Pittsburgh officer saved by his vest in Stanton Heights



Cristyn Zett believes that more than a bullet-resistant vest saved her baby brother's life Friday when a gunman shot Pittsburgh police Officer Andrew Baker square in the chest.

"Obviously," she said, "he had a guardian angel this morning, and we're just really grateful that this had a good outcome."

But for the vest, Officer Baker's life could have ended at age 27 on Schenley Manor Drive in Stanton Heights.

Police detail shooting incident

A Pittsburgh police officer's bullet-resistant vest allowed him to escape virtually unscathed after being shot in the chest early today. (Video by Moriah Balingit; 10/12/2012)

The encounter began when Officer Baker sped to the scene around 5 a.m. after a call to 911 for shots fired. He found Tiant R. Mitchell and his wife in the middle of the street.

PG VIDEO

Mitchell opened fire on the police car, striking its hood and headlight, police said. Officer Baker jumped out of his cruiser and was immediately struck in the chest.

Family members said he didn't even realize he'd been shot.

Taking cover behind the driver's side door, Officer Baker returned fire. He retreated to the rear of the car, where he kept shooting, striking Mitchell once in the buttocks, police said. Police believe Officer Baker also struck Mitchell's wife in the hand as she stood near her husband.

In all, police said Officer Baker fired more than two dozen shots.

At a news conference hours later, police Chief Nate Harper held up the vest, showing the hole through the middle of the chest piece.

"The intent of Tiant Mitchell," the chief said, "was to kill an officer."

Police found the slug between the vest and Officer Baker's shirt. He was taken to UPMC Mercy to be examined for any chest injuries and for treatment of a cut lip.

Mitchell, 25, was recovering along with his wife at UPMC Presbyterian under heavy guard.

Mitchell's father, Ricardo Jones, described his son as smart yet angry.

"He's an intelligent boy but the seed of anger sprang up within him," Mr. Jones, 65, of Braddock Hills said. "He's an intelligent boy. He had academics. But his principles were in question."

Mitchell's Facebook page indicates he went to Woodland Hills High School, took culinary classes and is trying to publish a book.

For Officer Baker, who was not available for interviews, his survival prompted relief throughout the force and his family, which are quite entwined.

His sister is not only older than him -- she outranks him. Sgt. Zett works at the Hill District station. Her husband, Officer Richard Zett, is a bicycle officer on the North Side. Their middle brother, Arthur, is a city narcotics detective. And the second-youngest brother, John, is in the police academy.

Sgt. Zett said she got word of the shooting when a supervisor called from the scene.

"I knew nobody was calling me at 5 o'clock in the morning for a good reason. I hurried up and answered the phone and the first two words were, 'He's OK,' " she said. "He said, 'Listen, he's OK. He was shot, but it didn't go through his vest.' He said it about four times, probably knowing my brain was trying to wake up."

Sgt. Zett called her brother.

"We had no details. I just heard he had been involved in another shooting," Detective Baker said. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' "

It was the third time in a month and the fourth time this year that Officer Baker has narrowly escaped injury while pursuing a suspect.

On Sept. 29, he was nearly run over in Verona after cornering a man who had led police on a lengthy chase. Officer Baker fired on the minivan driven by Melvin T. Solomon, 41, who ultimately crashed and was arrested.

Less than three weeks earlier, On Sept. 9, he and other officers were shot at while responding to a shooting on Zenith Way. They returned fire. Monte Blair, 39, was arrested Sept. 28 and accused of firing on police.

And on Feb. 21, Officer Baker stopped a man in the Strip District for speeding. The man sped off, nearly striking Officer Baker and another officer. He fired one shot into the vehicle, but missed the suspect.

Officer Baker's relatives on the force don't know quite what to make of their brother's penchant for being in the right place at the right time -- or wrong one, depending on your perspective.

"If you add up me, my husband, my brother, our years on the job is well over 30 and between the three of us we haven't had four incidents let alone four in a year," Sgt. Zett said. "It's a tremendous amount of things to happen to one officer in that time period."

While Officer Baker's siblings know the territory, they are all at least intimate with the risks. Not so their parents, neither of whom is a police officer.

"My parents are worried about him, obviously, and about all of us on a daily basis. But we have a lot of confidence in Andrew and his abilities, which he insists on proving to us repeatedly," Sgt. Zett said with a laugh.

"All you can do is kind of hope and pray, and I think that's what my mom's been doing. She's probably got the rosary beads on fire."

By all accounts, Officer Baker himself, a five-year veteran, was calmly handling his brush with death. "He's in good spirits. I think he's still pretty amped up from the events," Detective Baker said. "I'm just glad he's OK."

The incident was reminiscent of the April 2009 ambush in Stanton Heights of three Zone 5 police officers by Richard Poplawski, who shot and killed Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly when they responded to a domestic dispute.

Detective Baker said his brother were friends with Officer Sciullo and transferred to Zone 5 after the shootings.

Friday morning's gunfire also grew out of a domestic dispute.

According to the criminal complaint filed in the case, Mitchell, who has a criminal record dating to adolescence, got in a fight with his wife at a South Side bar Thursday evening and the fight intensified when they returned home in the 900 block of Millerdale Street. Mitchell, irate, pointed a gun at her head and threatened to shoot her and her 1-year-old baby, the complaint said.

In an effort to get him away from the child, his wife persuaded him to walk with her to a Sunoco gas station to buy cigarettes.

At some point, he told her he wanted to kill a police officer. As they strode down their block, he pulled out his gun -- a 9mm semi-automatic -- and fired three shots in the air shortly before 5 a.m., Chief Harper said. His wife told him she worried the police would come.

A fire battalion chief's truck drove by and he again reached for his gun, but did not fire any more shots, the chief said. Then Officer Baker's vehicle approached within minutes and after he and Mitchell exchanged gunfire, Mitchell ran. Officer Baker caught him and detained him in the 300 block of Schenley Manor Drive until more police arrived at the scene.

He is charged with attempted homicide, three counts of reckless endangerment, three counts of aggravated assault, two counts of simple assault, endangering the welfare of a child and a firearms violation. Mitchell was arraigned in his hospital room Friday night and bond was set at $150,000. He also had an active warrant for failure to appear at a court hearing.

Mitchell has been involved in five criminal cases in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

He is wanted on a bench warrant for his most recent case in which he was charged with a variety of vehicle offenses and DUI but did not show up for court in August.

When Whitaker police pulled him over for making a turn without signaling, Mitchell had glassy, bloodshot eyes and the smell of marijuana pervaded the car, an officer wrote in an affidavit. Mitchell followed the officer's orders and was taken into custody.

In another case, Mitchell pleaded guilty in 2009 to resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 23 days to two months in jail and put on probation for a year. That case stemmed from an arrest in Braddock. In an affidavit, an officer referred to Mitchell as a "wanted person" who ran away from police. Officers said they found suspected crack cocaine. Mitchell told them he was wanted for violating his parole.

Three years before that, in 2006, Mitchell pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property, reckless endangerment and a firearms violation, which netted him a sentence of two to four years in prison.

Allegheny County civil court records indicate that Mitchell also has a juvenile record. There is a notation in court records that he was ordered to pay $250 in restitution in 2004.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. First Published October 13, 2012 4:00 AM


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