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Acting on his instincts, a sheriff’s deputy prevented a tragedy

When the shooting started, Joseph L. Tortorella didn’t have much time to think. Just react.

He knew the gunman had already shot someone inside a home on Errick Road in Wheatfield – he could hear a woman’s screams – and the gunman was now trying to kill him. All that stood between the shooter and the Niagara County sheriff’s deputy was a tree, maybe 2 feet in diameter.

And behind the deputy was a school full of children and teachers, including the deputy’s son, daughter and wife.

One of the gunman’s bullets already had struck Tortorella in the chest, but his bulletproof vest saved him.

And the gunman’s bullets kept coming. Now only one thought raced through Tortorella’s head.

“I wasn’t going to let this guy kill me,” Tortorella said. “All I could think about was my family and the people inside the school. I wanted to win for my family.”

The gunman, Duane A. Bores Jr., had nothing to lose. The 25-year-old already had shot his mother and father in the back of their necks, though Tortorella was only aware that someone inside the house was screaming in agony. Whatever had happened, he wasn’t about to let the gunman near an elementary school.

When the shooting was over – the two had exchanged 15 rounds – the gunman was dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and Tortorella was credited with saving three lives, possibly more.

The story of what happened two weeks ago, on April 17, illustrates how a routine call can become a terrifying life-or-death situation in just seconds, and how one deputy not only survived but protected many others around him.

Tortorella had just finished lunch on his Friday patrol in Wheatfield when the dispatcher radioed him at 12:14 p.m. and asked him to investigate a 911 hang-up call on Errick Road.

Tortorella had been on calls like this before. Usually, it was a child playing with the phone. A parent typically would answer the door, and Tortorella would explain that someone had called the emergency number. The parent would bring the child to the door, and Tortorella would say that calling 911 for no reason was wrong. Case closed.

But when he arrived at the ranch house at 6871 Errick Road and repeatedly knocked at the front door, no one answered. Tortorella called dispatch for more information and was informed that a male had just awoken and would be at the door in a minute or two.

Tortorella noticed an exterior surveillance camera. It made him slightly uneasy, but at last someone came to the front door.

“What’s up?” Tortorella asked the young man.

“Hang on. I’ll be right back,” the young man responded and then shut the door. But before the door shut, Tortorella heard a woman’s loud scream.

“It wasn’t like she was screaming for help. She was screaming like she was dying,” Tortorella said.

The deputy called dispatch again using the shoulder microphone of his radio and asked the dispatcher if anyone else was in the house.

It was believed there was only one occupant, came the response.

Tortorella knew better and requested backup. Feeling vulnerable, with a large front window at the house, he moved back from the door.

“Have 22 step it up, dispatch,” he radioed.

Lt. Cory T. Diez was on his way. So were other deputies and investigators in the area.

Tortorella moved toward his patrol car in the driveway beside the house. Just as he passed a front corner of the one-story home, he spotted the young man coming from the rear of the house.

More alarms went off in Tortorella’s head. The young man’s hands were covered in blood.

The 43-year-old deputy drew his 45-caliber Glock handgun.

“What’s going on?” Tortorella asked.

“I don’t know,” the young man responded.

Tortorella told him to get on his knees.

The young man complied and Tortorella, his gun trained on the man, continued with the questions, trying to find out what was wrong.

“What’s happened in the house?”

The young man wasn’t saying.

“What’s all over your hands?”

“It’s just (expletive), man,” he responded.

“Do you have any weapons on you?”

“I don’t know, man.”

That refusal to answer was all Tortorella needed to hear.

“If you reach for a gun or weapon, I’m going to shoot you,” he said.

“If you do, shoot me in the (expletive) head,” the young man responded.

Tortorella ordered the young man to lie face-down on the ground. A surveillance video later revealed he had two handguns in the back pockets of his pants.

“I wasn’t comfortable. He made a movement toward his side and pulled out a black handgun from the back of his pants. That’s when I shot him three times. He grunted and fell back a little bit and stood up and started shooting and ran behind the patrol car,” Tortorella said.

