SHERRILL — Sunday will mark the 50th anniversary of an incident that led to the deaths of Police Officer Robert A. Mumford and Police Chief Thomas P. Reilly, killed in the line of duty.
The tragedy from 50 years ago is the subject of the pilot episode of a docu-series titled, “Blue Legacy: The Stories Behind the Badge.” The documentary, currently in production, will include first-hand accounts from victims and witnesses to the 1969 case, along with family members of the deceased officers and others.
At about 9:30 p.m. Sept. 8, 1969, Martin Fitzpatrick, held up the attendant of Finn’s Gulf Station in Canastota at gunpoint, stealing his wallet and the station’s receipts — about $400. Police were immediately called which resulted in a radio alert by Oneida Police to other police cars in the region, including Sherrill Police about 7 miles away.
At 9:48 p.m., Mumford and Reilly stopped a car matching the description of the wanted vehicle and interviewed the driver, who denied knowledge of the robbery. Fitzpatrick appeared cooperative and provided a story to the officers, which caused Chief Reilly to doubt they stopped the right car.
According to accounts, at 9:54 p.m., Reilly radioed to the dispatcher that he thought they had the wrong man, and that Fitzpatrick was being cooperative. But during his interaction with the officers, Fitzpatrick apparently became aware that Canastota Police were bringing the victim to Sherrill to identify him, a procedure known by police as a “show up.” About four minutes later, Fitzpatrick drew a pistol, shot both officers, and sped away in his car.
Chief Reilly was able to reach his police radio and at 9:58 p.m. broadcast that he and Officer Mumford had been shot. Wayne Coston was on duty as the desk sergeant at Oneida Police headquarters that night, and said he remembers taking Chief Reilly’s radio call.
“It’s been 50 years and I will never get that out of my mind,” Coston said. “‘We’re shot, we’re shot, God help me, please hurry...’”
The injured Reilly had also written down Fitzpatrick’s name and license plate number in his police notebook.
Fitzpatrick fled the shooting and drove to Munnsville where he found a darkened home in a remote area. It was just minutes after the shooting in Sherrill when he knocked on the door of the occupant, Marie DiLapi, asking for a glass of water and directions.
“He wanted to know how to get to Syracuse, and I gave him directions via Route 5, but he didn’t want to go that way,” said DiLapi.
DiLapi was home alone with her two daughters ages 4 and 6 at the time. After a short conversation, Fitzpatrick forced his way into the home brandishing his handgun. He checked out the home and the bedroom where the two little girls slept. He then told DiLapi that she was going to drive him to Syracuse in her car, likely knowing that a large police dragnet would be looking for him in his own car.
Fitzpatrick forced DiLapi and her two girls into the mother’s car and ordered her to drive back roads to Syracuse.
“When we got near Jamesville I was really scared that he would kill us and dump us over a hillside,” she remembered. “But we continued on to Syracuse where he directed me where to drive until he got out.”
DiLapi and her girls were finally free. She drove around until she was able to alert someone to call police. Her information would turn out to be a critical clue in the investigation and manhunt for Fitzpatrick as the search was previously focused toward the areas east of Sherrill, rather than west toward Syracuse.
Deputy Fran Broski worked for the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office at the time and was on duty that evening back in 1969.
“I was in Vernon when the call came in that there were two Sherrill police officers down. I drove to the scene and found that the ambulances were loading Bob and Tom to get them to the hospital,” Broski recalled.
Additional police vehicles arrived on scene and Broski took off in the direction pointed out by witnesses to search for the suspect.
“I started searching Route 5 and went all the way to Kirkville, and then I checked side roads looking for the car,” he said.
A civilian witness, John Orr, was across the street at a gas station he owned, when the officers were shot. Orr’s stepson, Bruce Rochester, remembered the night.
“I was talking with my stepdad out in front of the gas station and we had seen that the police had a car stopped,” Rochester said. “All of a sudden we heard gunshots, and my stepdad instinctively took off after the fleeing car.”
Rochester described his father as a hard-charger, former military and a sitting justice of the peace for nearby Vernon.
“But my stepfather was driving a Chevy Blazer K5 and couldn’t keep up with him,” he said.
The harrowing night of Sept. 8, 1969 is still remembered to this day by several in Sherrill. A park has since been named in honor of the fallen officers, Reilly-Mumford Park, where various community events are held throughout the year. A monument at the park commemorates their service and sacrifice.