You are on page 1of 14

A Journey to the Center of the Mind, Book II

James R. Fitzgerald

(Its late summer of 1981. Its been a tough two years for me, personally and professionally, but
a big vacation was looming. How I handled a call the very last day before going away bothers
me to this day. What then almost happened to my wife a week later in Halifax, Nova Scotia, still
haunts me too.)

Chapter Thirty-three A
By way of a reminder, it had been a rough two years-plus for me. I lost my dad (I buried
my badge with him in his coffin), my Aunt Betty Haeberle (my moms sister and a favorite
aunt), and two police officer friends during this relatively short span of time. The political angst
and aggravation caused by just working at the BPD didnt help either. In view of all of this, a
family trip was seen as a well-deserved and well-earned getaway for me, my wife, and young
son, in both a geographical and psychological sense. I was very excited that I was now less than
fifteen hours away from the start of my vacation by the end of this Friday day-work shift. That
whole tour-of-duty, to include this last day, I spent thinking and re-thinking what we had to pack,
bringing my maps and directions to get us there, confirming the various lodging reservations,
having the right tools and spare equipment for the two bikes we were bringing, etc. I assured
myself on my mental and paper checklist, all was good. Now, just get this last shift over with
and on the way well be.

And, maybe, just maybe, according to rumors anyway, by the time I get back from this
trip, there will be a new police chief at the BPD. That would be a nice return present. Well,
depending on who it was, of course.
As I wanted to get a somewhat early start to my big New England and Canadian vacation,
I actually switched with Officer Jerry Judge, who was on another squad, to work a 7A-5P shift
that Friday, the day before I was leaving. It was no big deal as I had switched work days like
this before with Jerry, sometimes at my request, sometimes at his request.
This particular day turned out to be a routine one, with beautiful weather, and only a few
run-of-the-mill calls for me to handle over the first nine or so hours. However, the one nonroutine call that would haunt me right afterwards and haunts me to this day came in around 4:00
PM, less than an hour before I was to complete my shift. It was anything but routinewell, for
at least one family, anyway.

It was one of those infrequent calls which came to me that the dispatcher wouldnt put
over the airwaves for fear that someone with a police scanner would hear it first. She called my
assigned radio number and upon responding she instructed me to call her on the landline. So, as
I had done in the past for various reasons, I called the dispatcher from an available payphone in
my sector. Once we connected, she advised me of the situation. It made me very uneasy once I
learned the details and what I had to do.
It was a death notification.
It seems that the 20-something son of a Bensalem resident was killed in a car accident
early that afternoon somewhere in Ohio. The local police there identified the deceased and they
needed his immediate family in Pennsylvania to be notified. The chief of police of the small

town where the accident occurred had to get in touch with the next-of-kin and begin arranging
for formal identification, body transportation, turning over belongings, and the like. So, with this
telephonic request from the Ohio chief to the BPD, that initial task of notification now fell on me
as the family lived in my sector. It would be me who would break the news to this young mans
mom, dad, sibling, or whoever would be unfortunate enough to answer the door that afternoon
and be told the worst possible news anyone could receive.
I knew the protocol. We even received a few minutes of training regarding this exact
scenario at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy, although interestingly, this would be the first
time I was ever called upon to deliver one of these formal death notifications. What I knew
through classroom training from five years ago was that I should go to one or more neighbors
houses in an attempt to determine who may be closest and/or friendliest to the soon-to-beaggrieved family, and have them accompany me, or maybe even have them contact another
nearby family member, or even a church representative (if the family was religious), and arrange
for them to come to the house. Then, we would break the bad news together and the family
member would have someone other than just an unknown uniformed police officer to grieve with
upon hearing of their loved ones sudden death.
I knew I should do what I was trained to do, but after ending the phone call with the
dispatcher, walking back to my patrol car, and sitting in it for a few minutes staring out the front
windshield, I somehow just couldnt bring myself to do it that way. I had cried enough over the
death of my dad and an aunt, not to mention two police officers I knew very well who were
killed in the line of duty not all that long ago. I didnt want to put myself through seeing
someone else experience this sudden heartbreak in front of me. This was immature and selfish
on my part. I knew it then, and I know it now. But, with just an hour or so to go in my shift

before my big getaway trip, I didnt want it ruined by experiencing this type of emotional
reaction again, even if from a complete stranger. So, I took the easy way out.

