3 charged with murder in officer’s death

Three suspects allegedly responsible for the death Wednesday of San Francisco police officer Nick-Tomasito Birco were charged with murder in his death Thursday.

Carl Lather, Nicholas Smith, Steven Petrilli and Jessica Chamberlain were all arrested at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, after the van in which they were allegedly fleeing police crashed into Officer Birco’s patrol car in the Portola district.

All but Chamberlain face six felony charges, including murder, robbery and manslaughter. According to California’s penal code, deaths that occur in the commission of certain felonies are prosecuted as murder. Petrilli, the suspected driver of the reportedly stolen van, faces an additional auto theft charge and sentencing enhancements for being on bail at the time of the crash, District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Bilen Mesfin said Thursday. He faced charges of burglary and sexual assault from previous arrests.

Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes lashed out at the judges who handled Petrilli’s previous cases.

“I will find out why this piece of garbage is not incarcerated as we speak, because if he was where he is supposed to be, Officer Birco would still be alive,” Delagnes said. He saidthe union would “go after these judges in the next election.”

Birco, 39, had been on the force for five years at the time of his death. The highly respected officer from the Bayview Station received a commendation for bravery in 2002.

News reports that police might not have followed procedure when they initiated the chase added tension to the department’s sadness Thursday.

Police reported that at 12:35 a.m. Wednesday, they received a call from a man who said he had been punched in the face and robbed at a bus stop in the 500 block of Bayshore Boulevard. The victim accompanied officers to search for the suspects and identified their van a few blocks away. The suspects reportedly sped off as the officers approached, and the chase ensued.

Capt. Kevin Cashman said Thursday that the robbery victim was in one of the police vehicles involved in the pursuit. Department rules prohibit initiating a vehicle pursuit while a victim, witness or ride-along is in the patrol car.

Cashman said, however, that he was not aware of any disciplinary investigation into wrongdoing on the part of any officers. He dismissed reports Thursday that indicated Birco had not called in to his superiors before positioning himself near the chase route.

“I see no evidence that Officer Birco did anything wrong at this time,” he said. The only word to describe Birco’s actions, he said, is “heroic.”

The three defendants face charges of 25 years to life in prison. They were scheduled to be arraigned this morning. Charges against Chaimberlain are being withheld pending further investigation, Mesfin said.

amartin@examiner.com

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