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Off-Duty NYPD Officer Shot in Morris Heights Gun Fight

By  Jess Wisloski Aidan Gardiner and Alan Neuhauser | June 24, 2012 1:49pm | Updated on June 24, 2012 4:20pm

Phelan Place, where off-duty cop Nelson Vergara got involved in a shootout with at least three other men, police said, on June 24, 2012.
Phelan Place, where off-duty cop Nelson Vergara got involved in a shootout with at least three other men, police said, on June 24, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Aidan Gardiner, Hussain Familiy

THE BRONX — An off-duty NYPD officer who served two combat tours in Iraq as a Marine was shot and wounded near his home in Morris Heights when a dispute erupted into a chaotic gun battle, police and the Mayor’s Office said.

Police Officer Nelson Vergara, 36, a married father of two and a 12-year veteran of the NYPD, was shot twice on Phelan Place at about 4:30 a.m. while going home after a shift at work, officials said.

Vergara was parking his car near his family’s home, officials stated, when he became embroiled in an argument with a group of men drinking nearby.

As the dispute escalated, one of the men —17-year-old Adonis Almonte — allegedly threw a bottle at Vergara, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Almonte’s family said.

“The glass bottle shattered when it hit the ground,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told the Daily News and New York Post. “Fragments from the bottle struck the officer.”

Vergara told the group he was a cop and pulled his service revolver.

That’s when a green Honda pulled in front of Vergara, Bloomberg said. The driver, whom the Post identified as 21-year-old Jose Baez, allegedly stepped from the car and shot Almonte.

“There was obviously some sort of issue between the shooter and at least one person in that group,” Kelly told the Daily News. “Vergara was caught in the middle.”

Vergara identified himself as a cop, and Baez allegedly turned and shot a barrage of bullets at the officer, striking him twice in the shoulder and right shin, Bloomberg said. Vergara returned fire and hit Baez once as the gunman fled.

Vergara, despite being shot twice, chased down Almonte and arrested him, the mayor stated.

Vergara and Almonte were transported to St. Barnabas Hospital, where they were each listed in stable condition Monday morning, the mayor and multiple news reports stated.

Baez was taken to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital by three friends, where he was treated for a gunshot wound in his hip, the Daily News and Post reported.

Police said Monday morning that no suspects have been charged in the incident, and they declined to confirm whether Baez and Almonte were involved. The Daily News and Post, however, stated that Baez was taken into custody at Bronx-Lebanon. 

Baez and Almonte had allegedly had an argument earlier Sunday evening, the Post said, and Baez returned with a gun to exact revenge.

“If the cop’s not there, he definitely would have killed Almonte,” a source told the Post. Kelly said he did not know what the fight was about.

Almonte’s mother, Jobnny, 38, said through a translator that her son was shot eight times in the neck, back and arm. She claimed that Almonte’s dispute with Vergara had nothing to do with Baez’s attack, adding that the bottle-throwing incident was a careless accident.

"Thank you for the cop who saved my son," she said through a relative.

Almonte’s 13-year-old cousin, Lessly, said she spoke to Adonis at the hospital. She stated that the teenager wanted to thank Vergara for his bravery.

"Adonis said to me at the hospital, 'If that cop wasn't there, I would be dead. I'm so grateful that he was there, arguing with me, and defending me,'” Lessly recounted.

"He's doing fine now in the hospital," she added.

Almonte’s family was not sure who else was involved in the argument Sunday night, Lessly said. The green Honda was not owned by one of his friends, another family member stated.

Bloomberg visited Vergara at St. Barnabas on Sunday morning, and he later praised the officer’s courage during a press conference at the hospital.

“Officer Vergara returned fire, and in the exchange he was struck twice, once in the shoulder and once in the leg. He is, thank God, in stable condition," the mayor said. "Three of suspects were struck in the exchange and are currently in custody.”

Kelly also spoke. “Today, the news is not tragic," he said. "Because of the work, and perhaps because of the grace of God, we’ve not lost a member of the NYPD to gun violence this year."

At the scene of the shooting, Paulino Alvarez, 52, who lives near the shooting, said that when he saw the Vergara fall down, he wanted to go help him, but he worried that we would get shot. Instead, he said, he went inside and called 911.

"I am very sad," he said.