Delays by the St. Lawrence County Probation Department in issuing an arrest warrant for a fugitive did not play a role in the 2007 shooting death of New York State Trooper David Brinkerhoff, a state appellate court ruled Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Brinkerhoff’s family in August, claimed county officials were negligent when they allowed 23-year-old fugitive Travis Trim to remain free despite multiple probation violations over a 20-month period leading up to his fatal standoff with state police. But by a unanimous decision, the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found Brinkerhoff died while trying to apprehend a man who had shot a fellow trooper, rather than trying to arrest Trim on a probation violation.
“Brinkerhoff, as a member of the response team, was assigned to participate in the search for Trim, not because a warrant on the probation violation existed for Trim’s arrest or that he was a probation violator, but because Trim had shot and attempted to seriously injure another police officer,” the ruling states. “Absent some evidence of a special duty owed by [St. Lawrence County] to Brinkerhoff, in addition to the general duty owed by [St. Lawrence County] to the public at large, liability premised … on these facts, cannot be said to exist.”
Moshe Horn, an attorney representing widow Barbara Brinkerhoff, was dismayed by the decision but unsure whether it would be appealed. He said the Probation Department was clearly at fault for not reining in Trim after numerous violations.
“This guy should have never been out on the loose,” he said Thursday.
Prior to the shooting, Trim was on probation for a petty larceny conviction in St. Lawrence County. He was later charged with buying alcohol for three underage friends but was not cited by the Probation Department.
Trim was later found to have marijuana in his dormitory room at the State University of New York at Canton, a charge that prompted the Probation Department to obtain a warrant for his arrest in December 2006. But the department never forwarded the warrant to any police agency and failed to register it with a statewide database, as prescribed by state Division of Probation regulations.
In April 2007, Trim was stopped for a minor traffic infraction in the Delaware County village of Margaretville, when he pulled out a .22-caliber handgun and shot Trooper Matt Gombosi in the torso. Though Gombosi’s kevlar vest prevented him from being seriously injured, the shooting touched off a massive manhunt for Trim, who sought refuge in a rural farmhouse nearby.
Brinkerhoff, a former Bethlehem resident and member of the state police Mobile Response Team, was among six troopers who stormed the farmhouse. When a gunfight erupted with Trim, the team fired nearly 80 shots at him.
A state police report later credited Brinkerhoff for firing a shot that struck Trim in the head, killing him in a second-floor bedroom of the home. But shortly after firing the fatal shot, Brinkerhoff was accidentally struck in the back of his head by a shot fired by a fellow trooper.
An investigation into the standoff and the subsequent 46-page report released by the state police found no wrongdoing in Brinkerhoff’s tragic death.
The lawsuit sought unspecified damages against St. Lawrence County. However, a notice of claim filed in February 2008 indicated the family was seeking $100 million.
The case was initially dismissed in April 2009 after a state Supreme Court judge decided the county’s failure to arrest Trim didn’t even indirectly cause Brinkerhoff’s death. Likewise, the appellate court found that even if Trim was taken into custody by the Probation Department, he could have been released without incarceration.
“We note that had the warrant been executed and Trim been taken into custody, a court — upon finding that he had violated probation — could have, in its discretion, continued him on probation or sentenced him to a period of incarceration,” the ruling states.
Categories: Schenectady County