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Unsolved police killing haunts Darien department

John Nickerson, Darien News-Review
Updated 3:24 pm, Thursday, June 2, 2011

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  • Darien Police Officer Kenneth E. Bateman Photo: File Photo / Stamford Advocate File Photo
    Darien Police Officer Kenneth E. Bateman Photo: File Photo

 

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Working the overnight shift on an early Saturday morning, Darien Police Officer Kenneth Bateman was dispatched on a routine call of an activated burglar alarm at the Duchess Patio Restaurant on the edge of town near the Norwalk border.

"The cleaning crew would always set that alarm off," said James Winn, a retired Darien police sergeant who remembers dispatching Bateman to the 3:25 a.m. call.

When Bateman pulled his cruiser into the parking lot, the seven-year veteran police officer probably knew right away that this was not just another routine call. The side door had been pried open and as he stepped out before backup arrived, he suspected someone was still inside.

Walking around to the other side of the fast-food eatery, Bateman spotted the suspected burglar breaking through a plate-glass door to get away.

"Halt, or I'll blow your head off," witnesses heard Bateman shout. Then, at least seven shots rang out as Bateman, an expert marksman unloaded his Smith & Wesson revolver.

By the time Bateman fired his last shot, he had fallen to the ground as a .38-caliber slug pierced through his neck severing his carotid artery, voice box and wind pipe.

The 34-year-old patrolman lost a tremendous amount of blood at the scene and was rushed to Norwalk Hospital -- 90 minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Thirty years later, Bateman's killer has still not been found -- though investigators have a prime suspect. It is the only unsolved homicide of a Connecticut police officer on record.

"The events of May 31, 1981, remain as clear to me as if they happened yesterday," Bateman's widow Barbara Bateman said in a letter last week. "The telephone call during the early morning hours from Darien Police Headquarters informing me that Kenny had been injured, the arrival of the police officer at my home to transport me to Norwalk Hospital where Kenny had been taken, and the looks on the faces of the officers and emergency room personnel when I arrived confirmed my worst fears -- Kenny was gone. The memories of that morning and the days to follow will remain with me forever."

Bateman, a Stamford native, joined the Darien Police Department in late 1973. As well as being a member of the department's pistol team, Bateman was also on the SWAT team and was an enthusiastic skier, shark angler and confirmed fisherman. He was also a boater who worked with the department's marine unit in the summertime and was a member of Ponus Yacht Club in Stamford.

Bateman was known for his smile and sense of humor and was the unofficial social director in the department of 43 officers.

Though there are only three officers on the force today that worked with Bateman, there are constant reminders all around Darien police headquarters. A memorial stone lies outside, a plaque hangs in the lobby and a wanted poster offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspected burglar is taped by the front desk. An honor guard will be stationed by the memorial with Bateman's badge -- No. 15 -- Tuesday morning to mark the somber anniversary.

The Suspect?

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about that case," said former Darien Police Capt. Angelo Toscano, who helped work the case as an investigator and was in charge of the department's detective bureau when Bateman was killed.

Toscano, 75, who retired from the Darien Police Department in 1983 and went on to become police chief in Wilton for the next 17 years, said even though he and others in the department were pretty sure who was at Duchess with Bateman that night, they have not yet been able to put together a provable case against him.

"All the leads I personally checked out, I have never found a reason to suspect anyone other than Anthony Sabato," Toscano said last week in a telephone interview from his retirement home in Florida.

Sabato, 53, of West Haven, is a Stamford native who has a wide-ranging rap sheet of 37 Connecticut arrests on burglary, drug, weapons and assault charges that began in 1975.

A couple years after Bateman's slaying, Sabato, then 25, was arrested for first-degree assault for running over a man with his car and breaking his leg. Police say the injured man was a 33-year-old mob enforcer sent to Stamford to settle a dispute with Sabato, but made the mistake of getting out in front of Sabato's car.

Sabato, who lives near the beach on Washington Avenue in West Haven, has never been charged in Bateman's homicide. Multiple calls to reach him through family, friends and employers were unsuccessful.

His former defense attorney, Bill Bloss, of Bridgeport, who defended him after reports of his involvement in the Bateman case surfaced in 2003, said he has not seen Sabato in years and could not comment on allegations against him.

Police Chief Duane Lovello, who in 1999 spent a year working full-time with former Detective George "Chip" Vitone reinvestigating the case, conducting hundreds of interviews in Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, Vermont and in Connecticut, said he would "hesitate" to say the department knows who killed Bateman.

But as far as Sabato was concerned, Lovello said, "The investigation tended to circle back in that direction on more than one occasion."

