A New York police officer is in hiding and under round-the-clock protection today after his house was burned to the ground, possibly in retaliation for the fatal shooting of the subject of a narcotics investigation earlier this year, a spokesman for the officer's family said today.
Ithaca police Sgt. Bryan Bangs was in his home early Saturday morning when the fire began. Bangs, who was home alone, escaped with minor smoke inhalation injuries. By the next day, the New York State Police had determined arson was the cause of the fire -- a "despicable, unconscionable" attack, according to Ithaca Police Chief Edward E. Vallely.
"An attack on any police officer is an attack on all police officers," Vallely said in a statement Monday. "And the entire law enforcement community will work on this investigation until the person or persons responsible are identified, arrested and brought before a court to answer for what they have done."
Earlier this month, Bangs was exonerated of any wrongdoing in the fatal February shooting of local man Shawn Greenwood. The death of Greenwood, who was African-American, fiercely divided the Ithaca community. Though Vallely said previously there was no hard evidence to support the two incidents are related, Bangs family friend and spokesman Eric Cleveland had no doubt.
"It racially charged the community. When the incident first took place at the end of February, there were a lot of people that questioned the actions," Cleveland told ABC News. "Any logical person would make that connection... it's pretty easy to connect the dots."
The Tompkins County District Attorney's office conducted a five-month investigation into the shooting.
Bangs, a SWAT team leader and 13-year police veteran, shot the 29-year-old Greenwood, after he refused to get out of a van when ordered and then ran into a police officer with the van, according to reports. Cocaine was discovered in the van Greenwood was driving.
Jeff Bangs, Bryan Bangs' father, told ABC News that since the July 1 finding, his son's family had moved in with him and then spent some time out of state in fear of retaliation. Bryan Bangs stayed in a series of hotels before returning home late Thursday night. The home was attacked late the next night.
Jeff Bangs said that while it's "everybody's assumption" that the fire was a form of payback for the ruling, he said it is the police's job determine that.
"We have to let the legal system proceed the same way we let the legal system proceed for the past four months," Bangs' father, Jeff Bangs, told ABC News, referring to the investigation that cleared his son. "Somebody can't accept the report – that's my personal opinion… [but] I'm not a cop and I don't want to be."
In March, mourners piled into St. James AME Zion Church to remember Greenwood's life and death, which some said was a murder, The Ithaca Journal reported.
"Things, in my estimation, had calmed down," after the district attorney's finding two months later, Cleveland said. "This attack on Bryan happened right after we had all collectively sort of exhaled and thought we were beyond it.
"Some people felt they had to take matters into their own hands," he said.