SP reveals internal review on Brinkerhoff case

By Brian Sweeney
An internal investigation by the New York State Police has cleared all troopers of any wrongdoing in the accidental death of Trooper David Brinkerhoff in an April 2007 gunfight at a Margaretville farmhouse. The classified report was obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Law.
During a gun battle with fugitive Travis Trim, Trooper Brinkerhoff was killed by a shot to the back of the head from fellow Trooper Norville Yearwood. The troopers, part of an Elite Mobile Response Team, had stormed the farmhouse in search of Trim.
The previous afternoon, Trim had shot Trooper Matthew Gombosi during at traffic stop at the Margaretville Country Store. The trooper was not seriously injured because his protective vest warded off the .22-caliber bullet.
Trim fled the scene, ditching his van off Searles Road, Margaretville and then reportedly spent the night in a barn on Route 30. The following morning, a motion sensor in the adjacent farmhouse alerted police to Trim’s presence in the house.
The firefight that left Trim and Trooper Brinkerhoff dead occurred around 8 a.m. on April 25. Police were unaware at that time that Trim was killed in the incident. After a daylong standoff, police fired tear gas into the house and stormed the building. The tear gas caused a fire and the vintage farmhouse was engulfed in flames within minutes.
The destruction of the house made a re-enactment of the shooting difficult.
The State Police report reveals that Trooper Brink-erhoff may have unknowingly placed himself in the line of fire when he raised his head just as Trooper Yearwood, standing behind him, fired a shot at Trim.

Two scenarios
Because an exact retracing of the incident is impossible, the report details two similar scenarios, that “share equal weight as being the most probable.”
The first situation shows Trooper Yearwood, lowering his aim and firing at Trim, who was kneeling across the room, but striking Trooper Brinkerhoff instead. The second hypothesis shows Trooper Brinkerhoff raising his head while Trooper Yearwood fired a low shot.
The police report was compiled using information from dozens of witnesses, including the troopers who stormed the building during the incident.
The location of shell casings was used to determine who fired their weapons, where they were when they fired and how many rounds were fired.
Investigators also studied radio transmissions and the autopsies performed on Trooper Brinkerhoff and Mr. Trim, to reach their conclusions.
The report described the following sequence of events.

Traced to farmhouse
After pursuing Trim throughout the afternoon and overnight, troopers went to the farmhouse after the motion alarm was activated found the front door and windows closed. They spotted an open window in the barn next door and in a loft area, troopers found a backpack containing Trim’s Social Security card and a Smith & Wesson revolver. A loaded 270-caliber Winchester and an unloaded single-shot hunting rifle were also discovered.
A short time later, a commander gave orders for seven members of the Elite Mobile Response Team to enter the farmhouse.
After searching the first floor, and then moved to the second floor, where the gun battle started. The report indicated that Trim fired the first shot, striking Trooper Brinkerhoff’s armored vest.
At 8:55 a.m., after several of the troopers had shot at him, Trim returned fire, hitting Trooper Richard Mattson in the left arm. Trooper Mattson survived his injury but continues to suffer the effects of the shooting.
A short time later, three troopers found themselves in a second-floor bedroom, as Trim crouched in a passageway to another room. Trooper Richard Verdesi was in front and to the left of the other two. Trooper Brinkerhoff was in the middle and Trooper Yearwood was directly behind him, the report explains.
Trooper Brinkerhoff fired the shot that struck Mr. Trim in the right temple, killing him instantly, an autopsy showed. Trooper Yearwood discharged the shot that hit Mr. Brinkerhoff in the head, just below the helmet.
The report indicates that no one witnessed Trooper Yearwood firing the fatal shot. Analysis of the scene showed that Trooper Yearwood fired 28 shots during the incident.
Trooper Yearwood told investigators that he did not believe Trooper Brinkerhoff could have known that he was right behind him, firing his gun.
Trooper Yearwood resigned from the special operations unit, but remains a trooper, according to a state police spokesman.

