NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A man suspected of throwing a suspicious device into an NYPD van was arrested and charged Thursday, following an hours-long standoff with police in Columbus Circle.
Queens resident Hector Meneses, 52, was taken into custody shortly before 8 a.m. Thursday.
He was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center for a psychiatric evaluation and was later charged with several counts including reckless endangerment, falsely reporting an incident, placing a false bomb, menacing and making a terrorist threat.
As CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported, it all began in Times Square with two officers, who were scared but determined to save lives.
“We both said our prayers. We thought, ‘This is it. We’re not going to make it,’” said NYPD Sgt. Hameed Armani. “But I’m happy no one else is getting hurt.”
Investigators said around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sgt. Armani and his partner, Officer Peter Cybulski, were parked in a police van in Times Square.
As they sat in the van near 46th Street and Broadway, police said a man, later identified as Meneses, threw a device from a gold sport utility vehicle into the officers’ van through an open window on the sergeant’s side.
“We come to work every day not knowing what quite literally might be thrown at us — quite literally,” Cybulski said.
The foil-wrapped object lit up and made noise as it landed on the police van dashboard, and the officers were afraid it was a homemade bomb.
Partners for two years, the officers both had the same thought, CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported.
“Looked at each other — Cybulski goes, ‘Boss this is a bomb,’” Armani said. “The light went off, started clicking. I looked around, saw a lot of kids; a lot of young people — a lot of people out there at Times Square…. I was like, ‘We’re going to go, but I’m not going to have anybody else go with us.’”
“Very crowded area; multiple children around; multiple families around,” Cybulski added. “We’re not going to let this take out someone else with us, multiple casualties.”
Cybulski cradled the device while Armani drove to a quieter spot on 46th Street.
Police later determined the device was actually a battery-powered lantern, a wax candle wrapped in foil and a white cloth, CBS2’s Janelle Burrell reported.
NYPD Assistant Commissioner for Communication and Public Information J. Peter Donald tweeted out a photo of the object after police gave the all clear.
Then around 2:10 a.m. Thursday, police said officers spotted the suspect’s vehicle in Columbus Circle and pulled it over.
Meneses then “rolls up the window, puts his hands towards the glove compartment and says that he wants to die and has a bomb strapped to his vest,” Chief of Manhattan Detectives Bill Aubry said.
After putting a red construction helmet on his head, Aubry said the suspect continued to display erratic behavior. The suspect was also wearing sunglasses and had some kind of a remote control in his hand, police said.
“He did make statements that he had a bomb, a vest with a bomb; that he wanted to die,” said NYPD Chief Vincent Giordano.
NYPD Chief of Department James O’Neill said negotiators and Emergency Services Unit officers tried to communicate with the suspect as he sat inside the SUV overnight and into Thursday morning.
Police eventually sent a camera-equipped robot to check out the sport-utility vehicle because they didn’t know what was inside.
The robot, equipped with audio and video, found more than a dozen LED lights as well as a pot with a cap and wires, Aubry said.
“He tried to simulate a pressure cooker with wires,” Aubry said. “Also, there’s a remote control in there. It would be your typical electric fireplace type remote control that he had in his hand the entire time as if simulating, ‘I’m going to press this and I’m going to detonate this device if you come closer.'”
The six-hour standoff finally ended with ESU officers pulling Meneses out the driver’s side window, WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond reported.
Aubry said police investigated the vehicle and found nothing “that comes anything close to an improvised explosive device” inside.
At a news conference following the incident, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton praised Armani and Cybulski for their quick thinking and bravery.
“They put their own lives at risk so that they could save potentially hundreds if not thousands of people in Times Square,” he said.
He also commended all of the officers involved in the tense standoff.
“It just represents the best of the Finest and your police department and how they responded to what is an increasingly dangerous world and this city,” he said.
Streets around Columbus Circle were closed and subways bypassed the area during the standoff, but normal service has since resumed and the roads have been reopened.
Meanwhile, CBS2’s Sonia Rincon spoke with some people who knew suspect Meneses in his Queens neighborhood.
As police searched Meneses’ East Elmhurst apartment Thursday, Lucia Amarao said Meneses had been struggling financially.
“I really cannot believe that he tried to do such a thing,” she said. “The only thing that has any explanation is, you know, his financial situation.”
Police said Meneses had no criminal history or documented mental health problems.
Another neighbor said Meneses would come to her home for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and described him as gentle and kind.
“I cannot imagine Hector being violent, because he just isn’t,” the woman said in Spanish.
Neighbors said as far as they knew, Meneses was a livery cab driver. The Taxi and Limousine Commission said Meneses applied for a taxi license back in April, but never completed the process.
Carlos Ponce, at a metal shop next door to the building where Meneses lived, said Meneses would often come sit and chat about talk soccer or music – and never about politics or problems.
Ponce said there was nothing to indicate Meneses was troubled.
Meneses was from Colombia and has no local family. He had a roommate, who spoke with police but not with reporters.