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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Radio problems a troubling aspect of Rebello case

Hofstra student Andrea Rebello, 21, was accidentally shot

Hofstra student Andrea Rebello, 21, was accidentally shot and killed on May 17, 2013 by a Nassau police officer during an off-campus hostage standoff. Dalton Smith, 30, of Hempstead, was identified by Nassau County Police as the armed gunman also killed by police in the home invasion that resulted in Rebello's death. Credit: Handout / NCPD

Nassau police officer Nikolas Budimlic, cut off from fellow officers in a Uniondale house where an armed robber held hostages last May, reached for his radio.

At that point, he told investigators for Kathleen Rice, Nassau's district attorney, he had a partial view of a staircase where Dalton Smith, 30, of Hempstead, soon would show up with two hostages, including Andrea Rebello, 21, of Tarrytown.

The officer said he lowered the radio's volume in an attempt to hide his presence. And that he attempted to reach dispatch but was unsuccessful because of heavy radio traffic.

"He received a steady tone, indicating to him that his calls were not being transmitted," according to a report on the shooting that left Smith and his hostage dead.

At another point, Budimlic attempted to use the radio's emergency button, to have dispatch silence other radio traffic.

But he said his attempt at a 10-78 -- a call to clear channels, because an officer needs help -- failed, too.

Budimlic's description of failed attempts to use his police radio is covered in just four sentences of the district attorney's 28-page report on the shooting.

But those four sentences raise multiple questions about what happened that night.

Was Budimlic's radio working? Did dispatchers pick up any part of Budimlic's attempts to reach out?

If not, why not?

Why were police radio channels so clogged with traffic that the officer was not able to get a request for help through -- even as two other Nassau officers waited outside the closed door? At one point, one of those officers radioed for back up.

The report for the first time indicates that Nassau police knew early on -- from a 911 call made by a student the suspect coerced into retrieving $700 from an ATM, under the threat that others in the house would be harmed -- that they had a hostage situation. According to the report, officers were dispatched to a "robbery in progress."

The report offers up heart-wrenching details from an investigator's interview with Budimlic -- who says that Rebello "looked terrified and was crying," as Smith squeezed her in a headlock, while alternatively pointing a gun at her head and at the officer.

Yet the report notes only in one footnote -- No. 51 -- that bullet fragments taken from Smith and the mortal wound to Rebello's head were submitted but could not be examined microscopically because of their condition.

Another footnote, No. 53, says "It is unknown whether the bullet initially passed through the left forearm of Smith" before striking Rebello near her right ear.

In short, the question of whether the officer unintentionally hit Rebello directly, or whether his bullet traveled through Smith, was left unanswered.

On Wednesday, Nassau's police department and a spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano would not comment on Rice's report, citing pending civil litigation by Rebello's family.

Which meant no answers on whether police have reviewed policies on handling hostages, checked radios or evaluated the dispatch communications system.

James Carver, head of the police officers' union that represents Budimlic, said he had not yet read the complete report.

But when told about Budimlic's comments on his radio, Carver said he would look into it. "That's definitely a problem," he said.

Indeed, and in this tragic case, just one of them.

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