State says police shooting of Salem man near burning home was justified
New London State’s Attorney Michael L. Regan has found that State Trooper Patrick Hawes was justified in shooting Salem resident Robert Bergeson in June 2013 after Bergeson, who had set fire to his Witter Road home, charged the trooper with a piece of wood in his hand.
In a report released Tuesday by the Division of Criminal Justice, Regan wrote that Hawes, a seven-year state police veteran with a clean personnel record and up-to-date firearms training, “reasonably believed that the use of deadly physical force was necessary to defend himself and others from the use of deadly physical force.”
Hawes shot the 59-year-old after Bergeson, who was standing in a field and yelling obscenities, failed to comply with Hawes’ commands and advanced in an aggressive and threatening manner toward Hawes and Trooper Kristin Coit with a piece of wood, according to the report. The troopers had been told that Hawes might have a gun.
The piece of wood, recovered in the blood-stained grass during the investigation of the shooting, was approximately 2 inches wide and 23 inches long, according to the report.
“As Bergeson closed the distance between himself and the troopers, Trooper Hawes, in that split second, reasonably believed he had no other alternative but to use deadly force,” Regan wrote in the report. “The use of deadly force was, therefore, appropriate.”
A state medical examiner ruled that Bergeson died of three gunshot wounds to the torso and left arm. He had no significant amounts of drugs or alcohol in his system when he died.
Bergeson, who had retired from Pfizer Inc., had recently gone through a divorce and had told his ex-wife, Gale Bergeson, that he would burn the house down so that she would not get it in the final divorce settlement, according to witnesses. Bergeson had been arrested four times for domestic violence incidents and had been released from prison 12 days before the June 18 shooting after serving 30 days for second-degree harassment.
New London attorney Robert I. Reardon Jr., who is representing Bergeson’s estate and seeking permission from the state claims commissioner to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the state police, said the shooting does not appear justified.
“I don’t know how State’s Attorney Regan can possibly conclude that a person standing in the middle of a field with a stick in his hand was exposing the troopers to deadly force,” Reardon said. “We don’t engage in the shooting of people who engage in domestic violence or burn their house down.”
Reardon said that based on the report, it was clear that Bergeson was suffering from mental illness at the time of his death. After his release from prison, he had been ordered to undergo counseling as a condition of probation. He was scheduled to meet with his probation officer for the first time on June 20.
Interviewed during the investigation, Hawes, who was the resident state trooper of East Haddam, said he and Coit were in the resident trooper’s office when Coit was dispatched to the Salem address for a fire. Coit asked Hawes to go with her because of the long history of violence at the Bergeson home, according to the report.
Arriving at the scene, Hawes said a fire policewoman who was helping to keep the road closed came toward him yelling, “Cops, cops, cops.” She told them, “There is a guy out in the field, he’s screaming and he has a gun,” Hawes said.
He drew his gun as he and Coit went into the field where the man, who had a golden retriever with him, was pacing back and forth and flailing his arms. Hawes said the man told them, “You’ll never take me back to jail,” and cursed at Hawes in response to his commands.
Hawes said the man was about 30 feet away when he raised the piece of lumber over his head and advanced. Hawes said he thought the man was too far away to use a Taser on, and he didn’t think it would penetrate his heavy clothes. He said he thought if the man got within 21 feet, the man could kill him with the lumber, so he fired the first shot when he got that close. The man kept advancing, and Hawes said he continued to fire — he didn’t know how many times — until the man fell to the ground.
Hawes said he handcuffed him and rolled him over in a first-aid recovery position, and Coit called for a paramedic. The investigators recovered four shell casings at the scene.
The investigators interviewed witnesses to the shooting and recovered video footage of the shooting from two fire reconstruction contractors. Reardon said he would be deposing the two troopers and other witnesses in the next two months.
Bergeson’s two adult children are his beneficiaries, according to Reardon. He died without a will, and attorney Anthony Basilica has been appointed administrator of the case by the probate court.