In December, the Delaware County district attorney, Richard D. Northrup Jr., ruled that “no reasonable view of the evidence” would sustain criminal charges “against anyone other than Travis D. Trim,” according to a document that is part of the report.
In an interview on Sunday, Harry J. Corbitt, the New York State Police superintendent, said that Trooper Brinkerhoff’s death was “a tragic accident” that resulted from “a very intense firefight” in a farmhouse carved into rooms of different shapes and sizes.
“Certainly there was no criminal intent here and that’s what the report shows,” Mr. Corbitt said.
Still, the State Police has instituted a series of changes after Trooper Brinkerhoff’s death. The unit is now called the special operations team to reflect the uniqueness of its members’ skills — from their knowledge of dangerous rescue techniques to their specialized weapons training and their ability to perform risky searches and raids. The troopers who are part of it are now permanently assigned to one of four teams in the state; in the past, the teams were assembled only when needed, and their members otherwise spent their time on routine duties like highway patrol, Mr. Corbitt explained.
There is new equipment, like armored cars and better bullet-proof vests, and there are psychologists assigned to track candidates through the selection and training process to make sure that they can handle the high-stress situations that are common in their jobs, Mr. Corbitt said.
“We certainly looked at every aspect of the team and we made wholesale changes so we could provide the best possible protection to our members,” he said.
The report, finalized in June, shows that for the State Police, figuring out what happened inside the farmhouse at 1245 Cemetery Road in the northern Catskills, near Margaretville, N.Y., was much like trying to solve a puzzle with a few pieces missing.

Mr. Trim had died in the firefight, but the troopers did not know that when they left the house carrying Mr. Brinkerhoff. Once the troopers were outside, officers lobbed a tear-gas canister inside the house in an effort to flush out Mr. Trim. When that seemed to have no effect, they tossed in a second canister, not knowing that it was filled with an incendiary material that wound up igniting a first-floor bedroom.
Within seconds, the farmhouse was ablaze.

At 7:28 a.m. on April 25, 2007, in a quiet corner of the Catskill Mountains, an indoor motion alarm went off at a vacant farmhouse, a half-mile from where a van driven by a suspect in the shooting of a New York State trooper the previous day had been found abandoned.

Trooper Brinkerhoff with his wife, Barbara, and their daughter, Isabella.
The alarm unleashed a chain of events that culminated in a fierce shootout involving an elite team of state troopers, known at the time as mobile response teams. In the two-minute gun battle, during which more than 80 bullets were fired, two men lost their lives: the suspect, Travis D. Trim, and one of the troopers, David C. Brinkerhoff.
Within a few days, State Police officials revealed that Trooper Brinkerhoff had killed Mr. Trim, a 23-year-old college dropout from North Lawrence, N.Y., and was then killed by a shot from a colleague.
The death of Trooper Brinkerhoff, 29, raised questions about the quality of the unit’s training, the tactics its members used in the farmhouse that morning and the conduct of the trooper who fired the fatal round. Meanwhile, State Police investigators remained tight-lipped as they tried to determine if negligence or other criminal behavior contributed in any way to Mr. Brinkerhoff’s death.
Fifteen months later, the first official account of what transpired at the farmhouse has emerged. An internal State Police report, obtained by The New York Times under a Freedom of Information request, reveals that Trooper Brinkerhoff may have unknowingly placed himself in the line of fire when he raised his head just as a colleague standing behind him fired a shot at Mr. Trim.
The report outlines two other similar scenarios, which it says “share equal weight as being the most probable.” One scenario has the colleague, Norville Yearwood, lowering his aim and firing at Mr. Trim, who was crouched across the room, but striking Trooper Brinkerhoff instead. The other suggests that Trooper Brinkerhoff raised his head and Trooper Yearwood simultaneously fired a low shot.
In December, the Delaware County district attorney, Richard D. Northrup Jr., ruled that “no reasonable view of the evidence” would sustain criminal charges “against anyone other than Travis D. Trim,” according to a document that is part of the report.
In an interview on Sunday, Harry J. Corbitt, the New York State Police superintendent, said that Trooper Brinkerhoff’s death was “a tragic accident” that resulted from “a very intense firefight” in a farmhouse carved into rooms of different shapes and sizes.
“Certainly there was no criminal intent here and that’s what the report shows,” Mr. Corbitt said.
Still, the State Police has instituted a series of changes after Trooper Brinkerhoff’s death. The unit is now called the special operations team to reflect the uniqueness of its members’ skills — from their knowledge of dangerous rescue techniques to their specialized weapons training and their ability to perform risky searches and raids. The troopers who are part of it are now permanently assigned to one of four teams in the state; in the past, the teams were assembled only when needed, and their members otherwise spent their time on routine duties like highway patrol, Mr. Corbitt explained.
There is new equipment, like armored cars and better bullet-proof vests, and there are psychologists assigned to track candidates through the selection and training process to make sure that they can handle the high-stress situations that are common in their jobs, Mr. Corbitt said.
“We certainly looked at every aspect of the team and we made wholesale changes so we could provide the best possible protection to our members,” he said.
The report, finalized in June, shows that for the State Police, figuring out what happened inside the farmhouse at 1245 Cemetery Road in the northern Catskills, near Margaretville, N.Y., was much like trying to solve a puzzle with a few pieces missing.
Mr. Trim had died in the firefight, but the troopers did not know that when they left the house carrying Mr. Brinkerhoff. Once the troopers were outside, officers lobbed a tear-gas canister inside the house in an effort to flush out Mr. Trim. When that seemed to have no effect, they tossed in a second canister, not knowing that it was filled with an incendiary material that wound up igniting a first-floor bedroom.
Within seconds, the farmhouse was ablaze.

