Boonton officers forgive, though they won't forget

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Date: 2002/06/06 Thursday Page: 019 Section: NEW JERSEY Edition: FINAL Size: 958 words

Boonton officers forgive, though they won't forget

They help free man who tried to kill them

By MARGARET McHUGH
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Andrew Cosmen's punishment for shooting at police during a five-hour standoff in May 1992 ends this morning with his early release from prison, thanks to two of the four police officers he tried to kill that day.

Cosmen, now 40, is being released from state prison 10 years after he got drunk and tried to pick off police officers with a shotgun and a rifle as they arrived at his rented Boonton home. Five hours later, he surrendered without anyone having been seriously injured.

When he was convicted of attempted murder in 1994, Cosmen was ordered to serve at least 15 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole. His pleas for leniency over the years were rejected until 1999, when two officers who came within inches of being shot appealed for a shorter sentence on Cosmen's behalf.

Boonton Lt. Edward Krok had been adamant that Cosmen serve every minute of his sentence, but by 1999 had softened his stance.

"You have a change of heart over the years," Krok said. "I think, at the time, it was more personal. He attacked me. It was a natural reaction."

But over time, Krok - who became a lieutenant on the 10th anniversary of the siege -said he came to realize "it wasn't me" Cosmen was shooting at, but the uniform.

Krok can still hear a soft-spoken Cosmen calling to him and another officer to "come on in" when they rapped on his door to serve him with a restraining order on May 20, 1992.

As if it happened yesterday, Krok can still see Cosmen round a corner with a shotgun at the ready, and blast a hole through the door, just inches from where the officers stood.

Krok and then-Patrolman Peter Stickle spent hours pinned down in the front yard as Cosmen moved to a second-story bedroom, switched to a rifle and fired on arriving police.

"You could hear the bullets skipping across the street," Krok recalled.

At Cosmen's trial, his ex-wife testified that when she told Cosmen he would be served with a restraining order, he responded, "I feel sorry for the cop who tries to serve it." He also told her he intended to go "out in a blaze of glory."

For those five hours, Cosmen turned this quiet, working-class town into a war zone, an incident still etched in people's memories.

Like Krok, Boonton Township Lt. John Speirs remembers the standoff at 312 Boonton Ave. "like it was yesterday."

When Speirs arrived, he knew Cosmen was shooting at police, and that Krok and Stickle were trapped. Speirs was trying to figure out how to protect them - possibly by driving onto the lawn to get the patrol car between Cosmen and the two officers - when he saw a flash from an upstairs window.

"I thought I was hit," said Speirs, who fell backward when the bullet passed within 10 inches of his head and pierced his patrol car window. He lost hearing in his left ear from the blast.

Speirs flashed a light under his patrol car to let other officers know he was alive. When he had the chance, he scrambled behind Johnny's Tavern, across the street, which had become the police command center.

Cosmen had been drinking in Johnny's Tavern minutes before the siege began, confiding to the bartender that he "had a bad day."

Speirs said he knows it was by the grace of God, or luck, or maybe Cosmen's drunkenness that he is alive.

When Cosmen tried to have his sentence reduced in 1996, "we were against it," Speirs said. And when they were approached a few years later by defense attorney Gerard Hanlon to speak on Cosmen's behalf, it was still "a tough decision to make."

"Without their assistance, it wouldn't have happened," Hanlon said. "The officers couldn't have been more generous and understanding."

Cosmen cried when Superior Court Judge Herbert Friend reduced his sentence from 30 to 20 years, and reduced to 10 years the minimum time before parole eligibility.

"Thank God no one was killed by my drunken stupidity," he said at the June 25, 1999, hearing.

Speirs said he told Cosmen at that hearing, "I can't forget what you did. I'll try to forgive you."

The officers had one condition in exchange for their help: If Cosmen gets in any legal trouble because of drinking, he will be in violation of his parole and will have to serve the rest of his prison sentence, Speirs said.

Most recently, Cosmen was serving his sentence at the East Jersey State Prison Minimum Camp at Marlboro. Today, his title changes from inmate to parolee. He will be taken to a residential substance abuse program in Newark, where he will spend up to 180 days, said Larry Gregorio, chief of the Release Unit for the state Parole Board. Attempts since Friday by The Star-Ledger to interview Cosmen were not successful.

James Porfido, the former assistant Morris County prosecutor who tried the Cosmen case, said he respected the officers' decision to help Cosmen.

"They are police officers, but they are human beings first," Porfido said. "I don't know if I can say if 10 years isn't enough or 15 years is too much. I'd defer to the guys who were directly affected," Porfido said.

Speirs, 45, has a 14-year-old daughter, about the same age as Cosmen's daughter, while Krok has a daughter who is now 21 and two sons.

"I got to watch my children grow," said Krok, 44. "Softball games. Ballet recitals. He missed all that with his daughter. How can I keep that man in prison anymore?"