The deputy’s shots struck the young man in the stomach, back and leg.

Tortorella looked for cover and ran behind a tree with a trunk that was about 2 feet in diameter.

“As I’m running for cover, I felt like I’d been hit in the left rib cage. There were a number of shots. I was behind the tree and the bark was just flying,” Tortorella said.

From behind the tree, Tortorella radioed dispatch and ordered Errick Road Elementary School into a lockdown. The school playground and parking lot rolled up to the back and side yards at the house.

The gunman man was now using the patrol car as a cover, shooting over the roof, but moving toward the vehicle’s trunk to get a better shot at the deputy, according to authorities, who later viewed video from five surveillance cameras outside the residence. The cameras had been installed by the Bores family following some criminal mischief incidents.

“He’d fire and I’d fire,” Tortorella said. “I knew my magazine was running low, so I put in a new one.”

A magazine contains 14 bullets.

The shooter, who was familiar with firearms from his training with the Air National Guard, headed away from the patrol car toward the backyard.

A lucky break

A day earlier, Tortorella recalled, the school playground had been filled with children. But on this day it had rained, and no children were out playing. That was a break.

But Tortorella worried the gunman might head to the school. A woman had been screaming inside the house and the young man had opened fire on the deputy; Tortorella worried that schoolchildren might be his next target.

The deputy circled away from the front of the house and onto school property, taking cover behind a long white fence and a car in the school parking lot. If the gunman headed toward the school, he would have to go through Tortorella.

Inside the sealed school, children and teachers could hear the gunfire.

Tortorella’s 9-year-old son had at first thought the noise was someone hitting hockey pucks, but with the lockdown in progress, the boy realized something was wrong. In one of the classrooms nearest to the shootout, he started praying for his father.

Erica Tortorella, who was in the school that morning, was texting her husband.

“Why aren’t you calling me?” she asked.

Backup arrives

While the shootout was going on, Diez arrived.

“He asked me if I was hit. I said I wasn’t sure,” Tortorella said.

The deputy’s attention was fixed determining if the gunman was on the move. There were three windows on the side of the house, facing the school. The shooter could easily take aim from any one, Tortorella thought.

As more backup arrived, dispatchers Lisa M. DiFrancesco and Melissa A. Steen had an open phone line with Duane A. Bores Sr. and Cynthia A. Bores, who were in the house. They couple gave information to the dispatchers, who relayed it to the deputies outside the house. The dispatchers also urged the wounded couple to make their way out of the house, but their bullet wounds were severe, and they were only able to crawl from the kitchen to the foyer near the front door.

“Shhhh, I think he’s coming in the house,” Cynthia Bores said at one point.

Soon after, she heard something. “I think he shot himself,” she said.

Tortorella radioed to the other deputies that he had not heard a gunshot. Tortorella’s mind raced through different scenarios. Among the worst was that the young man was inside the house with a gun to head of the woman, instructing her to say he had shot himself and that he would ambush police when they entered.

Yet with two wounded people in the house, time was of the essence. The couple could die.

Niagara County Chief Deputy Steven C. Preisch, who was monitoring the different radio transmissions, gave the order to assemble a team and enter the house.

Criminal Investigator Brett D. Thompson, a former SWAT team member, organized the entry team. Taking his 2-foot-by-3-foot ballistic shield from his car, he moved toward the front door with Deputy Nathan S. Shumaker on his right and Deputy Scott D. Milleville on his left. Behind them were Criminal Investigator Jeffrey P. Pytlik; Deputy Franklin J. Peplowski Jr., a SWAT team member; and K-9 Deputy Sean M. Furey with his German shepherd, Vedder.

Profuse bleeding

Not knowing if they were going to be sprayed with gunfire, they opened the front door and found the woman lying on the floor in front of them yelling. The man was beside her on a small bench. Both were bleeding profusely.

“Where is he?” Thompson asked.

“He’s in the kitchen,” Cynthia Bores said.