The fire destroyed much of the evidence, making it hard to determine exactly where Mr. Trim and Trooper Brinkerhoff were when they were shot. The damage that the fire caused to the farmhouse also made it impossible for investigators to figure out the trajectory of the shots fired by Mr. Trim, the report says.

The suspect, Travis Trim.
Still, investigators assembled enough material to cobble together an official version of the events. They used statements from dozens of witnesses, including the troopers who were in the farmhouse that morning. They examined the locations of shell casings to determine who fired their weapons, where they were when they fired and how many rounds were fired in all. They also analyzed radio transmissions and the results of the autopsies performed on Trooper Brinkerhoff and Mr. Trim, among other things.
The report described the following sequence of events.
The search for Mr. Trim began on the afternoon of April 24, after Mr. Trim shot a trooper who had pulled him over in Margaretville because the van he was driving — and which turned out to have been stolen — was missing a license plate. (The bullet struck the trooper’s protective vest and he was not seriously injured.)
By the next morning, scores of state troopers descended on the area, perhaps haunted at the time by several tragic deaths among their colleagues. In the previous 14 months, six troopers had died, including two who were shot in 2006 by a fugitive, Ralph L. Phillips — known as Bucky — whom Trooper Brinkerhoff had helped track.
The troopers who went to the farmhouse after the motion alarm was activated found the front door and windows closed, but saw an open window in an adjacent barn. In a loft upstairs, the troopers retrieved a backpack with Mr. Trim’s Social Security card and a Smith & Wesson revolver. Propped against a wall were two more guns: a loaded 270-caliber Winchester and an unloaded single-shot hunting rifle.
A commander ordered seven troopers inside the farmhouse, including Mr. Brinkerhoff and Mr. Yearwood. The team scoured the first floor and then moved to the second floor, where the gun battle began. According to the report, Mr. Trim fired the first shot, striking Trooper Brinkerhoff’s armored vest. At 8:55 a.m., after several of the troopers had shot at him, Mr. Trim returned fire, this time hitting Trooper Richard Mattson in the left arm. (Trooper Mattson survived his injury.)
Eventually, three of the troopers found themselves in a second-floor bedroom, as Mr. Trim crouched in a passageway that linked it to another room. Trooper Richard Verdesi was in front and to the left of the other two. Trooper Brinkerhoff was in the middle and Trooper Yearwood was directly behind him, according to the report.
Trooper Brinkerhoff fired the shot that struck Mr. Trim in the right temple, killing him instantly, as an autopsy would determine. Trooper Yearwood discharged the shot that hit Mr. Brinkerhoff in the head, just below the helmet, the report said.
No one saw Trooper Yearwood fire the fatal shot, one of 28 shots he fired that morning. According to the report, Mr. Yearwood told investigators that he did not believe Trooper Brinkerhoff could have known that he was right behind him, firing his gun.
Trooper Yearwood resigned from the special operations unit, but remains a member of the State Police, said its superintendent, Mr. Corbitt.