From “Open Toe” To Open Window

Paul Bass Photocopoftheweek_logo.jpgArmy Special Forces Capt. Bill Gargone had just returned to New Haven’s streets after leading 120 soldiers in an Afghan firefight. He was back to being Officer Gargone. And he found himself on Shelton Avenue wrestling with a felon for a 9 mm Smith & Wesson in the front seat of a moving Chevy Impala.

The felon’s legs were flapping outside the driver’s side window. To avoid the cops, he had leaped in the window, on top of the driver, and slapped his hand on the accelerator.

Gargone was half inside the car, too, on the passenger side. In the end, he grabbed the gun. And the cops arrested the felon.

Some army leaders come home from war to parades. Gargone came home to the beat.

On the beat, he’s used to grabbing guns off the street. In his first month back, he has confiscated two of them.

Ever since 9/11, Gargone has left the New Haven police force every three years, to spend a year as a captain of U.S. Army Special Forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, hunting down alleged terrorists on the army’s most-wanted list.

His latest tour saw him in charge of part of a seven-day commando operation in Afghan’s Helgal Valley. It was called “Operation Open Toe.” Gargone named it that.

That Afghan showdown and the encounter on Shelton Avenue—call it “Operation Open Window”—show the two different assignments Bill Gargone takes on in two dramatically different parts of the world.

Gargone, a 37-year-old shoreline native with 12 years on the police forces, recounted the details of both operations in a conversation the other day at the downtown Bruegger’s Bagels. He said he brings the same goals to both his army and police jobs: “upholding the law of the land,” preventing bad guys from hurting others, and “helping people and making a difference.”

Or, in one word: Duty.

Operation Open Toe

Contributed Photo“Open Toe” got its name before Gargone got the order to help devise and launch it.

The name came to him after he chewed out one of the members of the special forces group he oversees.

It was last spring. The unit was in Afghanistan, charged with tracking down the Taliban’s “baddest of the bad,” as Gargone put it. He had around 15 American soldiers and over over 650 Afghan forces reporting to him, he said.

“It was 100-something degrees,” he recalled. “One of my guys was in a turret with a gun. He had a sandal on.

“I go, ‘Johnny, what the hell are you doing? You can’t have open-toe sandals! Everyone thought it was hilarious. He was trying to put one over on me.”

Gargone didn’t think it was hilarious. He ordered the soldier (an American) to put on his combat boots. He didn’t talk to the soldier for a few days.

Then he decided to name the next operation “Open Toe” to show he could laugh about it, too. “He felt better” when that happened,” Gargano said. “A little humor goes a long way. You have to know when to be a leader, and when to relieve the pressure. There’s a lot of pressure over there.”

While the operation’s title was light-hearted, the mission itself was dead serious. The Taliban had overrun an outpost in Helgal Valley. They killed two American soldiers and U.N. forces, according to Gargone. They captured 12 Afghan government forces.

“I went in there,” Gargone said, “to get the soldiers back.”

It took seven days—seven days, Gargone said, “of patience.” Two Green Beret teams planned and carried it out, including Gargone’s team. Eventually all the women and children in the area had fled. So had some of the Taliban fighters. Gargone ordered pinpoint air strikes and sniper attacks. On the final day, the special forces stormed the village.

“It was a firefight,” he said. “They fought to the death.”

Over two dozen Taliban died, according to Gargone. None of Gargone’s forces died. And they rescued all 12 Afghan captives.

Operation Open Window

Gargone returned home later in 2009. He took a few months to decompress before resuming his 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. police patrol beat on New Haven’s east side.

He returned in January. He felt like he’d joined a new department. While he was gone, an interim chief, James Lewis, had come to town make changes. Morale was at an all-time high. “I’m proud be a part of the department” now, he said. “It’s great being part of something that’s a well-oiled machine.”

In no time, Gargone was back to his old tricks—namely catching alleged crooks with guns. Before he left for Afghanistan this last time, New Haven’s Board of Aldermen gave him an award for bravery for one such grab.

On Jan. 11 he was assigned to patrol in Newhallville. He and a partner, Michael DeFonzo, stopped a red Chevy Impala on Shelton Avenue at 1:55 a.m. It had dark-tinted windows. That’s a no-no.

A woman was behind the wheel. One man sat in the front passenger seat, another in the back. Gargone and DeFonzo questioned them. The back seat passenger fidgeted. He gave odd answers, not quite responding when asked his name and address.

Gargone asked him to exit the car. The man did—and ran around the car to the other side.

He ran funny. Gargone knew why.

“There’s a certain run you notice, a certain swagger,” he said. “How you run with a gun in your pants. I know that run. It’s like a penguin, with the gun between the legs.

“These guys don’t carry holsters.”

The man—who’s 27 and, it turned out, a convicted felon—stopped at the driver’s door. The car was running. The window was open. He dived in, on top of the driver.

Gargone opened the front passenger door. He lunged into the car, too.

The felon dived face first to the floor. The gun dropped beside him. He pressed his hand on the gas pedal.

DeFonzo, standing outside, pulled on the felon legs. Then off the car went, kocking DeFonzo’s aside.

“I went along,” Gargone remarked, “for the ride.”

He wrestled with the felon. They both reached for the gun.

The car traveled about 50 feet.

