By Michael E. Miller
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Why did she shoot? "Because I thought I was gonna die and I thought my husband was gonna die," she replied. If she hadn't shot, she was asked, did she believe Morello would have run her down? "Absolutely," she responded, "beyond the shadow of any doubt."
In sworn statements given to investigators, all three of the teen-agers with Morello contradicted Russell's scenario. (Morello's friends were questioned separately, under oath, within hours of the incident. Laura and George Russell also answered investigators' questions shortly after the shooting, though they didn't provide sworn statements immediately. George Russell was questioned under oath a couple of days later, but Laura Russell did not provide her sworn account until March 12, nearly six weeks after the shooting.)
The van never moved forward toward the officer, the boys told police. They said Morello was backing up to get DiMaio, came to a rolling stop, and kept backing down the street after he'd been shot. Detectives asked Anthony Vincent if Morello changed gears after DiMaio leaped into the van. "No," Vincent answered. "He had stopped and then proceeded backwards." The van, he said, was in reverse the entire time, and when Morello was shot, the wounded teen immediately hit the gas and sped off backward. "He was just yelling, `She shot me in the chest! She shot me in the chest!' over and over again," Vincent told detectives.
Morello steered the van in reverse to the end of the block and then spun it 90 degrees to the right. The left front tire blew out under the pressure of the sharp turn, but Morello kept control of the vehicle and began driving south on NE Eighth Avenue. About a block later he passed out. From behind the driver's seat, DiMaio leaned over Morello's body and grabbed the steering wheel to avoid hitting a tree. The boys told investigators the van was still accelerating because Morello's foot was pressing down on the gas pedal. Morello's foot was pulled from the pedal as DiMaio continued steering for another block, to 142nd Street, where he turned the corner and pulled into the front yard of Carla Izzo, Morello's cousin. In order to stop the van, DiMaio said he slammed the gearshift into the "park" position.
Despite repeated calls from Izzo's house to 911, it took almost twenty minutes for paramedics to arrive. By the time Morello was finally airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, internal bleeding had drained him of two liters of blood. There was nothing doctors could do.
Although the shooting occurred within the city limits of North Miami, Metro-Dade detectives immediately took over the investigation of their fellow officer, Laura Russell. "It's been an established policy that they handle shootings anywhere in Dade County that involve their officers," North Miami Police Chief Kenneth Each said not long after the incident. "Metro-Dade has jurisdiction all over the county."
North Miami detectives were perfectly capable of conducting the investigation, Chief Each noted, but he saw nothing wrong with Metro-Dade handling its own case, and he expressed confidence that county detectives would do a "very thorough investigation." As a safeguard, he pointed out, the State Attorney's Office would review the evidence and an inquest would be held to present all the facts. Added the chief: "There is always an outside audit."
On March 30, the day of their son's inquest, Andrea and Joseph Morello stood outside Courtroom 5-2 on the fifth floor of the Metro Justice Building, and saw Laura Russell for the first time. She was dressed in a pink jacket, a floral-print skirt, and white stockings. Her brown hair was held back with a couple of pins. She was prettier than they had expected. Then again, they would say later, they didn't really know what to expect.
The hallway that morning was crowded, though the lines were clearly drawn. At one end of the hall more than a dozen Metro-Dade police officers - some in uniform, others in plain clothes -milled around, waiting for the courtroom doors to open. At the other end stood at least two dozen of Andrew Morello's friends and family members, many wearing black T-shirts with Andrew's name printed on them along with the song title, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye." Filling the gap were television camera crews and newspaper reporters, who drifted back and forth between the two groups, gathering pictures and quotations for their stories.
When the doors opened, the police officers filed in unmolested while Morello's friends and family were forced to walk through a metal detector, their bags and pocketbooks searched. Once inside the courtroom, Laura Russell sat in the front row of the gallery, flanked by her husband and Police Benevolent Association attorney Michael Cornley. The visiting officers filled the seats around the trio, and from time to time during the inquest leaned over and patted Russell on the back or whispered words of encouragement.
Because of the speed with which the police officers had filed in and the delay caused by the metal detector (standard in all courtrooms), Andrea and Joseph Morello were only able to find seats in the second-to-last row. They were tired from not having slept the night before, but sitting there holding hands, they prayed that the inquest would answer their questions about what had happened the night their son was killed.