THE INVESTIGATION

Toscano, who was consumed with the case before he left the department two years after Bateman's death, and even brought copies of some of the case files with him to Wilton, said Sabato, who now works part-time for a Stamford trucking company, was a suspect from day one.

Sometime in the afternoon of May 31, 1981, Sabato was confronted by Darien police on a street in the Cove neighborhood in Stamford, but he would not answer any questions.

Toscano said police were led to Sabato because he was also a suspect in a number of burglaries on the Post Road during that time, but he was never arrested.

Sabato was also a suspect in a Stamford house burglary sometime before Bateman was shot that may have put the murder weapon in the burglar's hands.

Toscano said after doctors retrieved the undamaged .38 caliber "wad cutter" slug that killed Bateman, police quickly determined it was a unique projectile. The underside of the flat-headed slug -- wad cutters are used for target practice -- had a coating of either brass or copper, a type made by only two munitions manufacturers in the Southwest, Toscano said.

The .38-caliber revolver stolen from the Stamford home before Bateman was killed had those bullets taken with it, Toscano said.

The gun has never been found.

Toscano said he believes the burglars, who he thinks parked their getaway car at either the Interstate 95 rest stop or the old Georgia-Pacific office complex on the other side of the highway from Duchess, drove north and threw the pistol off the Yankee Doodle Bridge in Norwalk.

More than one effort by state police divers to locate the weapon in the murky Norwalk River under the bridge was unsuccessful, he said.

Five years after Bateman was killed, Toscano said he caught Sabato stealing cigarettes at a Wilton store.

After bringing him to Wilton and jailing him, Toscano said Sabato pleaded with him to stop persecuting him for the Bateman homicide and while professing his innocence, asked what it would take to make things right,.

Toscano said he made a deal with Sabato -- offering him a walk for the cigarette theft and help with getting some motor vehicle charges dropped -- if he would take a polygraph test and answer questions about Bateman.

The next day the two went to Meriden for the polygraph, but after the trooper began asking him questions, Sabato tore the blood pressure cuff off his arm saying, "I want out of here," Toscano said.

"We looked at other people, but every time we looked at them it didn't pan out and it always came back to him," Toscano said.

A senior police officer from a nearby department, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to draw the ire of Darien police, said Sabato has become an "urban legend" for the local underworld.

The officer said that frequently through the years, criminals facing tough prison sentences and charges have offered to tell all about Sabato in hopes of obtaining leniency.

They tell stories second-, third- and fourth-hand about conversations they heard about Sabato admitting to friends he killed Bateman, the officer said.

"When they get in trouble, they want to spew about this because they know it is near and dear to law enforcement," the officer said.

Toscano thinks there was at least one other burglar who was able to escape through the jimmied west-facing door before Bateman pulled into the parking lot.

Toscano said it would have been difficult for a lone burglar to carry the stolen cashbox from the restaurant and a two-pound sledgehammer found near the scene while also breaking out of the restaurant and getting a shot off at the same time.

The Missing Link

Former Darien Police Chief John Jordan, 87, who retired in 1989 after 38 years in the department, said an arrest was never made in the case because investigators could not find the evidence it needed.

"We don't have the extra little bit we need to make the arrest," Jordan said last week of the case which still takes up several full-sized filing cabinets at police headquarters.

Jordan said the only way he sees the case being put down is if the gun is found.

"What we need is the weapon. We have the bullet that killed him," Jordan said. "The gun matched to the bullet, matched to the owner would be the answer to the crime."

Sgt. Harry Gafney, 73, and now living in Florida said, "All we needed was a break and we never got it. One call could have made a difference, but no one came forward."

Toscano said the only way he figures the case will be solved 30 years later would be to get a dying declaration from either the shooter or his accomplice.

Former Police Capt. George Orgovan said the case could still be solved if someone would come forward and lead them to the perpetrator.

"I am surprised it has not been solved yet," he said. "I always have hope."

Darien Police Capt. Fred Komm is one of three officers that served with Bateman and remains on the force. He said he has never lost hope that the case will be solved.

"We will never stop," he said.

Lovello said the case remains open, but has laid dormant at times as leads dry up. He said interviews are still done and leads are checked out as they come in. The chief said he would welcome the opportunity to work with a cold case squad on the case and would cooperate with them fully in trying to resolve the case.

Lovello said finding Bateman's killer would be "huge" for the department and bring needed closure and comfort.

"It is tragic that this case remains open," Lovello said. "It is sad to watch Kenny Bateman's parents pass away without a resolution to the case and his widow has to live with this pain every day. It never goes away."

Staff Writer John Nickerson can be reached at john.nickerson@scni.com or (203) 964-2320.