MARGARETVILLE, N.Y. – A body was recovered in the wreckage of a house destroyed by a towering fire after a police raided it Wednesday evening in the search for a man suspected of shooting three New York state troopers, one of whom died.
Police could not immediately confirm the body was that of Travis D. Trim, a 23-year-old from northern New York whom police had been looking for since a trooper was shot during a routine traffic stop on Tuesday in rural upstate New York.
"The body was slumped in a doorway holding a rifle," Preston Felton, acting superintendent of the New York State Police, said at a news conference Wednesday night. Earlier, Preston had said there a "reasonable degree of certainty" that Trim was hiding in the unoccupied house when the fire broke out.
The body was found in second floor doorway, Felton said.
"I can't tell you whether he was dead or alive when the fire started," he said.
Felton said it could take a day or two to identify the body and, while he wouldn't say it was Trim, he does believe it's the same person who shot two troopers in the house Wednesday morning, one fatally, because the body was found in the area of the house where the gunshots came from.
"It's reasonable to say he had no intention of coming out of there alive," Felton said.
The fire erupted soon after an armored vehicle rolled up close and police fired tear gas into the building. SWAT teams tried to enter the house at about 5:50 p.m., but were driven back by the flames. Half the house was burning by 6:15 p.m.
The assault came roughly nine hours after two troopers were shot, one fatally, searching the rural home where police believe Trim, 23, took refuge while on the run after the shooting of another trooper Tuesday.
Felton said police fired a "non-incendiary type" device containing tear gas into the home at about 6 p.m. as troopers stormed in to search room-by-room for Trim. A robot and cameras mounted on poles had been used to check every room but one where Trim was believed holed up during the day, he said.
He said the cause of the fire that thwarted the search isn't known. It's possible Trim set the fire, Felton said, or a tear gas round could have ignited something.
"We are looking closer at the type of round that was fired into the residence, the type of tear gas round," he said.
Despite witnesses' accounts of gunfire directed at the house, Felton said police did not fire bullets into the structure, just the tear gas rounds.
He said investigators won't be able to get into the burned building until Thursday. They will search for Trim and begin trying to determine what caused the fire.
Earlier Wednesday, Felton identified the dead trooper as David C. Brinkerhoff, a member of the specially-trained Mobile Response Team and the second member of that unit to die during a manhunt since September.
Brinkerhoff and Trooper Richard Mattson were shot at about 8:45 a.m. while searching the farm for Trim, who is suspected of shooting a trooper Tuesday afternoon during a traffic stop in nearby Margaretville, Felton said. Brinkerhoff was hit at least once in the head and Mattson was wounded in the left arm. He was in serious but stable condition after surgery at Albany Medical Center, where he was taken by helicopter. The wounded troopers were pulled from the house by two other officers who were helping search the farm as part of a massive police sweep through the area.
Heavily armed officers positioned on hillsides and behind stone walls spent much of the day keeping watch over the farmhouse as the armored vehicle moved around the building and the cameras were used to search inside.
The farm, which neighbors described as a weekend residence, is in Arkville, a rural hamlet near Margaretville.
Police said the owner is Rommel Aujero and that he has a "connection to law enforcement."
"He is aware his house has burned. He appears to be a very understanding man and we thank him for that," Felton said.
A phone number for Aujero could not immediately be determined.
Trim's relatives expressed anxiety as the day unfolded.
"I don't think there's anyway for this to turn out good now. Not after shooting a trooper," said Ruth Trim, the suspect's grandmother, in a telephone interview from her home in northern New York.
Brinkerhoff, 29, was an 8-1/2 year state police veteran. He joined the MRT in early 2006. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and 7-month-old daughter. Mattson, a 6-1/2 year veteran who joined the MRT in 2006, is married with 1-year-old son. He had six hours of surgery, including skin grafts, and Felton said it looked like the trooper wasn't in danger of losing his arm.
"Today, the New York State Police and the State of New York suffered a tremendous loss," Gov. Eliot Spitzer said in a prepared statement. "One of our best has fallen and another has been seriously wounded in the line of duty."
The manhunt was touched off by the shooting of Trooper Matthew Gombosi in this town on the edge of Catskill Park at about 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.
Felton said Gombosi had pulled Trim over for a minor traffic infraction — most likely the license plate missing from the stolen Dodge Caravan he was driving. When Trim failed to provide identification, Gombosi told him he was under arrest. At that point, Felton said, Trim pulled a handgun from his waistband and fired once at the trooper.
Gombosi was hit in the lower left ribs and saved from serious injury by his body armor, police said.
After the shooting, police searched for the Caravan, which was later found abandoned. The minivan had been stolen Monday in St. Lawrence County, police said.
Trim, 23, is from North Lawrence, in St. Lawrence County about 10 miles south of the Canadian border.
He spent 2 1/2 months at the State University of New York-Canton during the fall semester of 2006 before withdrawing in mid-November, said Randy Sieminski, the school's director of public relations. He was registered in the school's motorsports performance and repair program.
Margaretville is about 65 miles southwest of Albany.
Last summer, Ralph "Bucky" Phillips led police on a five-month manhunt throughout heavily wooded western New York after breaking out of a county jail. During his time on the run, he shot one trooper during a traffic stop and two others who were searching for him, both members of a special tactics unit that was called in to hunt for the fugitive. One of those troopers later died.
Phillips was captured in September and is serving two life sentences.
After the intensive manhunt, the largest in New York history, the union that represents state troopers sharply criticized the way state police officials managed the search.
The latest shootings follow a hard year for state police. Besides the troopers Phillips shot before he was captured in September, another trooper was gunned down by a bank robber in March near Elmira.
Also, one trooper died last April near Syracuse after crashing his vehicle while chasing a speeding motorcyclist and another, a Marine Corps captain, was killed in August while on foot patrol in Fallujah, Iraq.