July 14, 2010 -- 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."
Shooting Case Divides Community
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.
New York State Police, who are heading the investigation with the assistance of the Ithaca police department, declined to comment on the possible connection between the fire and the shooting, except to say the department is "looking into all aspects of the investigation.
"We're not zeroing in or ruling out any particular angle," Lt. William McEvoy told ABC News.
Comments on the Ithaca Journal's message boards seemed to support Cleveland's speculation and give a glimpse at the division over the Greenwood shooting case.
"The odds of this being unrelated to the Greenwood shooting and/or the aftermath of it, are so slim as to defy credibility," one commenter said.
"We all know why the fire was set," said another.
Outpouring of Support
Though a member of the Bangs family told ABC News Bryan Bangs is "doing great," the crime sent a shockwave through the relatively small town of Ithaca. There, police officers are "responsible, most often, for maintaining quality of life issues," Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson said in a statement.
"This terrible crime emphasizes that our officers not only strive to keep the peace but do indeed put their lives at risk," the statement said.
Cleveland, who spoke to ABC News from the wreckage that used to be the Bangs' home, said the community's outpouring of support -- from volunteers to donations -- has been inspiring.
Within hours of hearing about the fire, more than 50 police officers, firefighters and other volunteers turned out at the Bangs' home to sort through the rubble and make the site safe, should the family want to comb through it for personal items.
"It's not because of the family name as much as the brotherhood of emergency services," Jeff Bangs said.
The Bangs family is well known in the town, having been around for more than 70 years, Bangs said. Local businesses have chipped in the cleanup, including one Home Depot that refused to let Bangs pay for some bins.
"The community support we are receiving from this has been just astronomical," Jeff Bangs said.
Cleveland said that despite there being nothing left but "a charred, burned out, shell of a home," a few sentimental momentos -- Bangs' son's toys and the couple's wedding album -- somehow survived the fire.
Though he was the last person alive in the house, Bryan Bangs has not seen the damage for himself, Jeff Bangs said. Jeff sent periodical picture updates to his daughter-in-law of the cleanup.
"I could tell by the texts back that she was just in tears," he said.
A local fund, called the Bryan Bangs Relief Fund, was set up just two days after the fire and a benefit concert with local acts is scheduled next month.
CLICK HERE for more information on the Bryan Bangs Relief Fund.
ABC News' Nicholas Tucker contributed to this report.