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Violent death of teacher rife with 'whys'
Shooting inside a home perplexes all concerned

In Albany, educators and students are mourning the shooting death of a popular, award-winning elementary school teacher.

In Amherst, police are trying to determine how and why it happened.

In a bizarre case that has touched off debate about using guns for home protection, 31-year-old David A. Park was fatally shot Sunday after he entered a stranger's home at about 1 a.m.

Park was a fifth-grade teacher at Arbor Hill Elementary School in Albany, where his peers gave him a Founders Day Award last year for excellence in the classroom.

"We are deeply saddened by this tragic news," said Albany School Superintendent Raymond Colucciello. "David Park was a loved and respected teacher with a strong commitment to his students and their families."

No charges have been filed against the homeowner, identified by multiple sources as David D'Amico. The man told police that he thought Park was a burglar. He said he repeatedly warned Park that he was armed and told him to leave the premises.

A blast from D'Amico's hunting rifle killed Park at the foot of a staircase leading toward the bedroom where D'Amico and his wife had been sleeping.

As the investigation enters its third day, Amherst police and the Erie County district attorney's office are looking for answers to some perplexing questions:

*Why did Park go into the D'Amico home early Sunday?

*If D'Amico warned Park that he was armed and ordered him to leave, why didn't Park comply?

*Was D'Amico within his legal rights to shoot him?

"I don't know if we'll ever know why [Park] went into the house," Amherst Assistant Police Chief Timothy M. Green said Monday. "Maybe another person we can talk to will have an idea what went on."

An Erie County grand jury is expected to examine the case, and authorities are waiting for the results of toxicology tests to determine whether Park was intoxicated when he entered the home.

The fatal shooting took place on Millbrook Court, in a normally quiet neighborhood of well-tended homes in the Maplemere section of Amherst. Town property records indicate that D'Amico and his wife, Julie, have owned the home since February 2008, when they bought it for $160,000.

According to his sister, Park and his wife were in Amherst to attend a party for two close friends who are expecting a baby. His sister said that it is her understanding that the party was at a Millbrook Court home close to the D'Amico residence.

His family believes that Park had left the party for a while to go outside and then mistakenly entered the wrong home.

Green declined to comment when asked whether it was possible that Park was intoxicated. He said he had not heard about speculation that Park could have been sleepwalking when he entered the D'Amico home.

"I don't know what his motivation was for being in that house," the assistant chief said. "It's our job to get the facts, by talking to people and doing the crime scene investigation. Until we get autopsy reports and toxicology results, we're not going to know what was going on with David Park."

Police have not yet determined whether the shooting was justified under the law, authorities said.

Park was unarmed and entered the house through a rear door, according to sources close to the case. Thomas H. Burton, attorney for the couple in the home, and police declined to say whether the door had been left unlocked.

Burton described the death as a horrible tragedy, but not one for which David D'Amico should be criminally charged.

Under state law, a homeowner who has fear that his home is being burglarized has the legal right to shoot an intruder, Burton said.

"This was a tragedy all the way around. My clients are continuing to cooperate fully with the Amherst police, and will cooperate with the district attorney," Burton said. "This is a rare case under penal law where I want the authorities to know every detail of what happened."

Burton said the Millbrook Court couple were "sound asleep" when they heard an intruder enter early Sunday.

While the woman called 911 to report the intruder to police, her husband grabbed his gun and repeatedly yelled out to the intruder that he was armed, ordering him to get out, Burton said. "Under state law," he said, "a homeowner who has an intruder coming into his home has the right to defend his property."

His clients had never met Park before and had no idea who he was when he entered their home, Burton said.

Park's sister, Stephanie Garcia Galagarza, told The Buffalo News that her brother was attending a "diaper party" on Millbrook Court on Saturday night to celebrate with a friend whose wife is expecting a baby.

She said that she does not know why Park left the party and then entered the D'Amico home but that she is certain he had no criminal intent.

"I can't say I am angry at the man who shot David, or that I hate him," Park's sister said. "I understand that a person would be scared if someone came into their home, but I don't think shooting somebody solves anything. Why couldn't this person just fire a warning shot?"

Stephen J. Aldstadt and Harold W. "Budd" Schroeder, officials of the Erie County chapter of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, or SCOPE, said their group supports the rights of individuals to defend themselves in their own homes.

"From my impression of the case, he was doing simply what he thought he had to do to protect his family," Aldstadt said.

Schroeder, board chairman of SCOPE, said, "One of the basic human rights is the right to self-defense, whether you're an amoeba or a person. It's a God-given right, affirmed under the Constitution."

Peter Hamm, a Washington spokesman for a gun-control organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said, "We see cases like this several times a year, sometimes involving people who accidentally shoot their own spouse, their son or daughter," Hamm said. "It is likely that the individual who shot this teacher acted in a way that he feels was appropriate, but he may struggle with this emotionally for the rest of his life."

Garcia Galagarza, who is also a teacher in Albany, said her brother was a graduate of Geneseo State College. She described him as an intelligent, fun-loving man who loved working with kids, including as a Little League baseball coach.

"David loved teaching children -- he lived and breathed it," she said. "He loved life, and it was abruptly and unfairly taken away from him by a tragic accident."

Neighbors who live in and near Millbrook Court told The News that they were shocked.

"I did notice that there was a party [on Millbrook Court]. There were a lot of cars parked in the neighborhood," said Niya Massop, 30, a teacher who lives nearby. "When I first heard about the shooting, I thought maybe there had been some kind of fight or argument at the party."

Violence is rare in the neighborhood, Massop and other residents said, although several mentioned another disturbing incident that took place a few blocks away in February 2006.

In that incident, dentist Joseph D. Matteliano, 64, was found fatally stabbed in his home on Kim Circle. A Buffalo teenager who knew Matteliano later pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the case.

"The sleepy little neighborhood woke up to that incident on Kim Circle," said a neighbor who declined to give her name, "and now we woke up to this."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com

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