Life after the death of Phila. Police Officer Charles Cassidy

A widow's grief was evident in Judy Cassidy's demeanor as she prepared to present a remembrance bouquet during the May 2008 Living Flame Memorial service at Franklin Square honoring fallen police officers and firefighters.
A widow's grief was evident in Judy Cassidy's demeanor as she prepared to present a remembrance bouquet during the May 2008 Living Flame Memorial service at Franklin Square honoring fallen police officers and firefighters.
Posted: July 05, 2009

Just after breakfast on Halloween, Judy Cassidy hears a knock at the door. One of her neighbors has noticed something peculiar in a house a few doors down and wants to find out if there's any "police activity." Cops and firefighters populate the whole Northeast. Judy's husband, an officer in the 35th District, is this street's resident protector.

She calls Chuck to see if he can find out what's happening. Maybe he knows someone working in their neighborhood today.

A few weeks earlier, she wouldn't have been able to reach him. For years, he refused to own a cell phone, insisting that he communicated just fine with police radios and land lines. He relented finally when she brought one home, telling him it came free when she renewed the contract for her own phone.

She'd lied, a small one. Looking back, she doesn't regret it. If not for the cell phone, they wouldn't have had that last conversation. And she would have had fewer of his precious words.

"Are you busy?" she asks. She knows he doesn't like to be bothered at work. She tells him about their neighbor, and they talk briefly.

"I'm getting ready to go to a plaque dedication," he says. It will be held at an elementary school in West Oak Lane, honoring two officers killed 30 years ago.

"Good," she thinks. "A plaque ceremony. He'll be safe."

The night before, an officer had been shot in the shoulder, and Chuck had joined the search for the suspect. When Judy told her younger sister, Sue, about the incident, Sue had said, "Well, at least he always wears his bulletproof vest."

"Yeah," Judy had said. "But God forbid if they go for his head."

Now Chuck says, "I've got to go."

"Just be careful," she tells him. "I'll see you later."

A man of respect

They'd started dating in the fall of 1969. Chuck played football, and she served on student council. While other boys grew their hair long and wore bell-bottoms, Chuck dressed for the revolution in a preppy trench coat, khakis, and penny loafers.

Even then, Judy recalls, "Chuck was all about respect."

In 25 years on the police force, he never fired his weapon, she says, except at the practice range. "He knew how to talk to people."

She and Chuck fell in love fast, but spent 12 years together before getting married. She had worked at a bank, then at NFL Films. Harry Kalas attended their wedding, July 4, 1983. The Cassidy children have been good kids - the girls, Colby and Kate, now in college, John with one more year of high school.

The family photos and videos show Chuck carrying them on his broad shoulders. Holding them up to put the star on top of the Christmas tree. Coaching soccer and softball and basketball. Standing beside them before their proms, in awe of their adolescent poise and beauty.

They've lived in the same house, a small single-family with a basement and patch of backyard, for 24 years.

"Chuck hated bills," Judy says. "He hated credit cards. He worked so much overtime, we hardly saw him. He wouldn't take vacation." She begged him to get some rest.

"I will," he told her. "As soon as we're finished with tuition."

They'd been having car troubles, too. "He always paid cash for cars, and never bought anything with less than 100,000 miles on it," she says. The blue Chevy sedan had been hobbled: The driver's-side window didn't go down, the air-conditioning broke a while back. Now, the engine won't turn over.

Chuck's going to look for a replacement, starting tomorrow.

'It can't be Chuck . . . '

It is late morning. John's at school. She cleans up after breakfast, turns on the television, and dozes off on the living room couch.

The alarmed voices of reporters on a breaking news story waken her. A cop has been shot.

She calls her sister at Sue's Center City boutique. A saleswoman, Kelly, picks up; Sue's busy on another line. Judy and Kelly talk about the shooting.

"It can't be Chuck," Judy reassures herself. "He's in uniform." She gives Kelly a blow-by-blow account of what they're saying on TV.

A Dunkin' Donuts at Broad Street and 66th Avenue has been robbed. A man in a black hooded sweatshirt swaggered up to the counter, waving his gun, demanding money. An officer, off-duty, opened the door, saw the robber, and started to draw his gun, but the man whipped around and fired first. The cop, shot in the head, collapsed on the threshold. The man picked up the officer's gun and bolted.

Judy feels sick. What is wrong with this city that cops keeping getting shot? But it can't be Chuck; she doesn't have to worry.

Through the kitchen window, she notices a police car parked out front. She figures he must be headed to that house a few doors down. Whatever her neighbor had worried about must have amounted to something.

But now, an officer is walking up her path.

"That's weird," she thinks.

"I have to hang up," she tells Kelly.

She opens the door.

"Mrs. Cassidy?" he asks.

