Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sniper takes aim at schoolyard

The view today from the school yard to the sniper's second floor window.
It was 11:30 on a Friday morning in December and the children were in the school playground making believe they were monsters, or earth men, or chasing each other in a game of tag.

In the apartment complex across the street from the playground at St. Peter’s Elementary School, building super Jim Rodgers visited George McCode in his second floor apartment to discuss a $102 rent bill that was due. Seventy first- and- second –grade students were across the street playing their outdoor games.

The stores on Broadway and inside the Pyramid Mall were preparing for the holiday season. For residents in and around the city there was a lot going on. There was a local screening premier of Diana Ross’ “Mahogany” at the Saratoga Cinema at 7pm and Louis and Sally Killen were staging their style of British folk-singing downtown at Lena’s caf√©. Some simply decided to cash their paychecks and set the four bucks aside it would take to purchase the tickets to see Asleep at the Wheel at the Great Saratoga Music Hall later in the month.

McCode told the super he thought his wife had already paid the bill, paid it before she left with the couple’s young daughter and headed for Georgia. She had not, the super informed the 32-year-old McCode, who a month earlier received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy after serving at the Kesselring site in West Milton. As McCode called his wife on the telephone from his residence inside the Gaslight apartment complex, third- grade teacher Lillian Pratt led 40 more students to the playground outside, where they joined their younger elementary schoolmates shortly before noon.

It could happen here, city police officials in Saratoga Springs said 38 years later at a recent public meeting in the echo of the Sandy Hook school shootings, held to discuss the department’s readiness in dealing with active shooters. Last week in Albany, police staged a simulated hostage rescue at vacant apartments at a public housing complex, conducting training, they say, to save lives. And a few days ago Saratoga Springs Police announced a new partnership with the city school district to increase security and provide public elementary schools with an increased police presence that will go into effect on April 2.

In the late morning on the first Friday in December 1975, McCode hung up the telephone after talking with his wife. A demolition crew tore through the Empire and Brooklyn hotels north of his apartment on Hamilton Street. The Saratoga Springs Urban Renewal Spring Valley North Project was leveling land to make way for a city center. On South Broadway, Natale American hosted a used car sale in a lot parked with Camaros and Gremlins, Hornets and Torinos. A ’69 Volkswagen Bus could be got for $1,595. Realtors offered four-bedroom Victorian-style colonial homes fitted with fireplaces for $29,900, financing available. At City Hall, the council voted to cut $7,500 in appropriations to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, sending venue general manager Craig Hankenson to embark on a grass-roots fundraising drive to meet budget demands.

Shortly before noon, in the playground on St. Peter’s, third-grade teacher Lillian Pratt heard what she thought were fireworks, coming from the Gaslight Apartments across the street. Second-grade teacher Judy Vetrano heard four pops. When she looked across the schoolyard, she saw a little girl lying down in the corner of the playground, blood streaming from her foot. Daniel Insetta, the school guard on duty, heard the pops – first one, then another, then two quick shots - and called police. The children were hustled back inside the classrooms of the elementary school building. Some were crying. Two 7-year-old girls were injured. Kim Bemis was brought to Saratoga Hospital to remove the bullet from the heel of her foot. Moira D’Andrea returned to her classroom with a slight wound from a ricochet bullet which caught her in one of her feet.

When police arrived and sealed off the area, they headed for the housing complex that overlooked the schoolyard across the street. Forcing their way through the barricaded door of McCode’s second-floor apartment, police found four spent 22-cal. shells next to an open living room window. A fifth shell was located next to the 32-year-old man, who was discovered lying on his bedroom floor, bleeding from his head. He died early the next morning at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady.

“Every time somebody acts like, hey, it can’t happen in Saratoga Springs, I say, it already has happened in Saratoga Springs,” city Assistant Police Chief Greg Veitch said, 38 years later.

Forty-five minutes after the shooting the building superintendent received a money-telegram from the man’s wife with payment for the rent bill that was due. Kimberly Bemis recovered from the bullet wound, graduated from Saratoga Springs High School in 1987 and later relocated to Stillwater. Moira D’Andrea became a three-time Olympian speed skater in the 1980s and 90s. She relocated to Canada, where today she instructs others in the sport.

No comments:

Post a Comment