I eventually drove to and parked in front of the two-story single home of the family of the
recently killed young man. I noticed the white picket fence around the property, with trees and
bushes scattered throughout. It looked like a happy home. Certainly the exterior did. The
interior would soon be changed forever, I reckoned, thanks to the news I was about to deliver.
Well, partial news, anyway.
I took a few deep breaths, exited the car, and after opening the gate I slowly walked up
the nicely laid stone path through the seemingly professionally manicured lawn and up onto the
nicely furnished porch. I was wondering if the recently deceased family member had ever sat on
the cushioned Adirondack chairs, or idled away his time on the hammock over in the corner.
Okay, enough admiring the sites here; do your job, Jim.
I rang the doorbell. It took a minute or so, and a second push of the doorbell button, but
finally a woman in her late 40s answered the door. Upon it opening, I could hear at least one
other adult-like voice from the interior of the house. Okay, goodat least she wasnt alone
I initially asked her, Are you Mrs. ________?
Her response confirmed to me that the womans last name was the same as the victim of
the car accident. I assumed that she was most likely his mother, although I didnt directly ask
her, nor did I mention the deceased persons name. I then ever-so reluctantly handed the woman
a piece of paper which I had written upon in my patrol car before walking up to her door. On it
was the town, and the name and phone number of the chief of police in Ohio, but nothing else. I

told the woman that she should call this number as the chief had some information for her. She
looked at me and the note rather quizzically and with some trepidation, but took it from me
nonetheless. She asked me what this was about. I didnt answer her question. I just repeated
that the chief had some information for her. I didnt lie to her, but I certainly didnt tell her
anything else either. The woman then politely said, Thank you, Officer, and closed the door. I
turned around and walked to my patrol car at a rapid gait. I got in and took off right away. My
task here was complete. But I knew her troubles were just about to begin and they would last a

Jesus, what did I just do? Or more precisely, what did I NOT just do? I mishandled this
call, this person, this very sad and tragic event, didnt I? Or, I certainly could have done it better,
and how I was trained to do it. I knew all this before I even walked onto the comfortable-looking
front porch. This womans whole world was about to come crashing down on her and I didnt
know for sure who else was there with her. Was she with loved ones, some casual friends, an
appliance repairman? Well, she wasnt alone, I assured myself, but I could have established that
she was with someone, anyone, who could get her through the initial sledgehammer-blow of the
God-awful news that she was about to receive over the telephone.
I drove off, wrote my brief incident report in an empty parking lot not too far from the
police station, then eventually returned to HQ just before 5:00P to end my shift and begin my
much anticipated week-and-a-half long vacation. As my own squad mates were now coming in
to begin their/our regular evening tour (remember, I switched with Officer Judge to work this
day-work shift), a few of them who knew that I was taking time off and where I was going

wished me a great trip and all the usual pre-vacation salutations. I thanked them but I didnt feel
very good about things, or about me, even pending my upcoming getaway.
It continued to really disturb me that less than an hour ago I was assigned to be the
human bridge between this womans ostensibly happy past life and her now irrevocably sad
future. I could have, and should have, built a better span between these two distinct parts of her
life, or at least arranged for other people to be with her on it with her upon hearing this news.
Quite frankly, I know the mom would have still felt awful even if I had undertaken the
death notification in a by-the-book manner, with her close friends, family members, clergy, and
others, at her side. After all, no matter who could have possibly been there with her that day, she
still had lost her child in a tragic car accident hundreds of miles away. No one or nothing could
change that fact. However, I suppose I could have made the onslaught of the oncoming
emotional tidal wave a bit more manageable if I had arranged for the right people to have been
with her, and/or if I had delivered the news in person to her. But because I selfishly didnt want
to re-live some relatively recent sadness and emotionality in my own personal life which, yes,
still pained me a great deal, and also because I had this blissful and psychologically muchneeded trip beginning just hours away, I chose to make this moms situation much harder than it
had to be.

