The longest day: Inside the Bovina standoff

Above: Justin Geraghty and his son in 2013. Photo courtesy of Liahna Cole. 

Around lunchtime last Sunday, Peter Mullin and Victoria Charkut were in their Catskills backyard in the town of Bovina, enjoying the warm August sunshine. Showtunes played on the radio and laundry hung on the fence as Charkut knitted on the back porch. Mullin was working on their new deck. 

Suddenly, there was a man in their yard, twenty feet away, aiming a shotgun at them. Get in the house, he told them. He threatened to kill them if they didn't. 

Terror ripped through the couple. Mullin, the gun trained on him, began to walk up the steps, but Charkut, frozen with fear, was rooted to the porch. She asked the gunman not to hurt them. He aimed the gun at her and told her, again, to go inside.

It looked to Mullin and Charkut like the man had been running. He was sweaty and covered with dirt, and smelled like alcohol. But the hands aiming the gun at them were steady.

Above: A stretch of County Route 5 the day after the standoff. Mullin and Charkut's house is in the stand of trees on the left. Photo by Julia Reischel. 

For Mullin and Charkut, that was the moment that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. For 32-year-old Justin Geraghty, the gunman, it was a moment of no turning back.

Twelve hours later, after a standoff with police that had the entire town of Bovina sheltering in fear, Geraghty was dead in Mullin and Charkut's house, his body found in a wooden sauna located in a second-floor bathroom. He had killed himself.

A troubled history

For Geraghty, darkness had loomed for years. He had a long history of arrests, incarcerations, alcohol-related crimes, and depression.

When Geraghty was 22, he was arrested after trying to escape police by jumping out the window of a friend's house in Walton. By age 25, he had racked up what a judge called an "awful history" of alcohol-related crimes, and pleaded guilty in 2006 to two counts of grand larceny for auto theft.  In August of 2012, he was arrested by the Delhi Police Department for harassment and petit larceny stemming from a domestic dispute.

Liahna Cole, the mother of two of Geraghty's three children, said that Geraghty spent seven of the last 15 years in prison. Incarceration left a scar, she said.

"He has a public persona that he used to protect himself," she said. "And it worked successfully for what he had to go though in prison. At the end, that's not who he was, but it's going to be what he falls back on."

Above: Justin Geraghty. Photo via Geraghty's Facebook page. 

Cole said that Geraghty had a gentle side. He loved to cook, attended cosmetology school at BOCES, and passionately wanted a family. In July, Cole introduced him to his youngest son for the first time, and Geraghty was enchanted with the boy.

"In the very few moments that he actually got to be a dad, he was a very great dad," she said. "He was the love of my life. There were many times in my life where I felt like we could have lived happily ever after if he could have just stopped drinking."

This summer, Geraghty was out of prison on parole. Although diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he was not taking his medication, Cole said, and he was struggling with alcohol and suicidal urges.

Above: Justin with his dog, Kilo, and son. Photo courtesy of Liahna Cole. 

Then, on July 11, Geraghty's pit bull puppy, Kilo, was run over and killed by a car.

"He loved the dog like it was his kid," she said. "Justin just felt like he was his only friend, really. And he felt like everything he loved always had to leave him."

The day the dog died, Geraghty went out drinking in violation of his parole and allegedly committed assault, burglary, and petit larceny, according to the Delhi Police Department. Afraid of going back to prison, Geraghty took to the woods, where he hid for the next several weeks. 

After consulting a lawyer and deciding to fight the charges in court, Cole said, Geraghty set a date to turn himself in: Monday, August 12.

"There's a man in the woods with a gun"

The day before he was due to go back to prison, Geraghty went wild. On Sunday morning, August 11, police were called to the scene of a domestic dispute between Geraghty and his mother and stepfather at a trailer on New Road in Bovina.

Geraghty fled the scene on a four-wheeler, packing a shotgun and ammunition. A manhunt began.

Police officers fanned out across Bovina and began stopping cars and pedestrians, warning them to stay away from New Road and not to pick up hitchhikers.

Jason Stanton, a Bovina resident, was out jogging that morning.

