Ex-Pa. officer charged after jokingly pointing gun at colleague
By Pamela Lehman and Nicole Radzievich Of The Morning Call
After a two-month investigation, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said Wednesday the now retired Bethlehem police captain who allegedly held a loaded gun to another officer's neck must be prosecuted, overruling a decision by city officials not to pursue charges.
"This action is necessary in order to send home the message that the misuse of firearms is dangerous business even when engaged in by a police officer and even if done so in a joking manner," said Morganelli, who had been surprised to learn of the incident by reading a Morning Call column and went on to investigate it.
Then-Capt. William McLaughlin might have killed or seriously injured officer Keith Fryslin eight months ago at police headquarters when the captain put the muzzle of a .40-caliber Glock handgun to his neck, the district attorney said.
McLaughlin, 58, of Bethlehem was released on his own recognizance Wednesday after he was arraigned on a charge of reckless endangerment. The second-degree misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of two years and a $5,000 fine.
After noting the captain's "long and distinguished career as a police officer," Morganelli said he won't seek jail time for McLaughlin, who allegedly pointed a loaded gun at Fryslin not once but twice, swung a pocket knife at Fryslin's crotch and pointed an unloaded shotgun at the ceiling while screaming "See! I am not right!"
McLaughlin, who worked as a Bethlehem police officer for 261/2 years, is to undergo evaluations that could lead to a probationary sentence. Morganelli also noted that McLaughlin had been under medical care, including treatment for "intermittent symptoms of job-related stress," before the crime.
During a news conference in Easton, Morganelli said police officers carry firearms only to protect the public, and the misuse of that "privilege" cannot be ignored. He referred to the 2005 shooting of Easton police officer Jesse Sollman, who died after another officer shot him with a .40-caliber pistol in a gun-cleaning room.
"As we saw in the incident involving officer Sollman in the Easton Police Department, any type of accidental jarring, movement by officer Fryslin or inadvertent conduct on the part of Capt. McLaughlin could have resulted in a tragedy of monumental proportions," Morganelli said.
An officer who was in the room when McLaughlin pointed his gun at Fryslin recognized that possibility, court documents show. The officer told McLaughlin to put his weapon away, warning of the danger of "another Sollman incident."
A state grand jury investigated Sollman's shooting and recommended that officer Matthew Renninger be fired but not charged.
The gunplay Oct. 19 became public knowledge in April when someone anonymously tipped off Morning Call columnist Paul Carpenter, who then requested the specific report. Police gave it to Carpenter on the advice of the city solicitor.
City officials said they did not pursue charges against McLaughlin because Fryslin did not want to and McLaughlin agreed to retire. Police had written a report and classified it as "exceptional clearance," which is permitted when victims refuse to cooperate with prosecutions.
Morganelli, who was disturbed when he found out about the incident by reading Carpenter's column, described the city's decision as understandable but not appropriate. He said police departments should refer such cases to his office because the departments are too close to the situation.
"The investigation also established that there appeared to be no concerted effort or attempt to cover up the incident ," Morganelli said. "There is also absolutely no evidence that officer Fryslin was in anyway coerced or pressured not to pursue criminal charges against McLaughlin."
McLaughlin could not be reached for comment.
Court documents released Wednesday reveal more details than the report police released to The Morning Call in April. Several statements by Bethlehem officers on file at District Judge James Stocklas' office outline what happened shortly after 6:15 a.m. Oct. 19 in the house sergeant's room.
According to the documents:
Fryslin said he was talking with McLaughlin, Sgt. Edward Swartley, Sgt. Edward Repyneck Jr. and Lt. Thomas Craig about their shift and joking around. McLaughlin let out "what sounded to me as a roar," and Fryslin looked at the captain and said, "I hope to have your energy when I get to be your age."
"My age? What do you mean when you get to be my age?" McLaughlin laughed and then unholstered his loaded handgun and pointed it at Fryslin. His finger was outside the trigger guard.
Craig demanded McLaughlin put the gun away and he reholstered his weapon. That's when McLaughlin took out a pocket knife, opened it and made "two or three half-hearted" attempts to stab Fryslin "in the crotch" before folding the knife and putting it away.
Fryslin sat down at a desk to log off a computer and, out of the corner of his eye, saw McLaughlin approach from behind. McLaughlin took out his pistol, ejected the magazine and put the magazine back into the pistol. That's when Fryslin felt the gun's muzzle on his neck.
"I do not remember if he said anything, but I did see the look of shock on Lt. Craig's face and he was telling Capt. McLaughlin to put his weapon away and he needs to go home," according to Fryslin's statement.
Craig then made a reference to the Easton shooting of Sollman. "Lt. Craig said something like, "We did not need another Sollman incident,"' the statement reads.
As McLaughlin continued to hold the muzzle to Fryslin's neck, Craig told him two or three times to put the weapon away and go home. McLaughlin put the pistol in his holster and said, "Relax, my finger was not on the trigger and the weapon is on safe," and left the room.
(Morganelli said in a written statement: "The investigation has determined that despite McLaughlin's comment that the safety was on when he pressed his loaded gun against the back of the head of officer Fryslin, these types of guns do not have a safety.")
About two minutes later, Fryslin said, he heard another "roar" as McLaughlin ran down the hall back toward the sergeant's room. According to Craig's statement, McLaughlin was screaming, "See! I am not right!" McLaughlin was holding a department-issued Remington pump shotgun and wearing a green helmet used by Emergency Response Team officers. He held the unloaded weapon pointed at the ceiling.
Craig said he asked McLaughlin what was wrong with him and told him to go home. McLaughlin returned the items to the gun room and went into his office. Craig said he went into McLaughlin's office, and the captain had his head down on his desk.
"McLaughlin said he did not know what was wrong, but this was the dumbest thing he had ever done," Craig wrote.
Swartley's statement included his thoughts on the incident: "This surprised me because of it being against all fundamental firearm safety, even if done in a joking manner."
Morganelli said there was no animosity between the officers and McLaughlin had been known to "act out with his peers." But, Morganelli said, the crime of reckless endangerment does not require that McLaughlin had the intent to injure anyone, just that he showed a "conscious disregard" for that risk.
A lawyer for the city said the charge will not affect McLaughlin's pension. He retired at the salary of $60,760.
Bethlehem Police Commissioner Francis Donchez said McLaughlin was joking but showed "extremely poor judgment." He said the previously undisclosed details about McLaughlin displaying a knife and unloaded shotgun were not threats and the department did not try to cover up the incident.
"There are 146 guys in this department who knew about this," said Donchez, who is retiring to practice law and has been tapped to become special projects manager for the troubled Easton Police Department. "If anyone was covering it up, I'm not seeing where it was. Everyone knew why [McLaughlin] retired."
Mayor John Callahan did not return a phone call.
Reporter Matt Assad contributed to this story.
WHAT INVESTIGATION SHOWED
At 6:15 a.m. Oct. 19, Capt. William McLaughlin joins four police officers joking in house sergeant's room.
McLaughlin points his loaded handgun at officer Keith Fryslin, with his finger off the trigger.
McLaughlin takes a pocket knife out, makes a few "half-hearted" stabs at Fryslin and puts the knife away.
McLaughlin again takes out his pistol, checks the magazine and holds the gun to Fryslin's neck and again reholsters his weapon.
At 6:18 a.m., McLaughlin runs down the hallway toward sergeant's room wearing a helmet and pointing an unloaded shotgun at the ceiling.
Source: Court documents
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