01/01/2007

Off-duty N.Y. officer shot and wounded by escaping bank robber

By Cara Buckley
Copyright 2007 The New York Times

New York, N.Y. -- An off-duty police officer was injured in a shootout Saturday after two masked men who had just robbed a bank tried to commandeer his car, triggering a spirited foot chase on a crowded Queens street, the police said.

The officer, John Lopez, was hit in the leg and was reported in stable condition in the intensive care unit at Elmhurst Hospital Center yesterday afternoon. One of the suspects was shot in the abdomen and leg by the officer and was in critical but stable condition at the same hospital, the police said.

The police yesterday arrested Joseph Pennington, 43, the wounded man, and Dion Mines, 35. They were expected to be charged with assault, robbery and criminal possession of a weapon, the police said.

“I felt like it was cops and robbers from the wild, wild West,” said Mindy Erdman, 56, one of the many witnesses who scurried for cover after hearing shots fired along a busy Elmhurst thoroughfare.

The events unfolded about 12:20 p.m., when two men wearing ski masks entered the HSBC Bank at 87-03 Queens Boulevard, the police and witnesses said.

One bank customer, who would give only her first name, Jamie, said she had just made a deposit with a teller and had turned back to ask for her balance when she spotted one of the men. “He said, ‘Don’t move,’ ” she said, adding that he was holding a gun at this side.

The man then tersely addressed the teller. “He said, ‘Give me all your money,’ ” she recalled.

Pale and trembling, the teller pushed bundles of $50 and $100 bills under the plexiglass divider, Jamie said, and the man placed the money into a navy gym bag. A second man, also in a ski mask, then yelled, “Let’s go!” Jamie said.

As soon as the men walked out, Jamie said, the bank’s automatic gates went down. A bank teller called 911, the police said.

Once outside, the men, still masked, crossed 55th Avenue and tried to carjack a woman, who quickly drove away, according to Raymond W. Kelly, the police commissioner. The pair then approached a second car. Inside were Officer Lopez, his mother-in-law, his wife and their 4-month-old boy. They had been shopping for a birthday cake for Officer Lopez, from the 23rd Precinct, who had just turned 37, the police said.

One of the men tried to open the passenger-side door, while the second man rapped on the driver’s window with a gun, ordering Mr. Lopez out, the police said

Mr. Lopez then identified himself as a police officer, jumped out of the car, gun in hand, and began chasing one of the suspects north on 55th Avenue, Mr. Kelly said.

Witnesses described a panicked scene. Ms. Erdman, who had just eaten at the Georgia Diner opposite the bank, said she had just stepped onto the street when she heard shots. A tall, lean man was chasing a tall, husky man wearing a ski mask and clutching a bag, she said, and they were darting among pedestrians who were diving for cover.

One of the men was firing as he ran and hit Officer Lopez in the thigh, the police said. Officer Lopez fired back, hitting the man twice, the police said. The suspect fell, dropping a .380-caliber pistol. Officer Lopez, bleeding, caught up with him and pinned him until backup officers arrived, the police said.

The second suspect, Mr. Mines, was found hiding under a car in the parking lot behind the Georgia Diner, Mr. Kelly said. Both men were arrested and $15,000 was recovered, the police said.

Both men are suspects in two bank robberies in that area this month, Mr. Kelly said. Mr. Pennington has been arrested 16 times on charges including 20 felonies, Mr. Kelly said, while Mr. Mines just this year finished a 15-year prison sentence for manslaughter.

At a news conference late yesterday at the hospital, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg praised Officer Lopez for going “beyond the call of duty.”

“These two career criminals ran into the wrong guy,” he said.

Ann Farmer and Stephen Heyman contributed reporting.

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