Clairton officer relives shooting on witness stand


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He saw the muzzle flash and felt his adrenaline rush.

But something was wrong. Clairton police Officer James Kuzak was being fired upon, but he couldn't shoot back.

"All of the sudden, instead of me standing, now I'm lying on the ground. ... I realized I didn't have my gun in my hand and I didn't know why," Officer Kuzak said. A pair of legs darted over him. "In my mind, I thought, this is the person who shot me. ... I will prepare myself to die."

Officer Kuzak, 40, took the witness stand Monday in the trial of Emilio Rivera, 27, of McKees Rocks, and Marcus Andrejco, 19, of Rankin, who prosecutors say barged into a home on Miller Avenue on April 4, 2011, robbed its residents at gunpoint and then shot the officer, who was among the first to respond. Prosecutors have said the men, demanding drugs and money, posed as FBI agents and terrorized the couple and their two young daughters. The woman testified last week that she was sexually assaulted, and that the gunman promised to "shoot our way out" when officers arrived.

Although Officer Kuzak speaks often about his rehabilitation and paralysis, Monday's testimony was his first time recounting the intricacies of the shooting with a room full of strangers.

He described parking a way down the road from the house when he arrived, believing a gunman was still inside. While fellow officers went to the front, Officer Kuzak headed to the back and saw a partially opened door that slammed shut as he announced his presence. He tried to kick it open, he said, but it wouldn't budge.

That's when he saw the first muzzle flash.

His fight-or-flight reflexes kicked in, but he couldn't move. He didn't understand that five bullets had hit him and that one had forced his drawn handgun from his grip. His bullet-proof vest protected him from two of the shots but not from the one that tore through his upper left chest into his spine, rendering him a paraplegic.

"I'm wondering why I can't get up and go, I can't stand up, I can't pull myself out of this situation," he testified.

He fought for breath. He struggled to scream for his partners' help. And for a moment as he lay bleeding on the ground, images of his loved ones flashed through his mind.

"I could feel it getting worse," Officer Kuzak said. "Then, I found a calmness I've never felt before. I said to myself, 'There's no way I will let myself die here.' "

Several jurors dabbed tears from their eyes as he described shouting until fellow Clairton Officer Matthew McDanel pulled him to the safety of an ambulance. He felt the blood rush from his chest as Officer McDanel tore away his bullet-proof vest. He remembered telling paramedics he could barely breathe.

One of them, paramedic and registered nurse Charles Roka Jr., testified that "when I first saw him, he was in extremely critical condition," sweating and pale. "In short, he looked like a dying man."

Aboard the ambulance, Officer Kuzak got his first glimpse into what his future would hold when a paramedic told him to pick up his leg.

"I remember saying, 'But I'm paralyzed,' and him saying, 'You really are,' " Officer Kuzak said. He spent the next 47 days at UPMC Mercy, moving from intensive care to a spinal rehabilitation unit. He still suffers muscle spasms that bring jolts of pain and prompted Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski to call for a short recess Monday morning. When the jurors were away, the officer grimaced.

The day, nevertheless, was one he has said he looked forward to. He had been steeling himself to testify against the men accused of shooting him. Outside the courtroom he said he tried to be straightforward and keep his glance away from his family seated in the first row. His father, James Kuzak Sr., dropped his head and cried.

"I just tried to treat it like a report," Officer Kuzak said. "This is what happened, this is what I know, this is how I got out of it alive."

Testimony will continue today in the case, which has revolved largely around identification of the two defendants.

neigh_south

Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878. First Published July 31, 2012 4:00 AM


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