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Garden City man pleads guilty in shooting death of LI firefighter in upstate hunting accident

Charles Bruce, 52, who was killed in a

Charles Bruce, 52, who was killed in a hunting accident in upstate New York in 2013, was a member of the Malverne Fire Department. Credit: Malverne Fire Department

An eighth-grade teacher from Garden City who shot his friend to death after mistaking him for a deer while they hunted upstate has reached a plea deal that will likely keep him out of prison, officials said.

Robert R. Gerbino, 57, who taught at a Brooklyn middle school until being reassigned after the Nov. 16 shooting, entered his plea to one charge of criminally negligent homicide Monday in Otsego County Court, said his attorney, Richard A. Rothermel of Oneonta.

Otsego County prosecutors charged Gerbino after he fired a fatal shot from a .44-caliber rifle into the chest of Charles Bruce, 52, as the Malverne volunteer firefighter trudged through thick brush.

"This is just something I have to live with for the rest of my life," Gerbino said yesterday.

Since he does not have a criminal record, Gerbino is expected to receive a three-year conditional discharge for his conviction on the Class E felony, which carries a maximum 4-year sentence.

After his sentencing Nov. 17, Gerbino can appeal his conviction, Rothermel said.

Investigators found "no indication there was any intent" on the part of Gerbino, which spared him prison, Otsego County District Attorney John M. Muehl said Thursday. Drugs and alcohol were not factors in the shooting, Muehl said.

The deal with Muehl's office served as the culminating event in the nightmarish 10 months that followed the late-afternoon shooting on a large, heavily wooded stretch in the Otsego County Town of Westford.

"He lost one of his best friends," Rothermel said Thursday in a joint telephone interview with Gerbino. "The greatest loss is to his friend's family but there is also a huge loss to my client, and he'll never be the same."

The two friends, who both had been volunteer firefighters in Malverne at one point, joined other members of the Malverne Fire Department on the hunting trip to heavily wooded rolling hills in the Catskill Mountains.

Gerbino said he and Bruce had been friends for 17 years. The two men ventured into the woods in the predawn morning of Nov. 16, Gerbino said. He headed for a tree stand where he planned to lie in wait for deer. Bruce, who relatives said loved cowboy boots, country music and good cigars, intended to do the same but couldn't find his tree stand in the dark, Gerbino said.

Soon, Gerbino said he saw the glow of his friend's flashlight as Bruce cut through brush and headed his way. Gerbino said he warned his friend not to walk in the line of sight.

"You can't do that, Charles," Gerbino said he told Bruce during a break. "You can't walk that way."

They went back into the woods about 2 p.m.

Gerbino, who was in a tree stand shortly after 4 p.m., "said he thought he was shooting at a deer," when he fired at Bruce, standing 40 yards away, and hit him in the chest, Muehl said at the time of Gerbino's March indictment.

Thursday, Gerbino wouldn't discuss the details of the shooting.

"He went to his tree stand and I never saw him again," Gerbino said.

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