Twelve feet away, Thompson spotted the legs of the shooter on the kitchen floor. They weren’t moving.

The team made its way into the kitchen. The young man was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Beside him was a 45-caliber handgun. On the table sat a 9 mm Glock, the one he used to shoot Tortorella.

“I’ll cover him,” Thompson said.

Pytlik said he and others then fanned out and searched the rest of the house, determining no one else was there.

Furey remained at the door, trying to calm the distraught woman.

“I asked her where she and her husband had been hit. She said, ‘Don’t worry about me. Take care of my husband.’ ”

Medical help arrived quickly.

“We have two dispatchers who live on Errick Road: Sherrie L. Reischel, who’s also a paramedic, and Travis S. Leaderstorf. They provided first aid, along with the other first responders,” Sheriff James R. Voutour said.

Tortorella wanted to go inside the house, but he was asked to stay outside as a growing number of deputies, along with Capt. Kristen M. Neubauer, chief of the county sheriff’s detective bureau; state troopers, North Tonawanda police and officers from surrounding towns arrived at the scene.

“One of our guys asked me if I was OK, and I looked down at my vest and one of my Taser cartridges had been blown off the vest,” he said.

The recently issued vest included a holstered Taser on the left side with a spare cartridge. The bullet that hit Tortorella’s chest had struck the spare Taser cartridge, absorbing some of the energy.

“They took my vest from me and found the round in the vest,” Tortorella said.

Increasing concern

At the still-locked-down school, Erica Tortorella’s concern for her husband was increasing.

Voutour called her phone.

“I told her Joey was OK. Erica kept saying, ‘Tell me the truth,’ ” Voutour said. “I had to keep assuring her he was OK.”

But it wasn’t until Tortorella’s wife of 12 years was allowed to go out of the school into the parking lot and see her husband with her own eyes that she knew he had survived.

The husband and wife embraced in an emotional hug.

“Once she saw me, she settled down,” Tortorella said. “Erica had only been about a hundred feet away from the shootout.”

Tortorella was taken to Eastern Niagara Hospital in Lockport for an exam, and by 5:30 p.m. he was home in Wheatfield.

In recounting the encounter late last week in the company of Voutour and the criminal investigators and deputies who had entered the house, Tortorella downplayed his actions, saying it was a team effort.

The others, though, credited Tortorella.

“This is about Joe. We had the security of being with other guys, with each other, when we went into the house,” Shumaker said.

Voutour put it plainly. Deputy Tortorella was a hero. He had saved at least three lives – the parents, whom the sheriff said were moments away from bleeding out, and his own life, by adhering to the “reality-based training” he and other deputies receive several times a year in a program headed by Deputy Tony Goupil, who creates real-life scenarios deputies work their way through.

“In one word, it was textbook. Joey did everything right. Because he continued to engage this shooter, the shooter quit. Through his actions, you can attribute his own safety, that of the responding officers and that of the victims who were saved,” Voutour said. “With the school sitting right there, we don’t know what could have happened, but Joey put himself between that school and the shooter.”

Duane Bores Sr., 58, and Cynthia Bores, 55, remain in stable but critical condition at Erie County Medical Center. Voutour hopes they “will be able to shed some light in the future” on the events of April 17.

Their son was a six-year member of the 107th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. His father is a retired air technician from the 107th.

A long wait

It took one week for Niagara County District Attorney Michael J. Violante to rule that the deputy had acted properly and that the case would not be presented to a grand jury, but that still was a long time for Tortorella. “You have to go through the legal process, and Tom Burton called me every day to see if I was doing OK,” Tortorella said, referring to the local attorney who represents police officers.

For Tortorella, the time after the shootout was an emotional period, and he credited his relatives and the Sheriff’s Office staff for supporting him.

For now, Tortorella is taking some time off from work.

“It will be at Joe’s own pace. He’ll come back when he is comfortable,” Voutour said.

email: Monday: Widow of one slain officer shares the need to wear protective vests.