BY MICHELLE MILLER AND JIM AUSTIN
THE COOPERSTOWN CRIER
Village residents are expressing shock about Friday’s shooting incident and are eager to reach an understanding of why it happened in a small, close-knit community like Cooperstown.
A violent dispute left two 16-yearold boys recovering from gunshot wounds that occurred on Good Friday. Anthony Pacherille allegedly chased Wesley Lippitt from Cooper Park near the library entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame across busy Main Street and down Fair Street. Lippitt ran into the Fair Street entrance to the building that houses the Cooperstown Police Department and tried to hide in the foyer.
Pacherille allegedly followed him into the building and opened fire with a .22 rifle, hitting Lippitt in the arm with one shot, sending another bullet ripping through two walls of the police station, before shooting himself in the chin. Police and village officials are declining to identify the shooter or victim, but the two Cooperstown Central School sophomores were identified by classmates, who witnessed the incident from Cooper Park.
Students in the park at the time of the incident said Pacherille had just gotten his learner’s permit and saw him circling the park. According to one witness, a 15-year-old sophomore girl, Pacherille idled the vehicle into the park at about 3 p.m.
He drove just past the statue of James Fenimore Cooper, where sophomores Lippitt, Samuel Bowen and Ben Pierson were gathered, said the girl, who asked that her name not appear in the newspaper.
``A couple of them went over and asked him why he was driving by himself, with just a learner’s permit,’’ she said.
``Then Tony [Pacherille] pulled out the gun,’’ she said. ``At first, I thought he was just trying to scare them.’’ The boys scattered. Lippitt ran out of Cooper Park, across crowded Main Street. Pacherille jumped out of his car, neglecting to put on the brake, and it rolled into the wrought iron gate at the park’s entrance, she said. The girl said she heard shots and within minutes the streets were flooded with police.
Another CCS student who was in Cooper Park after the shooting said he was in shock about the incident because he had had lunch with Pacherille before it happened. The boy, who wanted to remain anonymous, said Pacherille seemed fine and that he did not suspect a thing.
Both boys were taken to Bassett Medical Center. Lippitt was released later that day. Pacherille is still recovering in the hospital and has not been charged. According to Otsego County District Attorney John M. Muehl, Pacherille is likely to be arraigned on charges later this week. He could face a count of second-degree attempted murder.
When students returned to school on Monday attendance was normal, according to CCS Superintendent Mary Jo McPhail. She said the school activated its crisis team with the goal of supplying all the necessary support students may need as they make a transition back to school. McPhail said there had not been any reports of any arguments or fighting before the shooting and the incident was as much of a shock to her as anybody else.
``As a school district our goal is to ensure the health, safety and well-being of our students and we will continue to work towards that,’’ she said.
Cooperstown Secondary Principal Michael Cring said the primary focus right now is on the emotional and mental well-being of district students.
``We feel terrible for both boys and their families. We care about them both very much,’’ he said.
``We’re shocked and dismayed that this happened,’’ added Cring.
Former CCS Middle School Principal and Cooperstown resident David Pearlman said he has worked with teens for almost 40 years, and believes any tragedy like this is amplified by their age and presumption of innocence.
``This tragedy, of course, extends way beyond the wounds to both boys, and the emotional havoc on their families and friends,’’ said Pearlman. ``It also serves as a warning that, yes, it can happen here.’’
``My fear is that it will be answered by greater physical measures meant to prevent the act: metal detectors, ID badges, locked doors and the like, when what is needed is more vigilance and caring and emotional security on the part of our close-knit community,’’ he added.
Pearlman said there is a need to treat the cause of such behavior, not just the means to carry it out.
``All adults need to teach teens that it’s OK to be kind to each other, said Pearlman. ``But that’s hard with adolescents, who are in a very Darwinian stage of life.’’
Trustee Jeff Katz said Monday that he had returned home from New York City for only 10 minutes Friday afternoon when he received a call from Mayor Carol Waller about the shooting. He said that what he saw over the weekend was a community that was ``confused, hurt and troubled.’’
``It was community living on rumors and stories,’’ he said. ``Whatever we can make public to provide some answers, we should.’’
Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Jane Forbes Clark released a statement that said, “As Cooperstown is a close-knit community, Friday’s events have touched all of us. We are deeply saddened for the families of those involved in this tragedy. The Hall of Fame and the entire Cooperstown community have supported each other for more than 70 years and we are here to help this very special community in any way possible to heal from this event.’’
Trustee Lynne Mebust, whose sons attend Cooperstown Central School said, ``in my 10 years here I have never seen any examples of overt racism. I never hear the kids talking about the problem.’’ Pacherille is white. Lippitt is black.
Catherine Lake Ellsworth, a Pioneer Street resident, said a terrible tragedy has befallen the Village of Cooperstown and the uncertainty surrounding the reason has only made matters worse.
Unfortunately, the initial reporting of the story was not about the tragedy of two 16- year-old boys, but rather one of ``an official who declined to be identified...’’ who nonetheless chose to paint the tragedy as a hate crime, something which overshadowed the newspaper’s reporting of the event, said Ellsworth. She said the results of that decision have been devastating.
``The grapevine is running full tilt,’’ said Ellsworth.
``The rumors and innuendo are rampant.
The result is tearing the fabric of the community apart. And it needs to stop.’’
Ellsworth said the people of the community need to step back, listen to what is being said and realize that at this point it is all speculation. She said the time has come for the community to recognize “who and what we are and not allow who and what we are to be decided by forces beyond control. “
Chestnut Street resident Mary Margaret Kuhn said she and her husband, Paul, a former village trustee, were “completely shocked” by the incident.
