1,000 mourn slain black youth
By Laurie C. Merrill and Jeff Simmons
Record Staff Writers
Probers Facing Tangled Tales
The grand jury investigation scheduled to begin Tuesday in the shooting death of Phillip C. Pannell is expected to last a month and feature more than 20 witnesses, acting Bergen County Prosecutor John G. Holl said Sunday.
The panel of 23 grand jurors will be asked to decide what, if any, charges should be brought in the case of the black youth shot by white Teaneck Police Officer Gary Spath, who has since been suspended with pay.
“All we want is to find out the truth,” Holl said in a phone interview. He said First Assistant Prosecutor Dennis Calo will present the case.
Normally, a grand jury meets one day a week, but Holl said Sunday he intends to ask for more meetings to speed the process. State grand jury meetings are held in secret.
Among its tasks, the panel will be asked to disentangle myriad contradictions in the case. Witness and police accounts differ drastically on just about every aspect, including whether Pannell was carrying a handgun.
Holl would not discuss any information regarding a firearm police say they found on Pannell’s body, refusing to comment on its ownership, fingerprints, or whether it was used in any crimes. But several of the River Edge youth’s friends claimed over the weekend that the 16-year-old Pannell was playing with a BB gun with another youth shortly before the incident.
And witnesses who spoke to reporters Sunday afternoon offered accounts different from the one released by police on the shooting, which took place around 6:15pm Tuesday in the backyard of a house on Intervale Road in Teaneck.
Dorothy Robinson of 19 Intervale Road said she had just stepped outside her house, two homes away from the William Cullen Bryant School. The nurse’s aide said she was going to visit a sick friend when she heard a single shot.
It was raining lightly as she looked across the street, about 50 feet away, and saw a youth waving his hands behind a home occupied by the Randy Rostin family. She heard him screaming but could not decipher his words, she said.
“I looked up. I saw this kid had gotten across the hedge; he had his hands up,” Robinson said Sunday at her home.
“People were screaming ‘Don’t shoot’ to the police,” she said. At first, she thought the boy was her grandson, Shawn Robinson, an eighth-grader at the Benjamin Franklin School.
Then a second shot rang out, and Robinson said she saw a flash from the gun. She could not determine who fired the shot, she said. “I bolted across the street because I thought he was my grandson that had gotten shot, '' she said. “I leaped over the hedge.”
She said she arrived within 10 seconds of the shooting and saw two officers - Spath and Officer Wayne Blanco - standing within a foot of the boy. She realized the boy was not her grandson and offered to administer CPR. “They told me to get back,” she said. She did not notice any other youth who could have witnessed the shooting.
Robinson conceded to losing sight of the youth for about five seconds as she ran toward the house. She did not immediately see the officers touch the boy but said at one point they touched the upper right side of his jacket.
Blanco said, “Look at [the mess] you got us into” and threw his radio, striking a fence that separates the property from a service station at the corner of Teaneck Road, Robinson said.
Another Intervale Road resident, Jennifer Bradley, saw Pannell run by with two officers in pursuit. Bradley, 32, said one officer shot Pannell in the back while his hands were raised. She said Blanco threw down his walkie-talkie and screamed at the officer who fired the shot: “Man you [messed] up.”
“They were both walking around holding their heads. “They couldn’t believe it,” she said. She also said Pannell’s hands were outstretched, and that his coat was partially closed.
Pannell, Robinson and Bradley said, had fallen on his back. He wore an oversized red jacket with a fur-lined hood and down insulation that hung just above his knees. He wore beige or white sweatpants.
“It didn’t look like he was breathing at all,” Robinson said. She said the boy’s coat was spread open because his hands were above his head, palms facing up. She said she did not see a gun.
Robinson, Laura Curry, who lives two homes away, and another parent who lives on the block took six children to the Prosecutor’s Office to be interviewed Thursday, she said. The parents sat in during the interviews.
County investigators asked whether the youths saw a BB gun or any other weapon that night or on Pannell, Robinson said. They questioned the youths in her presence about what transpired at the park and behind the school.
On Sunday, Curry stood in the doorway of her home, listening as her daughters, Melissa and Sylvia, spoke with a reporter. Both girls said they were among a small group of youths who had been playing basketball but were chased from Tryon Park by police around 6 p.m.
They said two boys, including Pannell, were playing with a BB gun the size of a pistol, but the other boy took it away at the park. They said they only knew the first name of the boy with the BB gun.
Two younger youths then scuffled briefly, they said, and officers circled the park, forcing them to leave. As the group walked toward the school nearby, the officers pulled up, jumped out of their cars with guns drawn, shouted “Freeze,” and ordered them against the wall, the girls said.
They said the officers seemed to target Pannell, but said they were not close to him when he began to run. “We were unattended, so everyone ran in the other direction,” said Melissa, a 14-year-old eighth grader.
Moments later, Sylvia heard both shots, ran to where the sounds emanated, and found out that Phillip Pannell was dead.