The “batter” was standing at the coffee counter. Officer Jose Escobar Sr. needed to throw him off balance.
The “batter” was a man Escobar and his fellow officers had been hunting for days: an alleged armed robber who had hit five banks and fast-food joints in New Haven in recent weeks as well as spots in other cities.
The word “batter” was appropriate because Escobar (pictured above) is a baseball catcher turned crook-catcher. As in his days on the diamond, he had to think fast about the best strategy to take his target out.
Just grabbing the guy could backfire. It could cause a commotion. Someone might get hurt.
Fortunately for the people in the market, perhaps even for the wanted man himself, Escobar was on the ball.
3 & 1
Escobar, who’s 45, didn’t expect to run into the wanted man at Victor’s Food Mart and Deli at the corner of Grand and Blatchley avenues in Fair Haven Monday morning. He expected to pick up his daily mid-morning egg white and turkey bacon sandwich, then return to his cruiser to resume his day-shift patrol.
He’s been picking up the mid-morning sandwich since one Sunday, the summer before last, when a teammate in the Liga Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican men’s softball league) brought a whole box of them to a game in Criscuolo Park. Escobar had a college baseball scholarship. He dreamed of going pro. After graduation from Sacred Heart University, with a criminal-justice degree and a stellar catching career, he had an opportunity to play in Italy’s pro league, he said. He also had a young family. He decided to stay here and become a New Haven cop, a job he has held for over 20 years. For fun, he kept playing ball on the side.
“I love catching,” Escobar said.
With that first sandwich bite at Criscuolo field Escobar saw ... well, maybe not God, but some culinary equivalent.
“Man!” he asked Carlos, the teammate. “Where’d you get those sandwiches from?”
“Victor’s,” Carlos reported.
“Man! I’ve got a place to start my shift!”
Fast forward to this Monday. Escobar called ahead for two sandwiches, not one. He had a rookie riding with him named Gary Coates. He wanted to show him the ropes.
At line-up they’d heard yet again about the 32-year-old man who was terrorizing people at businesses like Westville’s First Niagara branch, a Fair Haven Dunkin’ Donuts, and various Subway outlets. The man used either a syringe or a gun to hold the joints up. The state had a warrant out for him for fleeing a halfway house. The media had plastered his photos to help the cops track him down.
The man was just standing there at the coffee counter by the front door when Escobar entered Victor’s.
“Man, that’s Chris!” Escobar recalled thinking instantly.
Beneath his black jacket, the man had on the same grey hooded sweatshirt he was wearing in all those surveillance videos of his recent robberies.
He kept a straight face, though. He saw a good half-dozen customers in the store. Several others were at work behind the grill, behind the main counter.
The police had received word that the man might attempt “suicide by cop”—i.e. take down a police officer with him rather than go to jail.
Escobar’s rookie was in the cruiser across the street. So he had no immediate back-up. Not the best time to start something with a possibly armed, suicidal-homicidal man.
“You have to play it smart. This could get ugly,” Escobar remembered thinking. He compared his next moves to the decisions he’d make on the baseball diamond when he signaled pitchers.
“You have to know your batter, what your batter likes to hit. What’s he looking for?”
And, said Escobar, who’s built like a backstop, “you have to think of the count.” In Victor’s Market, the count was 3 and 1, he said. Three balls. One strike.
“The batter’s anticipating a fast ball down the middle” at that point, he said. “You throw him a curve ball. His knees are going to buckle. He’s not going to swing. Strike two.”
So Escobar pitched him a curve.
“Hey buddy, how you doin’?” Escobar recalled breezily asking the wanted man as he walked back to the grill for his sandwiches.
He kept a peripheral eye on the man as he retrieved his order, made small talk, paid at the register. He didn’t want to let on to the man that he was onto him.
He said good-bye to the man, headed back to the cruiser.
The count was 3 and 2.
Now The Fastball
“Now the batter’s thinking: Am I going to see a fast ball? Or am I going to see another curve ball? The batter doesn’t know what to think,” Escobar reasoned.
He entered the cruiser, parked it around the corner on Grand, facing Victor’s more directly from the other side of the intersection. He could see the wanted man peeking out the door, checking to see where the officer had gone.
Escobar phoned each of the other two Fair Haven patrol officers on duty, Carlos Colon and Diego Quintero. The guy we’ve been looking for is here at Victor’s, Escobar told them. Hurry over.
Then he dialed a number he knows by heart—the grill at Victor’s. How long has that man by the front door been in the store? he asked. A good 15 minutes, he learned. The man had been casing the joint, making the workers nervous. They were about to call for the police.
Don’t call 911, Escobar said. We’re coming.
Colon arrived first.
Time for the fastball down the middle.
Colon and Escobar entered the store together. Escobar grabbed the man’s left arm, Colon, his right. They brought him out to the sidewalk. The man didn’t resist.
Outside the store Escobar handcuffed the wanted man.
“You know what’s going on, right?” he asked him.
“You got me,” the man replied.
Escobar asked his name.
“My name is Chris,” the man replied.
He gave his real last name.
They found a BB gun and a syringe in his pocket. Then they put him in Colon’s cruiser.
Assistant Police Chief Luiz Casanova would later praise Escobar’s catch at the weekly police Compstat meeting. “This could have been a gun battle or a suicide by cop” if Escobar hadn’t thought fast and handled the arrest so smoothly, Casanova said.
After the arrest outside Victor’s, Colon drove the arrestee to headquarters to be booked and interviewed by detectives.
Escobar and rookie Coates followed in the other cruiser.
Adrenaline flowing, Escobar realized he was hungry.
“Let’s eat,” he said. So they opened the bag with their order.
The sandwiches had turned cold.
“It didn’t matter,” Escobar said. They hit the spot.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Craig Alston & Billy White Jr.
• James Baker
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Paul Bicki
• Paul Bicki (2)
• Sheree Biros
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Anthony Campbell
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• Carlos Conceicao
• Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
• Bertram Etienne
• Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Derek Gartner & Ryan Macuirzynski
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• John Kaczor & Alex Morgillo
• Jillian Knox
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Dana Martin
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Ron Perry
• Joe Pettola
• Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• David Rivera
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Salvador Rodriguez (2)
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Allen Smith
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Manuella Vensel
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Matt Williams
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski