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Homicide ruling brings back memories of 1981 police shooting

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The two police retirees remember the shooting as if it was yesterday. The chill in the air. The call that came in as a hostage situation. The nickel plating on the gun they wished the man had never drawn.

The suspect missed, but the officers didn't. Three decades passed and Lawrence "Larry" Knott and Robert Menas often thought back to the only moment they ever fired their service weapons as Baltimore police officers.

"The whole thing was like three seconds," Menas recalled. "Boom. Boom, boom, boom."

The intensity of those seconds gripped the officers again this spring when they learned that Carl D. Robinson had died of his injuries after 32 years. The coroner recently labeled Robinson's death a homicide, and police and prosecutors consider it justified.

When the former partners look back on that day in 1981, they feel sorry for Robinson but have no regrets. Had they not pulled the trigger, they said, they believe they could have been the ones buried.

"I never felt so close to being killed," Menas said.

Over 32 years, Knott and Menas both experienced the deaths of wives and the births of grandchildren. Knott, 62, spends his time tending to his hunting dogs and his cats, while Menas, 68, does as many household chores as his aching hip, knee and surgically repaired back will allow.

They complain about their fading physical capabilities, but their memories from the morning of Jan. 17, 1981, remain clear.

Knott, then 29, was a sergeant and shift commander in the Northwestern District. He had been an officer for almost nine years. Menas, then 35, had been on the force for 13 years.

They were both at the Northwest Baltimore police station when dispatchers sent them to the 5000 block of Norwood Ave., where a man was reported holding his mother hostage.

At the house, a teen told officers that Robinson, his 21-year-old brother, had accused him of stealing a pencil, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said, reading an old police report.

Speaking to the family, Menas said, he remembers learning that the argument had grown into a fight. The brothers ended up on the ground. Their mother broke it up and slapped Robinson. He felt disrespected.

He went upstairs, pulled out a .357-caliber Colt Python revolver and pointed it at his mother, Menas said. He threatened to shoot her. He said he was tired of being blamed for everything. He said he didn't get any credit for anything. He threatened to hurt himself, police said, then he left.

Knott ordered a few officers to guard the house in case he returned.

Believing that the situation had calmed, the sergeant returned to his patrol car with Menas and headed back toward the station. It was an icy morning — the temperature hovered around 26 degrees — and Knott felt a detour was in order.

"Menas," he said. "Let's go get a hot chocolate."

On their way, the officers saw a man walking up the street with an arm around a girl's shoulder. They recognized Robinson from the description his family had provided. Menas could make out the outline of a gun in Robinson's right jacket pocket. It was pointed toward the girl.

Knott pulled the car over.

"Hey Carl," Knott said. "Do me a favor and take your hand out of your pocket. I want to talk to you for a minute."

Robinson had never been arrested, and Menas said he knew from his family that he had once applied to the Police Department. He didn't seem like a dangerous suspect, so Menas hadn't drawn his gun.

Menas had disarmed "hundreds" of people without violence, he said: the man who charged down a flight of stairs with a knife, an armed thief he pinned to a restaurant wall and the man who stabbed himself repeatedly in a bathroom to get out of going to Vietnam.

"Come on, Carl," Menas said. "Let's talk about it."

Robinson didn't say a word. He pushed his girlfriend away. Knott saw his knuckle pull out of his pocket.

"He's got a gun," Knott said.

In an instant, Menas saw the gun pointed at his head, then a puff of smoke.

Menas owned a clamshell holster for his Smith & Wesson .38 special. The holster purposefully unclasped frontward instead of from behind, allowing for a quicker draw. As Menas grabbed for his revolver, he took a simultaneous crouching step left as the police academy had instructed.

Robinson's bullet whizzed by. The recoil of the powerful gun kicked Robinson's hand above his head — just enough time for Menas to fire three times.

A bullet pierced Robinson's abdomen and sliced into his spleen. Another hit his neck and carotid artery. Knott shot Robinson in the arm, dislodging the gun.

"By the time I fired the third shot, I had the gun up to my eye," Menas said, "but I could see him going down."

Menas ran over to Robinson and stood between him and the gun he had dropped. He took off his police hat. "How'd he miss me," he thought.

He couldn't comprehend why Robinson had fired the gun, and he felt pity as the man gurgled blood on the ground.

"Why'd you do a stupid fool thing like that," Menas muttered.

Knott called in the shooting, and a crowd of officers and paramedics arrived.

People on porches had witnessed the gun battle, and Menas asked to borrow a phone. He called his wife in case she heard about the shooting. He told her he wasn't hurt.

Knott and Menas were both sent to speak to internal investigators. Menas, who had remained calm the whole time, remembers jumping when a firearms investigator took his gun and fired two rounds into a water barrel to compare the bullets to the ones at the shooting scene.

It didn't take long for police and the state's attorney's office to deem the shooting justifiable, a ruling a police spokesman confirmed last week. The department even awarded Menas a Bronze Star for acting under fire.

"Whatever happened to Carl, I never found out," Knott said.

All Menas knew was that Robinson was mostly unresponsive after the shooting and that prosecutors declined to press charges against him because his condition didn't improve over several weeks.

"That's what I was told," Menas said. "Poor guy."

It's unclear how the rest of Robinson's life played out. A family member found through public records directed questions to his sister, who declined to provide her full name. A teen when Robinson was shot, she said her brother was a talented artist and that his death was a "travesty." She declined to say much more.

Robinson, 53, died Feb. 24, but it wasn't until May 28 that the chief medical examiner's office in Baltimore reviewed medical records and determined that though 32 years had passed, three bullets Knott and Menas fired in 1981 were to blame for Robinson's death.

The coroner said Robinson suffered cardiopulmonary arrest — his heart stopping, along with acute renal failure, dysphagia or difficulty swallowing, and cerebral vascular accident, commonly known as a stroke.

"These are all consequences of being shot," said Bruce Goldfarb, the medical examiner's spokesman.

Baltimore police say homicides or deaths from trauma inflicted years before surface a handful of times annually. A few weeks ago, police classified a man's December death as a homicide that stemmed from being shot in the back by an unknown person in 1997.

The cause of a paralyzed 62-year-old man's death in 2010 was linked to police shooting him in 1975 after police said he charged a Baltimore officer with an ax. That shooting was ruled justifiable, like Robinson's.

"All he had to do was take his hand out of his pocket," Menas said. "I'm sorry that he's gone, and I'm sorry he suffered all these years."

For 18 more years, Menas worked as a police officer but never fired his gun at anyone again.

Knott never drew his gun again, either. He left the department three years after the shooting for more pay selling cars. But he always looked back at his time as a police officer with pride, and he doesn't hesitate to talk about the shooting.

"I had to pull my gun once," he said. "I'm not ashamed of it nor am I proud of it, but I had to shoot a man."

The gravity of the situation was something he said he carried all his life. Several years ago, he ran into Menas and his family at a crabhouse. He told Menas' daughter, "Your daddy saved my life." Then he secretly paid for Menas' bill before he left.

Knott said the shooting made him more grateful. It even changed his tastes.

"I never drank hot chocolate again," he said. "I began drinking coffee after that."

Over the next few weeks, Knott said, he plans to move from his home in Allegany County and follow his children somewhere "down South."

It's warmer on his bones, he said, and hot chocolate is rarely served or offered.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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