The Harrison police firearms instructor who shot a burglary suspect and a fellow officer in October fired his high-powered rifle accidentally while trying to put on the weapon’s safety as he approached the suspects’ car, according to a Westchester County police report obtained Thursday by The Journal News.
Lt. Vito Castellano, who tossed a stun grenade shortly before his gun went off, told investigators that he might have accidentally turned the safety off as he opened the passenger door of the police car with his left hand because he held the grenade in his right. He was standing to the right of the suspects’ car when he tried a “finger sweep” to re-engage the safety but accidentally pulled the trigger while the rifle was in full-automatic mode.
Several officers said they heard Castellano immediately indicate he had an accidental discharge after the bullets smashed two of the car’s windows and struck driver Daniel DiBiase and Harrison Detective Stephen Barone.
The shooting occurred about 6:40 p.m. Oct. 17 when police stopped the 1999 Chevrolet Trailblazer as it left eastbound Interstate 287 at Exit 10. The occupants, DiBiase, his brother, Paul DiBiase, and their sister’s fiance, Jason Foskey, were suspects in a string of home invasions and had been followed and wiretapped for weeks.
The report, compiled by Capt. Christopher Calabrese, was completed more than two months ago but not released until the District Attorney’s Office announced that prosecutors concurred that no criminal charges were warranted.
“This was an extremely high-stress felony stop that presented the police with the very real possibility of encountering violently armed suspects,” Calabrese wrote in his report. “Castellano’s pre-firing actions were in an effort to make the immediate situation safer and were not completed in a reckless manner.”
Calabrese suggested that Castellano’s being left-handed may have contributed to the gun going off because he had to try to move the selector switch — from auto to safe — with his trigger finger and not his thumb as right-handed people would.
According to the report, at least two bullets were fired, smashing the back passenger-side window of the car and ripping through the front passenger seat. One struck Daniel DiBiase, while fragments shattered the driver’s-side front window. One of the fragments cut through Barone’s raid jacket and lodged in the chest area of his protective vest.
Audio from a police car at the scene recorded Paul DiBiase twice saying, “You shot my brother.” Daniel DiBiase got out of the car after he was shot and was tackled by Barone and another officer. Barone was treated at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut and has not returned to work since the shooting.
Daniel DiBiase is planning a $5 million lawsuit against Harrison. He still has part of the bullet lodged in his chest. Harrison Police Chief Anthony Marraccini said he could not discuss specifics of the report because of the pending litigation.
Despite the shooting, “we were fortunate to have a successful investigation that led to what is now a federal prosecution of three longtime criminals who terrorized Westchester and other parts of the region,” Marraccini said.
The suspects, from Dutchess County, claimed they were heading to Westchester to shop, although they differed on the details. A search of the car turned up a loaded Glock .40-caliber handgun and two replica guns in the engine compartment.
The DiBiases and Foskey were initially charged in a pair of Harrison burglaries. Federal authorities took over the case and charged the three in burglaries in Bedford and New Canaan, Conn., though Foskey may be charged only as a co-conspirator for cooperating with prosecutors.
The DiBiases were part of the Sound Pirates crew, which targeted luxury waterfront homes in Rye and Connecticut in the late 1980s. Paul DiBiase, who also goes by the name Carmine Stanzione Jr., was the son of the getaway driver for the notorious Dinner Set Gang, which stole millions in the 1960s and ’70s from homes up and down the East Coast.
Harrison police were tracking the three after their car was observed leaving the scene of an Armonk burglary in September.
Although other departments had been involved in the investigation, only Harrison officers — 14 of them — took part in the traffic stop. Castellano was the ranking officer. He and two others began following the suspects on I-287 and stopped the car on the ramp.
Castellano told investigators that when he heard the “pop pop” of automatic gunfire and saw the window smash, he thought someone else had fired. But when he looked at the rifle and saw the safety still set at fully automatic, he realized he was the shooter.