Case filed on behalf of Trooper David Brinkerhoff alleges local probation department was negligent in allowing shooter Travis Trim to remain free despite multiple probation violations.
NEW YORK (August 26, 2008) ‘ The wife of slain New York State Trooper David Brinkerhoff, who was killed in a blazing shootout in a Catskills farmhouse in April 2007, has filed a lawsuit against St. Lawrence County, N.Y., and its probation department, alleging that their negligence and lack of protocol allowed a serial probation violator to break the terms of his supervised release and later initiate the gun battle that cost Trooper Brinkerhoff his life.
The suit was filed in New York State Supreme Court in Canton, N.Y., the county seat of St. Lawrence near the Canadian border. Barbara Brinkerhoff, widow of Trooper Brinkerhoff, is represented by the New York City law firm Seeger Weiss LLP.
Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s suit alleges that the man at the center of the shootout’ a 23-year-old convicted thief with a history of probation violations named Travis Trim ‘ should not have been out of jail but for a series of bungled actions by the St. Lawrence Probation Department. Defendants include the director of the department as well as the officer assigned to Mr. Trim.
According to the complaint, Mr. Trim was first assigned a St. Lawrence County probation officer in July 2005 after an arrest for larceny. He repeatedly failed to maintain his supervised probation in the final months of 2006. Mrs. Brinkerhoff alleges that multiple lapses within the St. Lawrence County Probation Department not only allowed him to remain free, but also ensured that no New York law enforcement agencies were even aware that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.
According to the complaint, the warrant issued by a Canton, NY village justice in December 2006 and sent to the Probation Department was ‘ incredibly ‘ destroyed in a shredder upon receipt.
Four months later, Mr. Trim was stopped by a New York State Trooper on a road near Margaretville, in central New York State ‘ the vehicle he was driving without a license plate turned out to be stolen. He fired at the trooper, hitting his protective vest, then took refuge in a nearby farmhouse. A swarm of state police, alerted by a silent alarm that went off at the house, surrounded it the next morning and went inside.
Searching room to room, they found handguns and shotguns Mr. Trim had brought with him. A furious gun battle ensued, during which one state trooper, Richard Mattson, suffered a debilitating hand wound that forced him to take disability retirement. Trooper Brinkerhoff then shot and killed Mr. Trim. In almost the next instant, he was mistakenly shot from behind by a fellow trooper and died.
Trooper Brinkerhoff, who was 29, had dedicated himself to becoming an elite state trooper, trained and equipped to confront the most hazardous duties as part of the Mobile Response Team. He originally dropped out of college to join the force, then returned to complete his undergraduate degree by attending evening classes. He subsequently earned a Master’s Degree in public administration from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, hoping to either teach criminal justice or advance in law enforcement. He and Barbara, a former nurse, had a daughter, Isabella, now 18 months old, who suffers from Down Syndrome.
This past spring the New York State Police honored Trooper Brinkerhoff posthumously with the Brummer Award, the force’s highest decoration for heroism. In 2006, Trooper Brinkheroff was among a team of state police officers who tracked down fugitive Ralph ‘Bucky’ Phillips, who shot and killed two troopers.
Repeated Missed Chances to Incarcerate Trim
Travis Trim, 23, was a native of St. Lawrence County, in far northern New York, across the St. Lawrence River from the Canadian province of Ontario. Convicted in the summer of 2006 of a misdemeanor theft in neighboring Franklin Country, he was placed under supervision of the St. Lawrence County Probation Department. He violated his probation several times that fall: he was arrested for buying alcohol for minors, and later dropped out of the State University of New York at Canton, where he was enrolled for one semester, without telling his probation officer.
During his six weeks at the state university, the campus police were called three times due to complaints in Mr. Trim’s dorm room. The first time, he was discovered with three other people to be in possession of alcohol and marijuana. On another occasion, university police again discovered marijuana, alcohol and a digital scale on top of a locked footlocker which was suspected of containing drugs.
According to the complaint, the campus police promptly contacted Trim’s probation officer, who promised to produce Trim for a meeting. Several days later, with no meeting held, the complaint alleges that university informed the probation officer that Trim had moved out of the dorm, without informing the probation department ‘ an express violation of his parole. Disregarding department regulations, probation officers allegedly did not initiate an investigation. The complaint notes that it was not until December 18 that the department finally sent a Declaration of Delinquency to the court, and not until December 29 that a warrant was issued for Trim’s arrest.
The warrant for Mr. Trim’s arrest that was ultimately issued, then summarily shredded at the probation department, was never forwarded to law enforcement authorities.
According to the complaint, the probation department was aware of these violations but did not inform the local court, as required. The warrant for Mr. Trim’s arrest that was ultimately issued, then summarily shredded at the probation department, was never forwarded to law enforcement authorities.
Law Enforcement Not Given Proper Notice for Arrest
As Mr. Brinkerhoff’s complaint states: ‘As a sole proximate result of the St. Lawrence County Probation Department’s above-mentioned failures to comply with ministerial duties which were not discretionary, but rather, were mandatory, local and state law enforcement agencies had no knowledge of the warrant or the need to detain and/or arrest Mr. Trim.’
‘We allege that Travis Trim was free to commit his crimes solely because of the negligence and numerous failures of the St. Lawrence County Probation Department,’ said Christopher Seeger of Seeger & Weiss.
‘The whole concept of probation is that society gives you another chance to live on the straight and narrow and show you can be a law-abiding citizen. If someone violates this trust, repeatedly, it is incumbent upon the legal system to take that person off the streets,’ Mr. Seeger continued.
‘Mr. Trim violated the terms of his probation, more than once, yet the St. Lawrence Probation Department did nothing,’ he added. ‘A warrant explicitly directing his arrest was ignored ‘ worse, it was simply destroyed. This is the highest degree of sloppiness and neglect. Not long after, Trim was the cause, even if not the direct agent, of a New York State Trooper’s death. That David Brinkerhoff left behind not only a wife but a young daughter who will probably need special care throughout her life makes this case all the more heartbreaking.’
Mr. Mattson, the former state trooper who lost his hand in the shootout, added: ‘Dave Brinkerhoff was a hero, period. He put his life in jeopardy to stop a threat to the public. Travis Trim was armed to the teeth and seemed to think he had nothing to lose ‘ who knows what he would have done’ Police need to know about people who have warrants out for their arrest; that’s one of the ways law enforcement is supposed to function. That this guy was a parole violator out on the street, with a warrant nobody knew about, is outrageous.’
‘I was there that day, and Dave ended a threat to our whole team and the public,’ Mr. Mattson added. ‘I was critically injured. If a warrant was entered and Trim was driving in that vehicle with bad plates all the way from St. Lawrence County, he would most likely have been picked up on that warrant. Police need to know about warrants and what you are up against when stopping a suspect.’
‘My husband was doing a job he loved, and was trained for, with people he admired,’ Barbara Brinkerhoff said. ‘But it’s baffling to me that Travis Trim, who seemed to have no regard for the law, was walking around free, putting people in harm’s way, when his parole violations were well known. David should not have had to give his life to stop someone who would have been behind bars if the St. Lawrence County Probation Department had done its job.’
In addition to Mr. Seeger, Mrs. Brinkerhoff is represented in the case by partners Moshe Horn and Marc Albert.
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Seeger Weiss LLP is an experienced trial law firm handling complex individual, mass and class action litigation on behalf of consumers, investors and injured persons. The firm, with offices in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, represents plaintiffs in a variety of practice areas, including pharmaceutical injury, securities and investment fraud, consumer protection, environmental and asbestos exposures, personal injury and medical malpractice, product defect, antitrust, and commercial disputes.