Five weeks after informant Gregory Gibson allegedly helped Prince George's County detectives stage an armed robbery during which police killed one suspect, Gibson himself was critically wounded by county police.
Gibson was shot during an attempted burglary in the early hours of July 13, 1967, by Joseph D. Vasco, the policeman who Gibson said had asked him to set up a separate and different armed robbery five weeks earlier.
Vasco, now a lieutenant colonel and second in command of the police department for the last three years, has denied having any role in arranging the first armed robbery.
County police conducted three stakeouts in 1967, resulting in three shootings and two fatalities. The Hyattsville-based detective squad soon acquired the macabre nickname "Death Squad."
This police squad has been the subject of a six-week investigation by The Washington Post. Based on The Post's inquiries, County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan and Police Chief John W. Rhoads recently ordered their own investigation in which a county attorney, after conducting 10 interviews and compiling hundreds of pages of documents, found no criminal wrongdoing by police.
Gibson recently told reporters that he was ordered by Vasco, then a detective, to arrange an armed robbery in June 1967. Details surrounding that robbery were outlined in the first of these two articles published Sunday.
Gibson said he, Vasco and former Det. John R. Cicala drove around in a car before the robbery occurred and picked a location and time for the robbery. Cicala has confirmed Gibson's story, but Vasco denied it.
During the robbery, William Hunter Mathews Jr., 18, was killed by police who had staked out the convenience store chosen for the robbery. Cicala has described the shooting of Mathews as "cold-blooded murder," while other officers present in the store said it was self-defense.
Five weeks after the shooting death of Mathews, Gibson narrowly missed being shot to death.
Vasco recently described his reaction to the shooting of Gibson as "regretful, I'm sure."
Gibson said he thinks he was set up by Vasco and another of Vasco's informants to commit a crime at which he was certain to be caught.
Gibson's version of the holdup and shooting differ sharply from that of Vasco and from official police reports.
Gibson said he was encouraged to burglarize a jewelry store one block south of the University of Maryland in College Park by a man who offered to fence the stolen goods. According to a police source, the man also was one of Vasco's informants, although Gibson did not know it then.
Gibson followed the instructions of the man who offered to fence the stolen material and tried to enter the jewelry store through a rear alley entrance. A small hallway he said he was told to enter led him instead into an optometrist's shop in the 7400 block of Baltimore Avenue. The jewelry store was in an adjoining building.
"When I opened the door," Gibson said. "I said. 'Uh, uh.'" Gibson said he concluded at that moment that he had been set up.
"I eased out," he said. Then he recalled that he heard Vasco's voice from the alley.
"I heard, 'Come on out, Gip.' I said, 'I'm coming, Joe.'"
"I walked through the (back) door," Gibson said. "They blasted me."
The official police report said Vasco and another detective, William R. Cook, were armed with shotguns and had staked out the alley after Vasco received "an anonymous telephone call." Vasco recently told reporters the call was from "a reliable informant."
Vasco later told police investigators that he did not "remember" if the caller was anonymous or "an informant of mine."
Vasco told The Post he is not sure whether he knew beforehand that Gibson was a man who would try to break into the store. Police investigators also asked Vasco if he knew the man was Gibson. "No, I did not," Vasco said. "I do not believe I did, no... I don't remember."
Vasco told The Post he knew a jewelry store was to be robbed. He later told the investigators: "I don't recall what establishment was to be broken into."
According to official reports and interviews, Vasco and Cook positioned themselves, behind a trash dumpster in a dark, narrow alley in back of the optometrist's shop.
Gibson said he had used a screwdriver to break into the building, then discovered he was in the wrong store and left. He said he reentered the alley emptyhanded. Police said he held what looked like a gun. A 12-inch crowbar police found several feet away in the alley had no fingerprints but contained paint chips that matched paint on three doors that had been forced.
Gibson said in an interview and in court records that police did not identify themselves or order him to stop and that he made no sudden moves
"The door opened," Vasco said. "Either Cook or I said something like, 'Halt, police.'" Cook told The Post last week: "I don't recall anything being said."
Vasco and Cook said that the alley was "pitch black" and that neither could identify the figure of Gibson. James Ross, then a police sergeant who arrived on the scene immediately after the shooting, told official investigators recently that he recognized Vasco and Cook from "30 or 40 feet" away "but only because I knew their faces."
Vasco and Cook, Ross said, were 11 and 9 feet, respectively, from the door opened by Gibson.
"They stepped right in front of my face,' Gibson said.
Vasco fired before Cook did, according to official reports. Traces of shotgun pellets are still in the optometrist's wood-paneled wall two doors from the alley.
Gibson was rushed in critical condition to Prince George's General Hospital where part of his stomach was removed. Three months later, in October 1967, he was well enough to be sentenced and received five years in prison for "storehousebreaking."
Paroled after two years, Gibson was arrested again in November 1970 for armed robbery and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was paroled in 1974 and has since, by his account, "tried to become something." He has remarried and now works as a spray painter.
Vasco, 43, who joined the police force in 1964 after six years as a Maryland state trooper, was promoted to lieutenant over several others with more seniority in 1968, to captain in 1973 and to major in 1975. He became a lieutenant colonel in August 1976.
For the last three years, Vasco served as director of operations, second only to Chief Rhoads. On Jan. 29, he became personnel director.
To the men on the street, Vasco is known as "The Glove" or "Joey the Hand," nicknames gained for his firm way of dealing with malcontents and malingerers within the police force.
Vasco lives in an eight-room home he built with a backyard pool on 10 acres in rural southern Prince George's County. He, county police Capt. James Fitzpatrick and county police Lt. Milton Crump, a neighbor and close friend of Vasco, own a small firm that administers lie detector tests and rents polygraph equipment.
Vasco said recently that he has changed over the years, "grown up, matured maybe." He said he no longer countenances use of informants and has given by shooting, even for sport.
"Back then, in that era," he said, "I used to duck hunt, goose hunt, deer hunt. I won't even go hunting anymore. I don't like guns...
"I don't like shooting people. I hope if I was on the street and someone's life was in danger, I would not hesitate, but I fear that I would.
"I'm not proud of that," he said.