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Postgame police projectile kills an Emerson student

O'Toole accepts responsibility but condemns acts of 'punks'

An Emerson College junior, drawn to Fenway Park to toast the first Red Sox pennant in 18 years, was killed yesterday, shot in the eye by a projectile fired by police seeking to disperse revelers who authorities said threatened to spin out of control.

Victoria Snelgrove, a 21-year-old journalism student from East Bridgewater, was struck by a pepper-spray-filled plastic ball at about 1:30 a.m., some 90 minutes after the Red Sox celebrated on the infield at Yankee Stadium, provoking an estimated 80,000 jubilant and mostly young fans to converge on Kenmore Square.

Police said they intended the pepper-spray balls, propelled by a compressed air system similar to those used in paintball guns, to be "less than lethal."

"While I firmly and emphatically accept responsibilities for any errors," Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole said, "I also condemn in the harshest words possible the actions of the punks [Wednesday] night who turned our city's victory into an opportunity for violence and mindless destruction."

As crowds surged into Kenmore Square early yesterday, firecrackers exploded. Small fires were set. A trash can crashed against a restaurant window. Eight people were arrested, and 16 others suffered what police said were minor injuries. By sunrise, the sidewalks and street behind Fenway Park's fabled Green Monster were roped off and dotted with yellow evidence markers as authorities tried to determine how and why Snelgrove, who transferred to Emerson from Fitchburg State College last year, was shot.

Brett Schweinberg, an 18-year-old Emerson College freshman, said he was standing 20 feet from Snelgrove when, he said, she was shot on a Lansdowne Street sidewalk across the street from the Green Monster.

"I think [the officer] hit several people, but she got hit in the face," said Schweinberg, who said he, too, was struck by the pelletlike projectiles. "People started running away. She fell down. I moved in for a closer look. She was bleeding out of the nose."

He said the shooting started after someone in the Lansdowne Street crowd threw a bottle at police. It landed near a mounted officer and the crash startled the horse, he said. Another officer turned around, Schweinberg said. "He started shooting the crowd. He shot like a 6-foot area. I think he hit several people. But she got shot in the face. He opened fire in the area of the crowd where he felt the bottle came from."

Leif Anderson, 25, of East Boston, corroborated that account. From atop a nearby parking garage, he said he saw the same officer, from 20 feet away, fire at Snelgrove moments after the bottle crashed near the mounted officer.

"He turned around and immediately fired his gun leveled at head level," Anderson said. "He fired two rounds in extremely quick succession, and the girl immediately dropped. All her friends were around her. They were screaming. And people got very angry at that point."

At her home in East Bridgewater, Snelgrove's father, Richard, greeted reporters at his home yesterday by holding up a picture of his daughter. "I want you all to meet my daughter Victoria," he said. "She was out of the way, but she still got shot." Before he stepped back into his home with grieving relatives, the Brockton bus driver added: "This should not happen to any American citizen going to any type of game."

Emerson College canceled classes for today. A memorial service was being planned.

The turbulent, lethal night in the aftermath of a titanic sporting triumph held echoes of February's post-Super Bowl celebration, when troublemakers overturned cars, threw rocks at police, and started fires. In that disturbance, one young man was killed when he was run over by a vehicle.

Boston police, criticized for not deploying more officers to avert the February melee, said an internal investigation will be opened into the disturbance.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking -- and rightfully so," said O'Toole.

Other less-than-lethal projectiles fired around the same time as Snelgrove was shot injured two other fans, she said. O'Toole would not release the names of the officers who fired on the fans, but she said the two have been placed on leave "as they deal with the trauma of this tragic incident."

The officers carrying the less-lethal weapons were under the command of Deputy Superintendent Robert E. O'Toole Jr., who did not return a call seeking comment. O'Toole, who is unrelated to the police commissioner, heads the department's tactical operations.

Kathleen O'Toole said police used "great restraint" as the crowd began to assemble around Fenway Park, but the problems were most intense on Lansdowne Street.

"And 99 percent of those kids in Kenmore Square [Wednesday] night were innocent bystanders who just wanted to have a good time," the police commissioner said. "That 1 percent of thugs caused the problem that forced us to take the less-lethal measures, and obviously this horrible tragedy resulted."

With the World Series set to open at Fenway Park tomorrow night, Mayor Thomas M. Menino pledged to take "drastic measures" to avert another rowdy disturbance, including the prohibition of liquor sales in some area bars, once the games are underway.

Menino called on local colleges and universities to "immediately expel" any students they identify as taking part in destruction Wednesday night.

