perm_identity An Unexpected Afternoon Tragedy

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 187 ~ December, 2012

I was watching a football game, not much of one, with the Chicago Bears decimating the Minnesota Vikings, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving when I fell asleep on my living room couch at some point early in the third quarter.

It was a lazy, comfortable sleep, not that deep, when I was awakened by my downstairs neighbor, a disabled guy in his early forties who looks more like sixty and is always dressed in blue — jeans, a blue worksheet and generic blue baseball cap. He was more agitated than usual, flapping his arms, and speaking loudly, his words coming out ahead of his limited thought process.

“Yipes, a shooting!” he said with animation. “Look out the window, there must be fifteen cop cars and four ambulances.”

I was still half asleep, and hadn’t heard anything, so what he said didn’t completely register.

“Look out the window, look out the window,” he urged.

I live in a quiet town in northern New Jersey, a town where it seems not much has changed since before World War Two. My apartment is upstairs in a four apartment unit on a corner, one of the two intersections in town with a traffic light. The other three corners are occupied by a liquor store, a Chinese restaurant, and Korean gas station.

“I think cops were shot,” the downstairs guy insisted.

Possible, I thought, but highly unlikely.

“I’m not going out there,” the downstairs guy said, his grubby face pressed up against the window looking across at the gas station.

“Take it easy,” I said.

“What do you think happened?” he asked.

“I was asleep,” I answered.

“You didn’t hear the shots?”

No, I hadn’t heard anything, not even any developments in the football game.

“I’ll be back,” the downstairs guy said.

I was still much more tired than curious, so I remained on the couch, correctly guessing downstairs guy would be back within ten minutes at the most, which he was.

“There were three of them,” he said with excitement.

“Looks like they robbed the liquor store,” he continued. “A guy with a knife, a guy with a gun, and a getaway man.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.


“Who Told you that?”

The downstairs guy looked perplexed.

“I’ll be back,” he said, before rushing out the door and downstairs.

Still a couple minutes left in the fourth quarter, but the game was well out of reach.

I slowly eased myself off the couch and gingerly walked over to the window. Sure enough, there were five or six police cars converging from all directions, and two ambulances parked on the main street in front of the small row of stores.

True to his word, the downstairs guy was back within ten minutes.

“It was CVS,” he said. “Some guy robbed CVS.”

It was hard to imagine any store in town being robbed, much less on a Sunday afternoon.

“I’m not going out there,” the downstairs guy said. “Do you want to come outside with me?”

“Not really.”

“This is big,” he said.

“You don’t know what happened?” I reminded him.

He looked confused.

“I’ll be back,” he said.

I went to my computer and did a search, finding the first bit of tangible information, that a man with a knife had attempted to rob CVS and been shot by police on my street, about two blocks away.

Information began coming out slowly in bits, so by the end of the night, it was confirmed that the man with the knife had been confronted by four cops, three of whom opened fire when they felt threatened. Nobody was talking, but I couldn’t help wondering why three cops felt compelled to shoot and the fourth didn’t.

The next day I ventured out to the liquor store, which is owned by a member of the town’s City Council. The owner was somber, and not willing to say much. He knew the man who was killed, a fixture in the neighborhood who came into the liquor store on a regular basis.

Later that day, I saw the man’s photo in the newspaper and recognized him. I didn’t know him but had seem him about from time to time.  He was 47 and lived in town, a block away from CVS, with his mother. He obviously knew the town, knew the police station was some two blocks away from CVS. The entire episode made no sense.

Slowly, as more days passed, subsequent information came out, but really nothing too specific. It was obvious everyone was worried about legal ramifications, even innocent witnesses who gave comments to the local newspaper reporter on the scene. Not one of the four witnesses quoted in the second day article wanted to be identified, so, of course, none were.

The quotes from the men and women, who asked not to be identified, were all rather predictable and could have been made up by the reporter and it wouldn’t have made a difference. “I first thought it was firecrackers,” one said, and yet another said, “This is such a quiet town, nothing like this has ever happened here.”

Yet, it did, a guy was dead. I can’t pass judgment because I wasn’t there during the final confrontation. Who knows what degree of adrenaline, or fear, or whatever, was rushing through the cops as they faced an obviously disturbed man with a large knife. Still, one wonders why the cops didn’t aim for the man’s legs.

Apparently, a can of pepper spray was reportedly used by police in an attempt to subdue the robbery suspect, but to no avail. The police officers names have not been released and they have all retained authorities, which says a lot about the current culture in which we are living.

A couple days after the shooting it came out that the alleged robber suffered from a long history of mental illness, with relatives reportedly saying he was schizophrenic and bipolar. The man had been admitted to a psychiatric facility for a week for treatment within the past year.

The family, understandably is not talking, but they are in a state of shock. Mental illness is one thing, but there was no history of violence in the dead man’s past. In fact, most of the local store owners knew him because he frequently stopped in CVS to buy snacks and medication for his diabetes.

I know and get along with most of the folks who work at CVS, mostly students and a couple friendly grandmothers trying to make some extra money. The night of the shooting I was trying to remember who usually worked on Sunday afternoons and hoped whomever it was, he or she wasn’t too traumatized. Once behind the counter with the row of cash registers, one is trapped, there is only an exit at one end, the other blocked off, so if confronted by someone with a knife, all one could do is follow directions and hope no violence ensued.

Of course, since the knife wielding man was familiar with the area, it’s hard to believe he didn’t realize, even in an impaired state, that a quick call to 911 would have the police on the scene in less than a minute, which is indeed what happened.

The man’s grieving sister had no explanation, only saying her brother was not the kind of person she was seeing on the Internet and television, and hearing about on the radio. And in an age, when pretty much anyone can post comments on different blogs, a quick look at one and I had the opportunity to read a series of vile, ignorant comments which were incredibly vicious in their simplistic takes, which, of course, was not helpful to anyone.

News is transient, except for those directly involved, and the shooting has now faded into the past, no longer of significance or interest to most in the immediate area. I’m still trying to imagine how the family of the victim, and the cops involved and their respective families, and the employees at CVS must be feeling. I know the owner of the liquor store is in dual role, a responsible City Council member obligated to remain silent because of his fiduciary responsibility as an elected official in the town, yet on a personal level, disturbed and upset because he knew and liked the man who was killed, seeing him as a non-threatening fixture on the block.

Perhaps, the downstairs guy, with his literal take on life, summed up the entire unfortunate and unexpected episode with a preposterous pronouncement that was based in no discernible logic.

“I’m not going to CVS anymore,: he proclaimed.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it was robbed.”