Clairton police officer shot during home invasion testifies
Clairton police officer James Kuzak Jr., who was paralyzed from the waist down in 2011 in the line of duty, took the stand Monday in the trial of two men accused of shooting him during a violent home invasion.
Kuzak, 40, of Rostraver Township, testified he knew what happened as soon as he was shot.
“I knew in my mind I was paralyzed,” said Kuzak, who had 18 years of law enforcement experience at the time of the shooting but had been on the force in Clairton for only three weeks.
Kuzak said he was at the back of the home at 858 Miller Ave. on April 4, 2011, and attempted to kick down the door. He alerted those inside that police were there when the shooting started.
“It went from a white door to a black opening and I saw the first muzzle flash,” he testified.
He was hit five times; one of the bullets is still in his spine. Now in a wheelchair, he is undergoing outpatient physical therapy at UPMC Mercy, the same hospital he was rushed to the night of the incident.
Kuzak testified that during the shooting, time seemed to slow down, and he thought of his family, his fiancée and their dogs as he attempted to cry out for help.
“(I was) kind of preparing myself to die,” Kuzak said.
He further testified he could not see the person who shot him, only legs of a person crossing in front of him after Kuzak was struck by bullets.
Prosecutors accuse Marcus Andrejco, 19, of Rankin and Emilio Rivera, 27, of McKees Rocks of storming into the home and demanding drugs and money.
Prosecutors say police interrupted a robbery and sexual assault of a woman who lived there.
The two suspects face a slew of charges including criminal attempted homicide, assault of a law enforcement officer, robbery, impersonating a public servant, criminal conspiracy and indecent assault.
Andrejco and Rivera maintain their innocence. Lawyers for the two say confessions they gave police were coerced.
Kuzak showed signs of pain as he made adjustments in his wheelchair, and family members fought back tears during his testimony. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski allowed the jury a short break while the injured officer dealt with the discomfort.
Kuzak said he has those types of moments 10 to 15 times a day.
Former Clairton officer Jonathan Steiner testified he responded to a disturbance call that night. The call later was updated to a domestic situation and possible home invasion.
Steiner, now a Washington, Pa., police officer, said he saw what appeared to be a black male in a second-floor window upon his arrival, but could not give a more specific description.
Steiner also testified he was at the rear of the building with Kuzak when shots rang out. Steiner ran for cover at the side of the house, and gave chase down Peach Alley to what he said appeared to be a black male wearing all-black clothing.
It was revealed during Steiner's cross-examination by Andrejco's attorney Ralph Karsh that the officer could not identify the fleeing person as the same person he saw in the upstairs window. He also could not have gotten a good look at the fleeing person's skin tone, and some of the factors that led to Steiner's black male identification were that the person he saw wore baggy clothes and had broad shoulders.
Officer Matthew McDanel testified Monday afternoon he was in front of a neighbor's house when he heard shots. He ran toward an alley at the back of the woman's house when he heard a faint voice say, “I'm hit, I'm hurt.” He then saw Kuzak on the ground.
McDanel said he put the fallen officer on his shoulder and carried him to the front of the house where he began tending to his wounds until an ambulance arrived.Suspect identification remains a key factor in the trial.
Allegheny County homicide detective Gregory Matthews testified about some of the evidence collected at the scene.
He said Kuzak's radio and service pistol were recovered as well as blood samples found to belong to Mullen, and the interior door knob of the rear door that the alleged shooter shut then later swung open before firing at least five bullets at officers.
Rivera's attorney Paul Gettleman questioned if the knob and other areas inside the duplex were dusted for fingerprints because testimony from the couple inside the house suggested the intruders did not wear gloves.
Matthews said six officers moved objects in search for more potential victims and suspects, and it was decided not to fingerprint anything based on information provided and discussion with forensic scientists.
A woman who allegedly was sexually assaulted in an upstairs children's room during the home invasion named Andrejco as her assailant at his preliminary hearing in Glassport Magisterial District Judge Armand A. Martin's chambers in April 2011.
The woman also misidentified two men as being Kuzak's shooter. Those two individuals were charged and later released by Allegheny County police prior to Rivera's October 2011 arrest. She identified Rivera as the assaulter at his preliminary hearing before the same judge in November.
She testified last Tuesday to Andrejco being the shooter and Rivera as her assailant.
Her fiance, Keith Mullen, testified Friday that he was in the basement of the duplex when shots were fired, and could only identify one of the suspect's faces from the nose down.
Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965 or firstname.lastname@example.org.