Linda Eisenberger was relaxing in her armchair with a crossword puzzle when she heard what sounded like gunshots nearby. Suddenly, the wall behind her head exploded in a shower of plaster.
A metal slug - allegedly fired from a shotgun belonging to a deputy sheriff - had torn through a rear bathroom screen, smashed into the wall, and ricocheted more than 23 feet across the room to the front door, then zipped sideways 6 more feet, before landing on the hallway floor, according to police.
"If I had been standing, I could be dead," said Eisenberger, 56, speaking out for the first time since the Aug. 4 incident.
Two law enforcement officers were scheduled to appear in court recently on charges in connection with the firearm discharge, while a third faces an internal disciplinary hearing.
Authorities said David Winkowski, 36, a corrections officer with the Middlesex County Sheriff's office, pleaded not guilty in Ayer District Court last week to discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a building, improperly storing a firearm, and disturbing the peace.
Reading police Officer Sean Wilson, 35, was scheduled to be arraigned yesterday on charges of discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a building and disturbing the peace.
Winkowski, of Dunstable, had his license to carry a firearm at work suspended, was transferred from his usual post, and awaits a disciplinary hearing, said Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaolo. The Reading Police Department is conducting an internal investigation into the charges against Wilson, also of Dunstable, said James Bonazoli, chairman of the Reading Board of Selectmen.
John Smith of Scituate, a captain with the Middlesex sheriff's office, was present at, but not charged in connection with, the incident, according to court records. He was transferred from the sheriff's Cambridge office to Billerica, had his firearms license at work suspended, and also awaits a disciplinary hearing, DiPaolo said.
Winkowski, Wilson, and Smith, all still on the job, did not return calls for comment.
Eisenberger spoke publicly last week about the incident, which police reports filed in Ayer District Court say originated at Winkowski's home on Main Street, around a corner and through a scrim of trees behind her house.
The grandmother of two said she was in the armchair she usually uses at about 9:50 p.m. when the slug flew in, spewing dust across the living room. "I was covered in plaster," she said.
Shaking from fright, she said, she ran upstairs for her husband, Kenneth, who called police.
Shots were still being fired as Dunstable police patrolman Benjamin Sargent arrived moments later, according to the police reports in the complaint against Winkowski and Wilson, which was filed on Oct. 2. Sargent had his gun drawn as he approached the Eisenberger home, she said.
Once inside, Eisenberger said, Sargent checked to ensure the house was safe, and told the couple to stay put and dial 911 if anything else happened. Sargent then left to join other officers, who had raced to Winkowski's house.
In a handwritten statement filed in court, Winkowski said they had all been " 'high' on an emotional roller coaster after jumping out of an airplane at over 10K feet." After they returned from the adventure, the statement says, Winkowski had shown his friends his 12-gauge Beretta shotgun, one of "numerous" guns he owns.
The police reports give a detailed account of that night's subsequent investigation. The reports allege that Winkowski said someone had thrown some kind of explosive onto his lawn, but not that night, and that, later, Winkowski said he had shot "a few times" at a coyote. Upon request, the reports say, Winkowski led police to a bedroom, pulled back the pillows, and removed the shotgun "hidden beneath."
As for Wilson, the reports allege that, when asked about firing the shotgun, Wilson twice responded, "Alcohol impaired my judgment." After telling police he did not feel comfortable allowing them to test his clothes for gunpowder, the reports say, Wilson fell asleep in a vehicle outside; later, an officer drove him home.
About Winkowski, one report says: "I detected a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his breath." The same officer reported about Wilson "an extremely strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his person."
In his statement filed in court, Smith said Winkowski and Wilson each fired the shotgun five times out a back bathroom window; at one point, Smith said, he took the gun from Winkowski and told him he should not shoot it.
After Eisenberger called police, one officer found in her home "a metal object with a piece of drywall stuck onto it" that "looked like a hex nut or a solid piece of metal," according to a report; another officer measured the 2-inch hole made by the projectile as 3 feet 11 inches from Eisenberger's head as she sat again in her chair for the investigation.
Interviewed last week, Eisenberger described the incident as "really, really stressful."
The New Jersey native said she moved to Dunstable 19 years ago after retiring from a job as an account executive with the telephone company. For 12 years, she said, she mounted regular tea parties for local nursing home residents, stopping only because she and her husband downsized to one car, and she had no transportation. She said she undertakes such acts out of the Pentecostal faith she shares with Kenneth.
After the shooting, she said, one immediate thought was for Winkowski, who has plowed her driveway in winter. "I feel really bad for him," she said. "I wish it had never happened, for his sake."
She also expressed sadness about not being able to share with Winkowski the end-of-season bounty of cucumbers and tomatoes from her kitchen garden, because police have instructed her not to talk to him.
Still, even more than two months later, she said, she and her husband flinch when they hear loud noises.
"You move to the country to avoid the drive-bys, and somebody shoots through your window," she said. "It's scary. It's scary."
Both Winkowski and Smith will face disciplinary hearings after disposition of the criminal charges, said DiPaolo. He said he could not take more stringent action against Winkowski because of his workplace rights.
"In the case of a felony, there would be probably a different handling of it," he said. "The things he's charged with are misdemeanors. Not to diminish the seriousness of it - it appears these allegations, if true, [constitute] a very, very serious situation that could have resulted in somebody getting hurt. Fortunately, that didn't happen."
Bonazoli said police are conducting an internal probe of Wilson's alleged involvement in the shooting. He referred further questions to Reading police Chief James Cormier.
Cormier said he is "not at liberty to discuss it" because it is "an internal police matter."
Connie Paige can be reached at email@example.com.