Hofstra University students mourned junior Andrea Rebello at the school's commencement Sunday as the campus tried to cope with her fatal shooting by a Nassau County police officer responding to an off-campus home invasion in which a gunman held her as a human shield.
Mortarboards with "RIP Andrea" were sprinkled among the more than 1,300 undergraduates and 8,000 audience members at two ceremonies Sunday. Graduates inside the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Center adorned their bright blue gowns with white ribbons to honor Rebello, 21, who was killed early Friday in a home about a block from campus.
The police officer, a 12-year veteran whose identity was withheld, fired eight rounds. Seven struck robbery suspect Dalton Smith, 30, of Hempstead, who had a long criminal record dating to his teenage years. One hit Rebello, of Tarrytown, who was majoring in public relations.
The standoff took place after Smith barged in when one resident left the door open while going into the house to get his keys to move his car, police said. Smith demanded money and jewelry, taking the four students hostage. He ordered one of them, a woman, to leave so she could draw money out of an ATM. After she left the house, she called 911.
Two officers responded; the second one saw hostages with the gunman as the first one took cover. Hostage negotiators were en route to the scene.
Smith held Rebello in a headlock with a 9-mm gun aimed at her head. The police officer fired at the suspect after he pointed the gun at the officer, police said.
Smith, who was wanted for violating parole, also died.
Nassau police released no new details of the shooting Sunday.
A law enforcement expert said the officers were faced with tough life-or-death decisions.
Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as a former NYPD cop and prosecutor in Queens and Brooklyn, said that in a situation like the Hofstra shooting, officers often are trained to avoid rushing into the home. Instead, they try to buy as much time as possible and call in a negotiator and a specialized unit, he said.
Cops are generally trained to "isolate and contain" the suspect by negotiating a peaceful conclusion, he said. "The ideal situation is everyone stays in one place and more skilled people come in to help," O'Donnell said. "Time is your friend, usually. Lack of time can be deadly. Once you're in the house that's generally a place you don't want cops to be. You're trying to take a breath and slow down the clock, rather than rush things."
Neighbors fear for safety
In the wake of the shooting, residents of the Uniondale neighborhood expressed concern about their safety, and noted that students who live off-campus sometimes leave themselves vulnerable by not locking doors. Hofstra public safety officials said students are sometimes targeted in crimes of "opportunity," and added that they planned to discuss additional safety measures for off-campus residents.
At the Rebello family home in Tarrytown, a steady stream of well-wishers arrived to console the family, including Andrea Rebello's identical twin sister, Jessica, who escaped the fatal robbery attempt at the house she shared with her sister and two others.
Natalie Santos, godmother to both sisters, said Jessica was "trying to hang in. She has her friends . . . Our faith keeps us going."
Santos said the family was focused on planning the funeral, and, "we're taking it day by day."
Asked about the fact that Andrea was killed by a police officer's bullet, Santos said: "All that matters is that she's gone."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Smith, who was paroled in February, should never have been back out on the street.
"The robber who ended up causing her death, causing the whole encounter, was obviously a repeat offender, and I have real questions as to why this robber was allowed to roam the streets, armed, preying on innocent college students," Schumer said. "Why wasn't he still in prison?"
Officials from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision didn't respond to interview requests Sunday.
At the graduation, Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz opened the ceremonies by offering condolences to Rebello's loved ones.
"You will hear in this commencement program lots of advice," said Rabinowitz. "Andrea's favorite bit of advice is not a bad start. It's from Bob Marley. 'Live the life you love,' said Andrea. 'Love the life you live.' "
Parents and relatives, some of whom traveled from across the country to attend, said the tragic event cast a pall over the end of the academic year.
'On everybody's mind'
"It is hard," said Regina Liantonio, 21, of Miller Place, who received a bachelor's degree in speech, language and hearing sciences. "It is what is on everybody's mind. I think the university is doing a good job of making sure we mourn and remember Andrea while celebrating our own achievements."
"Our love goes out to the entire family and we hope to do anything and everything for them," said Gurcharn Dadra, 21, who was graduating with a degree in actuarial sciences. "I don't believe that there's anything anybody can say to make this better."
California native Devin Gee, 21, who said he never felt unsafe around campus, said Rebello's killing raised questions about safety at the school.
"It's a real reality check," said Gee, who graduated with a degree in theater Sunday.
On California Avenue, outside the Uniondale home where the sisters lived, cars slowed as they passed by Sunday. A crew of workers from a crime scene cleaning company began the process of removing materials from the home.
Both sisters belonged to the Beta Sigma Phi sorority. Laura Ross Wingfield, a division director for the sorority, called Andrea's death tragic and said she would always be remembered.
"We are horrified that anyone, let alone a sister, was caught up in this and lost her life," Wingfield said.
In Sleepy Hollow, north of Tarrytown, about 100 parishioners gathered Sunday evening at St. Teresa of Avila Church for a Portuguese-language service that the Rebellos often attend.
Parishioners bowed their heads, some crying softly during the service.
"It's a small community where everybody knows everybody," Ribeiro said. "It's really, really sad."
The Rev. Osvaldo Franklin of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yonkers, who conducted the service at St. Teresa, earlier in the day had described the family as "devastated."
"Losing a kid so young is a tragedy," said Joe Alpine, of Tarrytown, who has been coming to St. Teresa for several years. "They seemed like a nice family. My heart goes out to them."
"It's horrible," Enrique Garza said outside the church Sunday morning. "I can't imagine how the family must feel. We're praying for them."
Jessica Rebello's boyfriend, John Kourtessis, who was in the Uniondale house with the sisters at the time of the shooting, visited the Rebello home in the afternoon. He did not speak to reporters, but his father, Anthony Kourtessis of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said his son was haunted by the shooting.
"He's really sad he couldn't save the other girl," said Kourtessis, 48.
Kourtessis said his son, 21, a finance major studying to be an accountant, had taken his last final Thursday.
"I'm waiting for him to have some time for himself to reflect his thoughts and to get over this incident," Kourtessis said.
With Kevin Deutsch, Scott Eidler, Deon J. Hampton, Lauren Harrison, Tania Lopez and Emily Ngo