"Yes?"

"You need to come with me. Your husband has been in an accident."

"He wasn't shot in the head," she says. "That guy was off-duty. Chuck's working."

He doesn't argue. "I don't know what happened," he says. "You need to come with me."

Nightmare at the hospital

On the way to Albert Einstein Medical Center, the police radio is off, a very bad sign, Judy knows, thinking, "They don't want me to know what's going on." But the officer's cell phone keeps going off. "They wanted him to get me there fast."

One of her friends calls from New Jersey.

"What do you need me to do? Do you want me to get the kids?" she asks.

"No," Judy says, thanking her, but thinking she doesn't want anyone telling her children their dad is hurt. She doesn't know that a priest is already accompanying her son from school, and someone from Homicide has gone to get the girls.

"I can't talk now," Judy says.

The officer drives past the hospital and a roiling mass of uniforms, badges, and shoulder-harness radios, flashing red and blue lights, and jostling TV cameras.

He pulls around the back through a guarded, empty parking lot. Judy never looks up. She watches her feet as she's led along the edge of a building, through automatic doors into a room.

She doesn't want to believe this is happening. A few of Chuck's fellow officers from the 35th surround her.

"He was breathing when they brought him in," they say. "They're working on him."

It is 11:30 a.m., but Judy has lost all sense of time. Everything seems to be moving in fast-forward and slow motion all at once.

Doctors - or are they nurses? - tell her the surgeons are trying to relieve swelling in Chuck's brain. All afternoon and through the night, Judy clings to a thread of hope.

While police fan out across the city, looking for the robber, Cardinal Justin Rigali administers last rites.

Judy sits beside Chuck in the intensive-care unit. Now she regrets every minute she stepped away to lie down or get something to eat. The face she sees is not his, all puffy and distorted. John, 16, stands guard, watching the monitor measuring the pressure in his father's head. He talks to Chuck about the Eagles games they've been to, and the one they have tickets for. He runs out to report to Judy.

"Mom! His pressure went down when I talked to him. It's getting better!"

The next morning, the staff takes Chuck for a test to assess brain activity.

Judy won't go. "I feel like I'm going to a death sentence," she says. Her sisters and her brothers-in-law go in her place, then soon return.

"He's gone," they say.

Now the doctors need to talk. Chuck is an organ donor. His heart is strong. But people are lined up for blocks, waiting to pay their respects.

"Let's wait," Judy says. Chuck stays on life support for hours, as the mourners pass through.

She finds some comfort knowing Chuck's heart is given to a 49-year-old father of three, a man retired from law enforcement who says he can't wait to get back on the football field.

"Some day," Judy says, "I'd like to meet him. Just not yet. I'm afraid. I want to know he's doing fine. It's just going to be hard."

Chuck's suspected killer is found a week later in a Miami homeless shelter. He is John Lewis, a 21-year-old Olney High School dropout. The kind of screwed-up kid Chuck might have tried to turn around, given the chance.

Life after Chuck

Nearly two years later, at Cardinal Dougherty High School, a plaque is dedicated to Chuck. The student body president says, "Mrs. Cassidy, please know how much your strength and dedication to your family have inspired the students."

But at times, Judy doesn't feel very strong.

Chuck was 54. He was planning on working seven more years. Then maybe they'd move to the suburbs.

There are days, weeks now, when she doesn't feel like getting out of bed.

"The hardest thing," she has said, "is watching your kids hurt. They're quiet. No one wants to set off the others."

The family has had birthdays, an anniversary, and two Christmases without him. Chuck's absence is a constant presence: at Thanksgiving, when they staked out the same patch of sidewalk where they always watched the parade. At Sunday dinners, when he and his brother-in-law used to do the dishes.

But people are so kind. Judy goes down into the basement. When they had parties, Chuck used to hold court here. "They called him 'One More Drink Chuck' because he was always talking you into one more before he'd let you leave."

There's barely room to stand. Back by the washing machine are boxes filled with memorial stuff. Portraits of Chuck in pastels, paint, stained glass. Banners drawn by schoolchildren. Judy plans to redo the basement, maybe build an addition to make room for all of it, properly displayed.

The gifts from strangers continue to arrive.

And she's still hearing stories. About men Chuck arrested, then helped to get jobs. Troubled young men who credit him with turning their lives around.

A few of them showed up at his viewing and the memorials that have followed.

Chuck's death "seems like a nightmare," Judy says, crying. "He went to work, that's it. He just went to work."

She feels lucky to have her children, her family and friends. "I just wish I could go back to my old life. . . . We're broken and we can't be fixed."


 

To see video interviews with relatives, visit the scenes of the tragedies through 360-degree photographs, and read previous news articles about the fallen officers, go to http://go.philly.com/mourning


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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