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Ex-Cop Accused of Killing Neighbor Believed People Were Out to Get Him

By Gwynne Hogan | May 30, 2017 10:55am
 Gene Barrett, who's facing murder charges, was convinced everyone was colluding against him.
Gene Barrett, who's facing murder charges, was convinced everyone was colluding against him.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

GREENPOINT — The former police officer charged with gunning down his neighbor before a two-hour armed standoff with the NYPD believed that everyone around him was conspiring to kick him out of the rent-stabilized apartment he'd lived in for more than three decades, he said during an interview at Rikers Island.

Gene Barrett's growing anxieties —  documented in police records of 911 calls he made from his Greenpoint Avenue apartment, complaints logged at the neighborhood's 94th Precinct and during a jailhouse interview —  came to a head in the fatal March 6 shooting of 45-year-old Joseph Stepinski.

"They were all working together to get me out," said Barrett, during an interview on Rikers Island Friday, referring to his landlord, Stepinski and Stepinski's girlfriend, Melissa Rotundo, as well as business owners on the block. "They were listening to me from the window, listening to me from the yard."

His suspicions were right, in part, in that neighbors did want Barrett out for what they said was years of harassment and erratic behavior, though they said there was no active campaign against him. And now, after years of living in fear of him, Barrett is gone from 185 Greenpoint Ave., though his absence has brought little peace.

"This has really destroyed our lives," said Melissa Rotundo, 37, whose boyfriend of two years was killed in Barrett's murderous rage, officials said. "I’m struggling every day to just do the normal things that I have to do as a mother, but every minute I’m choking back tears."

Barrett, 51, a former NYPD officer, went on disability in 2001 after he slipped and fell inside the 18th Precinct stationhouse — his second injury on the job, after he suffered minor brain damage during a raucous labor rally, according to a lawsuit he filed against the NYPD.

The former officer told DNAinfo during a visit to Rikers last week that he believed his neighbors had been filing false police reports against him for years. He also believed that he was being investigated by authorities whom he thought were coming in and out of his apartment building all the time and recording his conversations.

But a review of police reports and 911 calls dating back to 2014 that Barrett made at his Greenpoint Avenue address, however, showed he initiated most of the complaints. At least eight times since 2014, he called police to report harassment by his neighbors and landlord, according to call logs and complaint reports obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

Neighbors also made at least two calls against him.

In February 2014, neighbors called 911 on Barrett when he was cursing and sloshing water around the hall and causing damage to a light fixture in the building.

In June of 2014, Barrett called 911 to say his neighbor was harassing him, but there were no details available.

Neighbors called against him in July 2014, when he left a threatening note on the front of the building.

Rotundo said Barrett would often post cryptic messages in the hallways, and when the landlord told Barrett to stop, he started putting them on the front door. "It's a matter of life and death," she remembered one saying.

In October that year, Barrett dialed authorities to say that his landlord Eugene Torhan, 64, was filming him and trying to get him out of the apartment, records show. Later that month, he called again to say someone had thrown paint and slashed the tires of his Grand Marquis.

In April 2015, Barrett called 911 after the lights went out in his building, saying he thought his landlord was intentionally trying to mess with him, according to the call log.

Rotundo said Barrett was the one harassing them that day, menacing her and landlord Torhan as they scrambled down to the basement trying to fix the outage.

"[Gene] was screaming in the hallway, threatening us," she said. "I actually thought he was going to lock us downstairs. I told my son to stay by the phone."

In May of 2016, Barrett called 911 again to say his landlord was harassing him and had stolen his mail from his mailbox, call logs show.

One Sept. 28, Barrett turned up at the 94th Precinct stationhouse, where he filed a complaint, the only official police report logged at the address since 2014, records show.

Barrett told an officer that he'd overheard a conversation with Rotundo and Stepinski two days earlier in which Stepinski said, “I’m going to stab this motherf--ker," he confirmed.

He said he then heard the couple dialing 911 through the window and saying, "He is an ex cop, His name is Gene... He pointed a gun at me..I seen it," though Barrett also reported that they then said, "I thought it was a gun, we don't need you now."

Rotundo said she and Stepinski had made no such call, and 911 records confirmed the only call was actually made by Barrett complaining that they were making false reports about him. While Rotundo had heard from neighbors that Barrett had gun, she'd never actually seen it, she said.

Barrett finally snapped on March 6, 2017, when authorities said he shot Stepinski in the head on the sidewalk in front of their home, grabbed the man's phone and holed himself up in Rotundo and Stepinski's apartment for a two hours in a standoff with police. During the negotiations with police, he pointed his gun at an officer and later admitted "it was me," according to police and prosecutors.

Stepinski, who died four days after the shooting, was a kind-hearted window-washer who enjoyed spending time with his family and ice hockey, and had taken to caring of Rotundo's children as if they were his own.

The terror has been impossible to move past, Rotundo said.

"Every minute that I’m alone, I’m crying. Let’s put it this way. I can’t be alone," she said. explaining that she and her two young children were just settling in after she divorced her ex-husband and things with Stepinski were finally falling into place.

All of that was shattered in an instant.

"The worst part is he did traumatize us. He did threaten us. It was real," Rotundo said. "You think, ‘Oh these things don’t happen, but they do. And every time I look around I see memories of this man standing there.”