By Daniel Tepfer
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Officer Juan Santiago looked up from his lap where a thin ribbon of smoke was rising from a hole in a cloth gun pouch, blood trickling from a corresponding hole in his left thigh.
"Why didn't you tell me the gun was loaded," he asked his breakfast mate, Detective Juan Gonzalez.
On Tuesday morning, the 56-year-old Santiago, a 29-year veteran of the police force, surrendered at the State Police barracks in Bethany, where he was charged with unlawful discharge of a firearm — a move many in the community said was long overdue.
The charge is a misdemeanor and Santiago was released on a promise to appear pending arraignment in state Superior Court here on Feb. 18. In the meantime, Santiago is on paid administrative duty. His lawyer, John R. Gulash, declined comment.
"First, I would like to say we are grateful that the officer is recovering from his injury," Bridgeport Police Chief Joseph L. Gaudett Jr. said. "We have said from the outset that we requested the state police handle the investigation so the public would have confidence that it would be fair and unbiased. The state police conducted a thorough investigation, consulted with the State's Attorney's Office and made a determination that we will respect."
The state police investigation also pointed out in the arrest warrant affidavit the things Bridgeport police did — and didn't do — in their own initial investigation.
For instance, while at St. Vincent's Medical Center after the shooting, police officers spoke to Santiago, but only discussed his well-being. They didn't discuss the incident, citing the fact he was on medication at the time.
Twenty days later, Santiago submitted a written memo to Bridgeport Police Capt. James Viadero on the shooting. Although Santiago states he unzipped the pouch and was holding the gun when it fired, the state police investigation determined the gun was fired through the pouch.
Police never recovered the bullet, the state police affidavit noted.
The shooting incident sparked two protests in front of Bridgeport police headquarters calling for Santiago to be charged. At the most recent event Feb. 4, the protesters demanded to know why Santiago hadn't been charged, while a man who accidentally fired his gun in his home on Jan. 28 had been arrested almost immediately.
The suspect in the January case, 23-year-old Kenneth Sullivan, of Midland Street, was charged with unlawful discharge of a firearm, second-degree reckless endangerment and criminal mischief in the third degree, all misdemeanors.
On Tuesday, organizers of the protests said they thought Santiago should face more charges.
"The officer who was in a public place was probably more reckless and probably endangered more people," said Palin Smith, who wondered why the officer hadn't been hit with the same charges as Sullivan.
"It's still not exactly fair and equal application, but at least it's something, finally," said Jonathan Hardy, a firearms instructor from Meriden.
On Dec. 17, police said Santiago was examining a handgun in the Bagel King restaurant when the gun went off, wounding him in the leg and shattering a window in the crowded restaurant.
Although Santiago was surrounded by fellow police officers at the time, he was not immediately arrested. Instead, after an initial investigation, Gaudett agreed to turn the case over to the state police, a decision that sparked much criticism especially in light of a recent arrest by city police of a resident who accidentally fired a gun while cleaning it.
Bridgeport police also got "memos" from the three other police officers who were with Santiago when the gun went off.
Following the morning lineup Dec. 17, the four officers, Sgt. James Remele, detectives Mark Graham and Juan Gonzalez and Santiago, went to Bagel King for breakfast while on duty, according to the warrant affidavit. Gonzalez carried the .45-caliber Beretta he had borrowed from Dr. Richard Lovanio, of Trumbull, in a zippered cloth pouch.
The officers sat down at a table adjacent to the outdoor patio area, and after placing their breakfast orders, Gonzalez set the pouch with the gun on the table in front of him. Santiago then grabbed the pouch and placed it in his lap to look at the gun.
"At this point, I looked away from P/O Santiago and I heard a loud bang," Gonzalez stated in his memo, according to the affidavit.
"Startled, I looked back to P/O Santiago and realized something was wrong with him. I went over to his side of the table and saw that he had shot his left leg. He stated, 'Why didn't you tell me the gun was loaded?' "
Gonzalez said he then took Santiago's duty weapon out of his holster and placed it on the table, and took his own gun and placed it on the table along with his cellphone and badge so he could use his belt as a tourniquet.
In his memo, Santiago states that after taking the pouch containing the gun from Gonzalez, he unzipped the pouch and took hold of the gun.
"I immediately pointed the firearm downward. In an attempt to make the weapon safe, I pulled the slide to the rear in order to check the chamber for any live rounds. As I did so, the slide slid forward. At this time, I observed that the hammer was pulled to the rear of the firearm. I placed my thumb on the hammer in (sic) attempt to safe guard the firearm, the hammer slipped from my thumb, hitting the firing pin, accidentally discharging the firearm. I was struck in my left thigh. I was transported to St. Vincent's Hospital for treatment."
The affidavit states that a state police firearms examiner determined there was no malfunction in the gun. "The firearm was discharged and appears to have been shot through the case, through Santiago's leg and then directly out the Bagel King's lower window," the affidavit states.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
It continues that Gonzalez confirmed that the gun was in the same position as the day he borrowed it from Lovanio and that there was not a round in the chamber.
Copyright 2014 the Connecticut Post