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Police Ignored Ex-Officer's Decade-Long Rampage Before Murder: Neighbors

By Gwynne Hogan | March 21, 2017 12:17pm
 Joseph Stepinski died four days after getting shot in the head by his Greenpoint neighbor.
Joseph Stepinski died four days after getting shot in the head by his Greenpoint neighbor.
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GREENPOINT — The retired officer accused of gunning down his neighbor on Greenpoint Avenue before a two-hour standoff with police terrorized the neighborhood for at least a decade before the killing, often flashing his gun and hurling threats and curses.

Some residents of the block said that they gave up calling police on Gene Barrett, 51 — who left the NYPD on a disability pension in part after suffering minor brain damage from getting hit in the head at a labor protest — because they never ended up arresting him.

"How many times did we call the police? I don't know how many times," said Melissa Rotundo, 37, the girlfriend of the slain man, Joseph Stepinski, 45. "This man terrorized us. Nobody helped us."

 Best friends Ava Vistocci, 35 (at left), and Melissa Rotundo, 37, recalled the years of terror Rotundo suffered at the hands of Gene Barrett.
Best friends Ava Vistocci, 35 (at left), and Melissa Rotundo, 37, recalled the years of terror Rotundo suffered at the hands of Gene Barrett.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

Not only did Barrett harass Rotundo, who lived downstairs from him with Stepinski, but he threatened her ex-husband with a hammer and cursed at her nearly every day, she said.

Others on the block knew him as a "neighborhood terror," who made sure everyone understood he carried a gun.

It all started 14 years ago when Rotundo moved into her apartment on Greenpoint Avenue with her ex-husband and started having issues with Barrett soon after, she recalled.

He would blast music at 2 or 3 a.m., and when her ex-husband would go upstairs and knock on the door to ask him to turn it down, Barrett would emerge wielding a hammer, she said.

In other incidents, Barrett would film her two young children playing in the backyard or bang on their pipes at night, Rotundo said.

He would often scream curses at her, calling her a "f---ing s--t," a "c--t" and a "f---ing pig," she added.

Eventually, Rotundo got tired of reporting the abuse when nothing came of it.

"The police didn't help. I stopped [calling] a long time ago," she said.

Police did not respond to requests for comment on neighbors' claims they failed to act on complaints about Barrett.

The Brooklyn District Attorney's office said they had no prior cases on Barrett.

But Rotundo was still fearful something would happen to her and her children.

Her landlord, Eugene Torhan, 64, who bought the building in 1992, installed cameras in the lobby and at the front of the building at her behest, he said.

Torhan and Rotundo consulted a housing lawyer and tried to evict Barrett, who is a rent-stabilized tenant, for being a nuisance. In 2011, Torhan sued Barrett in a holdover proceeding, housing court records show.

"He's screaming at people. He's screaming all the time," the landlord said. "He sometimes screams at me, too."

The eviction case hit a brick wall when Torhan's attorney told him more than one tenant would have to testify against Barrett in order to make a case. Rotundo was the only one willing to do so, the two said.

Torhan suspected that his other tenants were afraid of speaking out against Barrett because he was onece a police officer.

"He's a cop," Torhan said. "People are scared."

A 'Neighborhood Terror' on a Medical Pension

Barrett started working for the NYPD in 1993, according to court records.

While on duty in 1998, he was hit in the head with a bottle during a violent union protest and left work for four months with a mild traumatic brain injury, a wound to his head, some hearing loss and insomnia, his lawyers argued in a lawsuit against the city.

When he returned to work and in 2001, he slipped, fell and hurt himself inside the 18th Precinct stationhouse, suing the city again for disability and a medical pension that he continued to collect until his arrest on March 6, according to police and court records.

Meanwhile, in his retirement, Barrett kept other neighbors on edge, including Chul Kim, the owner of Kimchee Market down the block from his home.

“He was a neighborhood terror,” said Kim, who said Barrett wasn't shy about the fact that he carried a gun. “I did see his gun multiple times. I think he made a point of letting everybody know he was carrying.”

Retired police officers are allowed to carry their service weapons after leaving the force, and authorities said Barrett had two guns on him at the time of his arrest.

Kim said he got into a physical fight with Barrett in 2014 but declined to comment on the specifics of the scuffle. Barrett had been the aggressor, but when police showed up, Kim was the one arrested, he noted. His arrest is now sealed.

“I’m not a violent person,” he said. “I basically defended myself.”

Barrett had also called the police on Kim one evening when the store owner was having a barbeque in his backyard, he said.

“[He was] sticking his head out the rear window of his apartment screaming at us to shut up and calling the fire department on us. The fire department practically broke our doors down to get into our backyard," he recalled.

The responders saw they were having a low-key barbeque and soon left, Kim added.

While Barrett quarreled with other neighbors, Rotundo seemed to have suffered the brunt of his rage. The harassment appeared to subside when Rotundo's ex-husband moved out, but it mounted again when she got together with Stepinski, who moved into their building about two years ago, she said.

"He would call me a f---ing pig, he would stand by his window and scream," she said. "The last time I was next to him, he said 'You f---ing pig.' He said it to me [so close to my head], that my hair moved."

With the abuse escalating after 14 years, Rotundo started recording him on her phone to document their run-ins.

"I'm videotaping every f---ing time I step out of my apartment. That's the terror we had with this man," she said. "Every time we walked out the door we put video on cause we were scared of him. Every time I vacuumed, every time [I took out] the garbage.

"And I didn't realize how horrible [it was] until Joe's gone."

'I'd Rather be a Coward Than a Hero'

Stepinski tried to be friendly with Barrett and always remained cordial, even when he wanted to retaliate, so as not to set Barrett off, Rotundo said.

"I'd rather be a coward than a hero in this situation," she remembered him saying.

The situation was so tense that the couple had been planning to move upstate to Newburgh.

Despite Stepinski​'s nonconfrontational attitude, the campaign of abuse came to a deadly conclusion on March 6 when, according to prosecutors, Barrett shot Stepinski in the head outside their home.

Barrett then had a two-hour standoff with police from inside Rotundo's apartment and trained his gun at an responding officer, officials said.

Rotundo said Barrett called her from Stepinski's phone from their apartment after he'd killed him.

She picked up and the caller said, "'Come home right now,' three times."

"I was confused. I thought, 'Oh Joe,' but he didn't say, 'babe,'" Rotundo said, noting that Stepinski always called her "babe."

Rotundo believes Barrett wanted to kill her, too.

"He would have killed the kids," said Rotundo of her 10- and 6-year-old. "It would have been us."

Stepinski died four days later and left many of his organs to others, already helping save three people's lives and potentially improving the lives of more than 75 people, according to LiveOnNY, which oversaw the donations.

Rotundo, choking back tears, recalled what a loving partner Stepinski was and denied what police called a longstanding feud between her, Stepinski and Barrett.

"He did everything for me and the children, 24 hours a day — anything, he was there," she said. "He picked the kids up from school, picked them up from judo. He went shopping. He did laundry.

"Everything but the dishes, literally," she added with a smile. "He loved us so much and all he wanted to do was make us happy. He was only good. That's all he was."