Saturday, May 10, 1997
Police hunted last night for a heavily armed gang that escaped on a public bus after ambushing an off-duty police detective and a retired cop delivering a payroll in Queens.
Wielding assault rifles and wearing hooded sweatshirts, the gunmen sprayed a quiet Flushing street with more than 50 rounds.
They mercilessly pumped bullets into the lawmen, even as they lay wounded, before grabbing $50,000 in checks and cash.
Retired Police Officer Joseph Bellone, riddled with at least 12 bullets, still squeezed off up to nine shots from his 9-mm. Glock pistol. A gunman was captured on camera standing over the ex-cop, coldly discharging his weapon.
Off-duty Detective Arthur Pettus, who works with Bellone for a payroll company, was struck several times in the legs and abdomen by the three or four robbers. Chunks of concrete shot out by bullets outlined the spot where he dived for cover.
Both victims were in critical condition but are expected to survive the execution-style attack.
The vicious, well-planned stickup unfolded at 10:26 a.m. when Bellone, 45, and Pettus, 38, pulled up in an armor-plated van in front of Positive Promotions, a printing company at 40-01 168th St.
The gunmen popped out of nowhere, firing AK-47s and other weapons from three directions, including an alley abutting the printing company.
“I thought they were firecrackers,” Ari Kayserian, 17, said of the 30-second barrage of gunfire. Kayserian, who lives nearby, ran downstairs to find a wounded Pettus clutching a 9-mm. Glock, hiding behind a van.
“He was calling, ‘Help! Help!’ ” Kayserian said. “The officer told me, ‘Call 911, tell them 10-13’ ” — the code for an officer needing assistance.
Police sources said that a surveillance camera captured several photos — including one of a gunman standing over Bellone and firing bullets into the prone ex-cop.
After rendering the lawmen helpless, the thugs scooped up two canvas bags containing $50,000 in cash and an undetermined amount in checks.
The gang hopped into a stolen green Ford Aerostar van double parked on Station Road and tore up the street the wrong way, ricocheting off parked vehicles.
“There were cars banging each other,” said Kayserian’s mother, Tamar.
The gunmen drove to 162d St. and 45th Ave. and hopped out of the van, which was crippled by a flat tire. They left the doors open and the motor running.
“I saw [three of] them running; you could tell they did something bad,” said Glenn Fammia, a worker at nearby Gabriella’s Pizzeria.
He said they waved down a Jamaica-bound Q-65 Queens Surface Line bus that had just started pulling away.
The gang acted like normal passengers and got off at Hillside Ave. and 164th St. — the same intersection where they had stolen the Aerostar van last month, police sources said.
The bus driver told detectives that the only strange thing about the men was that they paid the $1.50 fare in cash rather than by token, like most passengers. Sources said that one robber left a jacket behind.
No weapons were found.
Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir rushed to New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens, where the families of the wounded men gathered.
“It’s a miracle that both have a real chance of survival, given the brutality and viciousness of this attack,” Giuliani said.
“We don’t think that either one will sustain any permanent paralysis,” said Dr. James Turner, adding that both men were shot “many, many, many times.”
Safir said that neither Bellone nor Pettus wore a bulletproof vest. Officers are not required to wear such vests when working off-duty.
Pettus, a former transit cop now assigned to the Bronx robbery squad, had permission to moonlight for Mount Vernon Money Center, officials said. He had worked a 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift the night before the shooting.
Workers at the printing company said Bellone was their regular payroll deliveryman and that Pettus was apparently a fill-in.
One police officer said Mount Vernon Money Center guards were wary of the secluded spot.