`` We know Wes Lippitt as a terrific young man,’’ said Kuhn. She said although Pacherille belongs to the same church (St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church) as she and Paul, they do not know him.
Kuhn said she was working at The Farmers’ Museum during the time of the incident and her husband was working around the house. “We learned about the tragedy on the way to church for Stations of the Cross,” said Kuhn.
Kuhn, who is white, said she and her husband have witnessed some racism since moving to Cooperstown 15 years ago. However, she said they never dreamed that this could happen, and they pray that it doesn’t happen ever again.
``We hope that tolerance is reinforced by every member of our community,’’ said Kuhn. Students offer insights
Authorities are investigating whether race was a factor in the shooting. While some residents of the community are reluctant to believe this could be a factor, students who attend Cooperstown High School believe it is not out of the question. They also talk of the bullying some students endure as another factor in what led to the shooting.
A group of teenage students in Cooper Park who said they witnessed the shooting, but asked to remain anonymous, said it was widely known throughout the school that Pacherille had made racist remarks in the past. They said arguments had taken place between the two boys throughout the years they were in school together. The teens said they never took it too seriously because remarks were made verbally and there had never been any physical fighting.
Former CCS student Kayleen Campbell said in a letter to the editor that she has known Pacherille since the fourth grade and if there is anybody who has been discriminated against, it’s him. Campbell said Pacherille has been made fun of countless times and had to suffer a barrage of daily insults for years regarding his heritage and background for “the simple fact that he is Italian.’’
“Tony (Pacherille) never gave anyone a reason to be mean to him, yet people constantly are,’’ said Campbell, who resides in Broomfield, Co.
Campbell, a CCS student for seven years, said bullying will never be reported to the administration, and even if it is, the student who tells will get verbally abused even more for telling.
Phoenix Miller, who graduated from CCS last year, said: ``I have several friends who also needed more support from the teachers or the counselors at school.” ``I believe that the school would rather ignore problems than try to fix them. If anything, the school should focus on seminars for the students so that they can talk or be aware of teasing, racism, and any other subject that young teens may face.’’
Students at CCS have been encouraged by school officials not to speak to the media about the shooting, but a senior, who wishes to remain anonymous, said bullying is something many students at the district have come to realize is a part of life.
``Unfortunately, they shouldn’t have to come to that conclusion,’’ said the senior.
``Everyone needs to step back and understand how their actions or words may be perceived. Just because someone laughs off a `funny’ insult on the outside doesn’t mean they’re happy on the inside. Two lives have been changed forever. Don’t destroy any more.’’
The senior said when she stepped into the Middle/High School auditorium for an assembly regarding the shooting on Monday, she was appalled.
She said students were laughing, rushing to find seats next to their friends, and as the assembly began, staring down at their shoes.
``And then I thought this is most likely what crossed the mind of my fellow student when he drew his gun. Enough!’’ She said she has come to realize that if one is not a ``townie’’ or a son or daughter of a doctor he or she must be inferior. She said if someone has a different political persuasion he or she is viewed as an ``idiot.’’ If someone likes to go hunting he or she might be considered ``barbaric’’ and if someone does not drive a foreign-made car it must be a ``piece of trash.’’ The senior said while she hears her peers preach about being tolerant of different races and ethnicities, their actions would suggest otherwise.
``I guess it only counts when you’re speaking of foreign countries and their citizens,’’ she said.
A mother of a black student who attends CCS talked to a WKTV reporter on Monday and said the district is known, among students, as a place where harassment and bullying often take place. The women, who wished to remain anonymous, said harassment is a common thing and that it’s not always about race. She said she and her daughter were shocked to hear of the shooting on Friday.
The pastor of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, where Pacherille and his family have been active members for more than 10 years, said he does not think racism played a role in the decisions made by Pacherille.
He described the boy as a good, kind, generous person who volunteered regularly at the church and had expressed interest in becoming a priest during his confirmation last December. The pastor, the Rev. John P. Rosson, said Pacherille had been a victim of bullying and harassment. “I think something just snapped,’’ Rosson said Tuesday afternoon after getting back from visiting Pacherille at the hospital. “I don’t think he has any dark stellar secrets.’’
Rosson said he has been to visit the boy every day in the hospital.
“There is deep remorse,’’ Rosson said. “He did something wrong and he knows that.’’
Rosson said Pacherille’s spirits get better with each day, but the boy is still very sensitive. It is important to talk about how fortunate he is and he has been talking about that, Rosson said.
In response to the claims of bullying and racial tension in the school district McPhail said she has never heard of any racial complaints before Friday.
According to McPhail, there have been no prior indications of racial problems at the school.
She said there had not been any reports of any arguments or fighting before the shooting.
Principal Cring said the district takes bullying and racial discrimination very seriously and no incidents were ever reported to school administration or counselors regarding the two young men.
``It’s hard to do something about a potential issue if it has never been reported,’’ he said, adding that both boys had ``totally clean’’ disciplinary records.
``The only blemish was for budging in the lunch line,’’ he said.
``We follow all of the state guidelines and treat these issues very seriously. Any bullying or racial issue we are presented with is investigated and dealt with according to our school code of conduct and with education to help improve the behavior.’’
Cring said the district’s immediate concern this week is for the students’ emotional well-being.
``Down the road we will reflect on our practice and make changes if necessary,’’ he said. ``The responsibility for educating young people on these critical topics must be shared by the school and the home.” continued Cring.