For the World Series, Menino called on local media to not air live images from bars to prevent inciting fans, and on the Red Sox to produce ads to send fans the message that "violence is not the way to go."

"As we discuss all these things we're putting in place, where's the personal responsibility of these students?" he said. "Don't they have any sense of their responsibility? Why? It's very frustrating."

He said there was an ample police presence at the ballpark early yesterday. But, he said, some "knuckleheads" ruined the celebration with irresponsible, thoughtless conduct.

"It's a tragedy, but it happened," Menino said of Snelgrove's death. "The police try to use nonlethal methods and try to use the best methods to quell the crowds. . . . My heart goes out to the family."

Jack Foley, 26, of Cambridge, who said he watched as the police fired into the crowd on Lansdowne Street, said he thought the police overreacted.

"She dropped like a bag of bricks," Foley said of Snelgrove. "It was totally excessive force."

Another eyewitness, who spoke on the condition that only his first name would be used, called the crowd "fun wild," but not out of control. He said the police fired into the crowd and then began pushing people on Lansdowne Street back toward Ipswich Street.

"She looked lifeless to me," said Mike, 25, of North Attleborough. "Eventually, the ambulance came and took her away."

He said he voluntarily went to a nearby police station to report what he saw. "I just don't think it was out of control at any time," he said.

Police began to mobilize for yesterday's late-night disturbance about 11 p.m. Wednesday, as the Red Sox closed in on their historic, come-from-behind American League championship. Officers, some on motorcycles or horseback, began to take positions between Kenmore Square and Lansdowne and Boylston streets.

Just after midnight, as the Red Sox victory electrified living rooms, dormitories, and restaurants throughout the region, police lined both sides along Brookline Avenue and, soon, the crowd numbered in the thousands. Then in the tens of thousands.

Screaming a familiar anti-Yankees epithet and "We made it!" young fans climbed by the scores onto billboards and the awnings of buildings around the Fenway.

Fireworks exploded in front of a pizza restaurant in Kenmore Square. Revelers taunted police officers. Someone picked up a trash can and hurled it at a McDonald's sign. Two small bonfires were lighted on Brookline Avenue. Later, a light-colored sport utility vehicle with New York license plates was set ablaze.

About 1:30 a.m., police special forces officers in black body armor moved onto Brookline Avenue, ordering people to leave. Fans began clambering on the steel supports under the Green Monster seats on Lansdowne Street.

"Once the fires and the vandalism started, once people began scaling the wall at Fenway Park, that's when we decided we had to carefully defuse the crowd," O'Toole said.

Jim Sullivan, a 26-year-old graduate student from Boston University, said officers began firing at the people on the supports.

"I understand the police felt threatened, but it struck me that they responded with too much force than the situation merited," said Sullivan. "There wasn't anything down there that was going to get destroyed. They acted completely inappropriately."

At Roxbury District Court yesterday, lawyers for some people facing charges related to the night's mayhem tried to account for their clients' conduct.

Belai M. Abraham, 28, of Cambridge, was held on $2,500 bail and ordered to stay away from Fenway Park during the World Series after pleading not guilty to charges of disturbing the peace, assault with a dangerous weapon, refusal to disperse, and making a bonfire, the latter being a violation of a city ordinance.

Police said Abraham allegedly threw a flaming piece of cardboard at a mounted Boston police officer, a charge his court-appointed lawyer denied yesterday. Lawyer Richard Doyle said that under the circumstances, and in the midst of the celebration, Doyle said during the hearing, "there's massive potential for misidentification."

"My client categorically denies these charges," he said.

Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Amanda Martin asked for the high bail after saying that the violence harkened back to the death of a Northeastern University student after the Patriots' Super Bowl victory in January. "That certainly could have been the case [Wednesday] night," she said.

Paul Billon, 36, of Boston, pleaded not guilty to a single charge of assault and battery on a police officer after police said he swung and kicked at officers during the melee. He was ordered held on $1,000 bail. His attorney, Kevin MacDonald, said Billon told him he was trying to calm the crowd when he was arrested.

Others arraigned yesterday were Craig Sini, 19, of West Islip, N.Y., a Northeastern University student who pleaded not guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct after failing to leave a porch at 114 Hemenway St. after police orders. Christian Martini, 22, of West Springfield, another Northeastern student, was charged with disorderly conduct after allegedly throwing a case of beer on the ground and then throwing the cans into the crowd.

Mac Daniel, John Ellement, Raja Mishra, and Suzanne Smalley of the Globe staff contributed to this report, along with Globe correspondents Heather Allen, Jack Encarnacao, and Brendan McCarthy. Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com.

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