"When I got to New Road, there were about 12 to 15 police cars," he said. "An officer stopped me and said, 'You need to run back the other way; there's a man in the woods with a gun.'"

An all-morning dragnet didn't find Geraghty. He was over a mile away, on the other side of a mountain and through thick woods, near Mullin and Charkut's house on County Route 5.

Held hostage

Inside the house, Geraghty told Charkut and Mullin to sit down at the table, and asked for a glass of water.

For twenty minutes, the three talked. Mullin sat and asked Geraghty about himself. He also asked him to put down the gun. Geraghty did, but kept it by his side.

Charkut didn't sit. Instead, she stood, learning against the table, closest to the front door.

"I don't want to hurt you," Geraghty told the couple. "I want to kill myself."

He told them that it all began when his pit bull puppy was killed. That there was a warrant out for his arrest. That he didn't want to go back to jail. As Geraghty talked, he began to cry.

Mullin and Charkut tried to comfort him. Charkut promised to help him. As she talked, Geraghty almost looked hopeful. Then he asked if he could use the phone, to call Liahna Cole.

Mullin helped Geraghty call Cole and put her on speakerphone. Geraghty told Cole that he wanted to say goodbye to her and their sons, and that this was the last time she would hear from him.

Charkut, inching toward the front door, mumbled that she had to use the bathroom. Geraghty didn't seem to notice. In the doorway now, Charkut looked at Mullin, and gestured to him to follow her. Mullin, closer to Geraghty and farther from the door, didn't move.

Charkut walked out the front door and ran barefoot down her driveway to County Route 5. She saw two cars coming and waved desperately at them, but they didn't stop.

She jumped into the road, yelling. A third driver stopped. She told him there was a man in her house with a gun. The driver told her to get in the car.

Not wanting to leave her husband, Charkut hesitated. Get in, the driver said. She did, and they drove the mile to Russell's General Store in Bovina Center, where the proprietor called 911.

Back in the house, Geraghty realized that Charkut was gone. He asked Mullin where she went, and then began calling her name up the stairs.

Then Cole, still on speakerphone, said that she had just gotten a text from a friend listening to the police scanner. It said that Geraghty was in a house, holding someone hostage. Cole had assumed that Geraghty was calling her from a friend's house.

Geraghty turned to Mullin and said, "You told me that your wife wasn't going to call the cops." It was a terrifying moment for Mullin, who thought Geraghty might turn on him. 

But then, through the windows, both men saw state police cars pull up outside the house. Mullin, who was holding the phone, put it down on the table. He told Geraghty that he was going outside to talk to the police. Then he turned and walked through the sun porch door and down the steps.

In the driveway, Mullin put his hands in the air and began to walk towards the state troopers, whose guns were drawn and aimed at him.

By 4pm, Mullin was reunited with Charkut. They both returned to the highway near their house, which was now overrun with police, hoping to catch a glimpse of their three cats that they had left behind. (All three cats were found uninjured the next day.)

Negotiations break down

On Sunday afternoon, police and special operations forces in camouflage gear descended on Mullin and Charkut's house. Snipers took up positions in the barn and on the hillside. Police dogs roamed the property. Helicopters buzzed overhead. An armored car parked in the vegetable garden.

As the house was surrounded, the Delaware County Department of Emergency Services took the unusual precaution of issuing a public alert warning Bovina residents to stay indoors with the doors locked. Law enforcement closed the stretch of County Route 5 near the house to all traffic.

Nervous Bovina residents holed up in their houses across town. Several families who lived nearby spent the night with friends or relatives. Others gathered at Russell's General Store to swap information.

At the house, negotiators arrived; so did Geraghty's brother, who was only allowed to talk to him on the phone. The police used a bullhorn to talk to Geraghty, and Geraghty talked back, coming out onto the porch to yell threats and sometimes jokes across the lawn to them.  He threw objects through the windows, at one point breaking a large plate-glass window in the sun porch. Several times, he held the shotgun to his head. Over and over, he told them he couldn't go back to prison.

According to the Delaware County Sheriff's Office, Geraghty "threatened to kill responding law enforcement officers."

