to the Erie County Detention Center for juveniles, police said.

Under New York State law, 15-year-olds may be tried as adults for certain specified crimes, including the most serious assault, kidnapping, rape and robbery cases.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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