It was a tense moment, Gargone recalled. “I’m wedged in. The police tools aren’t readily available.”

He was able to reach his pepper spray. He shot a blast in the felon’s face.

Meanwhile the woman obeyed a shouted order from a cop to hit the brake.

“If it weren’t for the female driver,” Gargone said, “things could have been out of control.”

The officers caught up. Gargone grabbed the Smith & Wesson. The felon was arrested.

Three nights later, Gargone was back on the east side, participating in another routine traffic stop on Fairmont Avenue. Again, a passenger fled, doing the penguin dance. Gargone and fellow Officer Chris Fennessy gave chase. They caught the man, and found the gun.

Operation Self-Reliance

Although Gargone has a higher-level position in the army, he joined it to become a beat cop—not the other way around.

He decided in high school to become a cop. The army seemed like the best route there.

One day, when he was 15, he was in the car with his father. While driving, his father suffered a heart attack. “He died in my arms,” Gargone recalled.

“My dad always said, ‘You should help other people. You’re not alone in this world.’” Gargone took the advice to heart as he planned his future.

Meanwhile, as the only son at home (his older brother had grown and moved south), Gargone had to support the family. His mother, a homemaker, became ill. While completing high school, he started mowing loans, plowing driveways, delivering newspapers. He made enough to pay the mortgage.

He could have continued in the landscaping business after graduation. But he wanted a better life—which, to him, meant becoming a cop.

He wanted to study criminal justice in college first. So he joined the army—because the army would pay his college bills. Plus, it would provide some “structure” he sought after his dad’s death.

While earning his criminal justice degree at Western Connecticut State University, Gargone completed basic training. He also went through ROTC at UConn’s Storrs campus and, after graduation, officer training.

He landed the job on New Haven’s police force. His commitment to the army at first meant two weeks of training a year. Then came the terror attacks at the World Trade Center; the country entered a permanent state of war. That’s when he began the rotation of one year abroad as a Green Beret detachment commander, two back home as a beat cop.

He likes it that way, he said. He has no interest in assuming the same kind of high-ranking role as a New Haven cop that he takes on in the army. He just wants to his job, and do it well.

He continues to support his mom, who recently recovered from a bout of cancer. And he keeps up with army leadership responsibilities: He enlisted members of his unit in a “Freedom” motorcycle ride from Indiana to Rhode Island to raise money for the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Duty called.

Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:

Shafiq Abdussabur
Maneet Bhagtana
Scott Branfuhr
Dennis Burgh
Sydney Collier
David Coppola
Joe Dease
Brian Donnelly
Anthony Duff
Bertram Etienne
Paul Finch
Jeffrey Fletcher
Renee Forte
William Gargone & Mike Torre
Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
Dan Hartnett
Ray Hassett
Robin Higgins
Ronnell Higgins
Racheal Inconiglios
Hilda Kilpatrick
Anthony Maio
Steve McMorris
Stephanie Redding
Tony Reyes
Luis & David Rivera
Salvador Rodriguez
Brett Runlett
David Runlett
Marcus Tavares
Martin Tchakirides
Stephan Torquati
Kelly Turner
John Velleca
Alan Wenk
Michael Wuchek
David Zannelli
David Zaweski

(To suggest an officer to be featured, contact us here.)

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posted by: lance on February 5, 2010  2:13pm

Watch your back Bill, the minute Bass gets a chance to stick a knife in your back and infer you’re a racist profiler, he will.  Just my opinion of course.

posted by: Brian V on February 5, 2010  3:31pm

Way to go Bill! -But it is no surprise here. Bill is an outstanding, all American guy. If this country had more guys like this we all would be better off. He should be voted American Citizen of the month, not just NH Cop. Selfless service to the community. I wish some of city’s political leaders would take a cue from this. Great piece, makes you want to cry.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 5, 2010  3:49pm

Go away.

posted by: Patrick on February 5, 2010  3:51pm

I know Bill personally and not only is he a great police officer, but he is an all around great person.  Very humble and mild mannered, he puts everyone before himself.  He is clearly an asset to our military as well as the NHPD.  This is a great article and long overdue recognition for Officer Gargone.  Keep up the good work!

posted by: walt bradley on February 6, 2010  9:58am

Beege, you are the best kid.  if you’d been back in june there’d be no need for me to move to guilford.  well except for the politicians.
Love you man, welcome back to new haven.

posted by: V on February 6, 2010  2:02pm

Stay safe out there, Officer Gargone.  We appreciate your service, both here and abroad.

posted by: Scot on February 7, 2010  8:45am

Wow, what an inspiration. Thank you for your service, to both country and New Haven.

posted by: streever on February 7, 2010  2:59pm

Holy! that’s an awesome story. Nice work Officer, thank you for dealing with this situation.

posted by: Jacob Pongratz on February 7, 2010  4:39pm

You are appreciated Capt. Bill Gargone. Thank you for your bravery and service.


posted by: K on February 8, 2010  5:23pm

More cops like Gargone, please! Thank god he wasn’t hurt. It would be unbelievably tragic if he had survived war, but not New Haven. It makes me sick that criminals like that are out there, making our world that much more ugly, while poeple like him are trying to do good. Stay safe, officer.

posted by: LR CRUE on February 9, 2010  7:18am

Bill you are an inspiration to all, thank you for your service. Keep up the good work!