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Nassau cops probe friendly-fire slaying

A photograph of slain Nassau County Police Officer

A photograph of slain Nassau County Police Officer Geoffrey Breitkopf and his son, Connor, is displayed in a memorial on the front of Rescue No. 4 at the Selden Fire Department. (March 13, 2011) Photo Credit: John Dunn

Nassau County Police are trying to unravel how a Metropolitan Transportation Authority officer mistakenly shot dead a Nassau cop after both lawmen went to aid officers who confronted a knife-wielding man in Massapequa Park.

The MTA officer killed Geoffrey J. Breitkopf, a 12-year department veteran, Saturday night as Breitkopf approached a home on Fourth Avenue in plain clothes, carrying a rifle at his side.

Roughly 10 minutes before, other officers there had shot and killed Anthony DiGeronimo, 21, a self-professed Satanist who had barricaded himself in a bedroom of the house, where he lived with his parents, before lunging at police with a large knife.

"This is obviously a tragedy of immense proportions for all of us," Nassau Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey said at a news conference Sunday. Mulvey said the MTA officer -- identified by people familiar with the investigation as Glenn Gentile -- likely thought "there was a danger afoot and misconstrued the circumstances." Criminal charges against the MTA officer were highly unlikely, Mulvey said.

Citing an active investigation, Mulvey declined to say whether Breitkopf, 40, wore any identification and if either he or the MTA cop identified themselves as police in the moments before the shooting.

What words were spoken, if any, would be "the 64,000-dollar question," he said.

Mulvey described the MTA officer as distraught. "I can only imagine what he's going through," he said.

MTA spokesman Sam Zambuto said the MTA officer is now on "sick leave." Arrangements have been made for Nassau police to interview him, Zambuto said, but it was not clear when.

Breitkopf was the second Nassau officer to die in the line of duty since Feb. 5, after a trucker slammed into Patrolman Michael J. Califano's parked vehicle on the Long Island Expressway. Califano was the first Nassau cop killed in the line of duty since 1993.

And Breitkopf, a member of the department's elite Bureau of Special Operations, was the first Nassau officer killed in a "friendly fire" shooting since 1976, officials said.

"He was doing what he does best, and that's protecting the people of Nassau County, when he was fatally injured," said Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, flanked by about a dozen BSO officers. "Geoffrey's ultimate sacrifice will not be forgotten."

The bloodshed Saturday followed a 911 call at 8:13 p.m.

A man -- later identified as DiGeronimo -- with his face masked and wearing dark clothing was roving Front Street and menacing residents. Police said he had knives in each hand, with more strapped to his body.

Theresa Kelly, who lives nearby, said DiGeronimo had jumped on her car hood as she backed out of her driveway. She screamed and DiGeronimo let out "a good laugh," she said. She followed DiGeronimo as he ran away, and then she called 911, alerting police to his location.

Two officers from Nassau's Seventh precinct responded and confronted DiGeronimo, who ran into the Fourth Avenue home just off Front Street that he shared with his parents. The officers ushered the couple outside as DiGeronimo holed up in a back bedroom.

After police had evacuated the home, Kelly said she heard a man shout to them, "Please don't shoot my son! Please don't shoot my son!"

For several minutes, police said DiGeronimo taunted the officers through the bedroom door. Then DiGeronimo, who Mulvey said was a "self-described anarchist . . . into Satanism," came out of the bedroom wielding a knife above his head and went at the officers, whose names were withheld, police said. One of them fired four times, the other three, killing DiGeronimo.

At almost the same moment or just after, according to police, two uniformed MTA officers who had been at the nearby Massapequa Park Long Island Rail Road station and heard of the confrontation on the Nassau police radio, arrived to offer backup. Nassau police were securing the scene.

Between eight and 13 minutes after the shooting, Breitkopf and another BSO officer drove up in an unmarked car.

Breitkopf retrieved a rifle and approached the house with the weapon at his side, Mulvey said. He was not holding the firearm in a poised-to-shoot position, he said.

The MTA officer, outside the home at the time, fired a single shot into Breitkopf's right side. He was pronounced dead at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow with his family present at 9:19 p.m.

Mulvey said the department would review its guidelines for how plainclothes officers identify themselves to their counterparts in uniform.

The department is in mourning for Breitkopf. "He was loved and highly regarded and respected," Mulvey said.

Mangano called Breitkopf a "true humanitarian" who was "dedicated to the safety and welfare of others."

Mangano has postponed his State of the County address scheduled for tonight, his spokesman Brian Nevin said.

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