A Purple Heart recipient convicted in a road-rage incident in which he stabbed a disabled veteran in the neck and head has avoided a prison term after a judge found the former paratrooper was having a flashback to his time in Vietnam combat during a traffic mishap involving the two.
Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka sentenced Bert E. Schroeder, 64, of Buffalo, to five years' probation July 24.
Schroeder's defense attorney contended Schroeder's post-traumatic stress disorder should be seen as a mitigating factor.
Pietruszka said he did so "based upon the report of [a psychologist at the Buffalo Vet Center] and the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court representative."
Schroeder, who pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, had faced a prison sentence of two to seven years.
The 63-year-old victim, a retired postal worker who served 21 years in the Army medical corps, told the court Schroeder stabbed him eight times in the neck and head moments after the Oct. 30 traffic mishap.
The incident occurred on the northbound Niagara Thruway, as cars were lining up just before
the South Grand Island Bridge in the Town of Tonawanda. The only damage to the victim's car was chipped paint. The victim was treated at Erie County Medical Center and released the next day.
The circumstances of such a violent assault normally require a prison sentence, said prosecutor Patrick B. Shanahan, who urged prison time.
The victim asked Pietruszka for the maximum sentence.
When the mishap first occurred, the victim said, he thought the two could resolve it quickly.
"I tried offering a handshake and showing my license and military ID, but it was refused," the victim recounted in his victim impact statement. "He never showed me any consideration about [the] accident, for which he was responsible."
The victim had turned his back to Schroeder and was heading back to his car when Schroeder attacked him from behind, authorities said.
"It wasn't the result of post-traumatic stress," Shanahan told the judge. "It was the result of him being intoxicated and him getting into a car accident."
The victim eventually thwarted the attack, got back in his car and drove across the bridge to the Grand Island Moose Lodge. Those who know him there alerted police.
Defense attorney Francis C. Amendola urged the judge to spare Schroeder a prison term on account of his client's post-traumatic stress disorder.
Schroeder served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam and was in the middle of the heaviest fighting during the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack by the Viet Cong in 1968, his attorney said.
"He saw some very heavy combat," Amendola said.
Shrapnel from an exploding mortar wounded him, Amendola said.
During the sentencing hearing, Amendola told the judge that the "jarring collision" of the traffic incident and the mention of veterans and Vietnam at the scene triggered Schroeder's response.
Until recent years, his spouse and job had enabled him "to stay the course and to stay out of trouble," Amendola told the judge.
Schroeder's wife died in 2009, the same year he retired.
"He kept it together for 40 years," Amendola told The Buffalo News on Friday.
"He's mortified by what happened," he said, adding his client intends to abide by all of the conditions the judge placed on him, including counseling and completing the Buffalo City Court Veterans Treatment Court program.
"He wants to get to the bottom of why this happened and make sure it doesn't happen again," Amendola said.
After the October incident, Schroeder was awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability for post-traumatic stress disorder, Amendola said.
"I think there is enough in the record, judge, for the court, if it's inclined, to find mitigating factors on the way this crime was committed," Amendola said at the hearing.
"I think that my client's history, and certainly in serving his country and the 40 years since of having relatively no involvement with the law, and having raised four great kids and maintained full employment throughout his whole life, I think he's deserving of some consideration, if the court is able to give it."
Amendola presented to the judge an opinion from a psychologist at the Buffalo Vet Center "that on the date of the incident Mr. Schroeder had what was referred to as a flashback."
"I think the circumstances are there; the disorder he was suffering from had been documented before that point," the defense attorney said.
After the stabbing, Schroeder drove to Niagara Falls.
"It was his intention to go to the casino just to do a little bit of gambling," his attorney said.
"He found himself in a car in tears for a good half-hour before he could even get out, go in, clean up and drive home. As soon as he got home, he called his son."
Schroeder contacted his attorney the morning after the assault and from then on cooperated with the State Police investigation, Amendola said.
At the sentencing, Schroeder expressed remorse for -- but not much memory of -- hurting his victim.
"I'm terribly sorry that I hurt this individual," Schroeder told the judge during the sentencing hearing. "It looked like he deliberately turned into me. I was hurt that night. And believe me, I have no recollection of hurting this man, and I am terribly sorry that this happened. I truly am terribly sorry."
Shanahan, the prosecutor, said the violent act of stabbing an unarmed man -- a man who was 62 at the time of the minor traffic incident -- deserved prison time.
Shanahan also said Schroeder showed selective memory.
"He remembers driving to the casino [after the assault], and he remembers throwing the knife in the river, but he doesn't remember stabbing someone," Shanahan told the judge.
While a psychologist's report attributes the flashback to loud noises and jarring, that conflicts with the victim's account of what happened.
"It was $100 damage, some chipped paint," Shanahan said. "There were no loud noises. There was no jarring. The cars essentially rubbed. So I would dispute that type of contact between the vehicles translates into a combat situation. The facts don't support that it was a flashback. They do support that the defendant was intoxicated."
The victim told authorities that Schroeder almost fell as he got out of his car. That prompted the victim to ask Schroeder if he was drunk, according to Shanahan.
"He asked him if he was drunk, and he became combative," Shanahan said, noting that the two men talked and walked around the cars. "It wasn't an immediate attack."
Shanahan credited Schroeder's military service.
"He's seen some unimaginable things, things I'm sure that have had an impact on his life thus far and will continue to haunt him, but that doesn't excuse what happened here," Shanahan told the judge.
"Someone got stabbed repeatedly, and it was a 62-year-old man who stopped because he did what he was supposed to."
Amendola said he and his client are pleased by what they consider a fair sentence.
"It's actually a forward-looking decision," Amendola told the judge.
"I think that if you're not going to be able to deal with these types of manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder, you're missing a whole lot of what's going to be going on as [those] currently serving or having served in these current conflicts return home."