But Cole, who spent most of the afternoon on the phone with Geraghty, said that his threats were for show, an attempt to commit suicide by having someone else shoot him.

"In his world, he had no intention of hurting anybody," she said. "Had he intended to kill somebody, he would have. That's not who he is. Who he is, at the core of his being, is generous, big hearted. He only ever wanted to harm himself."

When he was on the phone with her that day, Cole said, Geraghty dropped his persona.

"Whenever he spoke to them, he was thug Justin," she said. "Whenever he spoke to me, he was my Justin."

Around 5pm, Geraghty asked Cole to let him say goodbye to their 13-year-old son. Cole put the child on the phone, and Geraghty apologized to him, telling him that he wished he could see him again, but that there was no way out. 

"At the end, he did not want to do it," Cole said. "He knew that he had backed himself into a corner."

Although Cole witnessed most of the standoff through the phone, police have not contacted her, she said. Although she called the sheriff's office and left them her number, they did not notify her after he died.

"The police have not talked to me yet," Cole said on Wednesday, August 14. "They have not contacted me in any way, shape or form."

Police deploy tear gas and robots

Law enforcement officials at the scene had a goal: Resolve the crisis by dusk. But when darkness fell, Geraghty was still barricaded inside the house, uncooperative and drinking.

One thing was on everybody's mind: Six years ago in Margaretville, a similar standoff with an armed gunman named Travis Trim ended in disaster. State police shot and killed Trim, burned the house down with incendiary devices, and accidentally killed one of their own by friendly fire. The police in Bovina did not want to repeat history.

"We used that in our planning process this time," said Craig DuMond, the Delaware County Undersheriff. "I think that that's always in the back of your mind."

At nightfall, the local fire departments were placed on high alert. At the Bovina Fire Hall, volunteer firefighters cut the tension by watching The Big Bang Theory and munching snacks as they waited for word from up the hill.

Using the bullhorn, the negotiators told Geraghty to get off the phone with Cole. Then the phone line was cut.

Then the New York State Police Special Operations Response Team (SORT) began shooting tear gas canisters through the windows of the house.

After the tear gas canisters were fired, Geraghty stopped communicating with the police. Hours passed with no movement. SORT officers sent a robot into the house, and then another. Neither robot located Geraghty.

A long, tense wait settled in. Throughout Bovina, lights blazed in houses as residents stayed up, wondering.

At 1am, a state trooper asked Mullin and Charkut how to open the door to the upstairs sauna. The robots couldn't do it.

At 3:30am, state troopers woke Mullin and Charkut up at a neighbor's house to tell them that Geraghty's body had been found. 

Finally, around 4:30am, the officers barricading the roads in Bovina left their posts and re-opened County Route 5 to traffic. Although no official word was released until later that morning, word quickly spread that it was over.

The day after

At 11am on Monday, Delaware County police released an official statement announcing Geraghty's death.

At noon, when a Watershed Post reporter visited the house, eye-stinging tear gas fumes still filled the rooms. An industrial fan was blowing into the house in an attempt to clear the air.

There were signs that Geraghty had been drinking; half-opened bottles of alcohol littered the tables. A champagne flute lay on its side on a couch.

Almost every window bore the signature of tear gas; neat round holes made by the canisters as they were shot through the glass. Upstairs and downstairs, the walls and floors were spattered with the neon pink tracing ink the canisters left behind. Broken glass coated the floors.

Inside the small wooden sauna, sealed away from the rest of the house behind a door in the upstairs bathroom, was evidence of Geraghty's last moments: a pool of blood on the floor, tissue embedded in the wall. There was no sign of a struggle.

Mullin and Charkut are shaken by their experience, and haven't spent the night in their house since the incident. But they habor no bitterness towards Geraghty. 

"I was very angry with him, and at the same time, I'm extremely sorry that he's gone," Charkut said. "I did try to talk him out of it, over and over."

"Compassion is our best response to this extreme example of human frailty," Mullin said. "May a healing process bring peace to Justin's family and this tragic event serve to unite our community."

Correction: A previous version of this story said that a bystander in Russell's General Store made the 911 call that brought police to the scene of the standoff. In fact, it was the proprietor of the store who called 911.