As it turned out, no one afterwards ever contacted me regarding my death notification

technique, or lack thereof. The family of the young man never called the PD and complained
about my form or manner in delivering the news. Nor did the out-of-state chief of police call my
bosses and criticize me for making HIM be the one to tell this woman over the phone the
devastating news about her son. Only I and two others ever knew how I responded to this police

call, the mother in Bensalem and the chief in Ohio. The negative feelings regarding how I chose
to handle this matter that August afternoon later became my personal issue, because I chose to
make it so. Thats because I knew I could have done my job more professionally and more
compassionately on that day.
Over the next several years I made one or two other death notifications as a police
officer, but in each subsequent case I did, in fact, contact neighbors, clergy members, and others,
in an attempt to soften the blow, if at all possible, for the person receiving the bad news. I
learned my lesson on that August day in 1981 before I took off on my much-anticipated
I never made that error in judgment - or compassion - again.


The ten-day trip through New England and on to Nova Scotia was a great one. It lived up
to all its expectations in terms of it being far enough away from the madness of Bensalem
politics and also allowing my young family, just the three of us at the time, to drive and bike
around some awe-inspiring places. From the rolling hills (fortunately not too rolling) and
farmland of southern Vermont, to seaside Peggys Cove and beyond in Nova Scotia, we saw
many a beautiful sight from atop our four-wheeled car and our two-wheeled bikes.
However, I still couldnt help but think that no matter how nice of a time I was having
with my wife and son, back in Bensalem there was a family actively grieving the loss of their
own son. I felt guilty over my pleasure on this trip, given their ongoing grief. If only I had
handled that call better. If only I.

Okay, I had to focus now on my family, my own son, during this trip, and move on from
what had happened a few days ago. It was done, it was over. I tried my best to do just that.

Like on my travels to Ireland three years ago, while on this trip I also had the opportunity
to meet with a local law enforcement officer. He was a Halifax patrolman. Except this time, he
came to my location at my specific request. This meeting could have been the result of a much
more serious scenario, but fortunately, it didnt turn out that way.
While staying for a few days in a hotel, right on a river of some sort, in what I suppose
would be called downtown Halifax, I suggested to Eileen that we go for a family bike ride
around the immediate area. There were some nearby small streets we could safely traverse and it
looked like there was much to see right in our immediate neighborhood. Upon thinking about it,
Eileen said she wasnt quite up to a bike ride, so I told her if she was okay with it Id take Sean
for a little cruise on my bike. I said wed be back in an hour and for her to relax and take it easy
in the meantime. She agreed, walked us out our hotel room door, said goodbye, and we went our
separate ways.
Sean and I had a nice bike trip through some interesting parts of Halifax. We stayed on
small streets, none too far from our hotel. Some of the streets were cobblestone, or at least
poorly laid asphalt. Sean loved bouncing up and down in his little cushioned seat on these rough
patches of road. For me, it was a bit tougher on my butt. However, we both survived and
ultimately enjoyed our little ride together. We pulled back into the hotel parking lot about one
hour later and rolled the bike right up to the door of our first floor room.
Upon unlocking the door with my key, my forward momentum was momentarily stopped
by the deadbolt. Upon Eileen closing the door fully to release it and me slowly walking and

rolling the bike and Sean back into the room, I found a somewhat disconcerted wife now sitting
in the lone chair. I asked her not IF there was a problem, but WHAT was the problem, as I knew
well her occasional look of disconcertment. She proceeded to tell me there was, in fact, a
problem, although she didnt know what it all meant. She then related what just happened.

It seems that about ten minutes after Sean and I left on our short bike trip there was a
knock at the hotel room door. Eileen was actually lying down at the time and had started to doze
off. Upon awakening to the second set of knocks, she then let out, Jim, is that you? She
thought it may have been me coming back a bit early and that perhaps I had forgotten my key.
The male voice responded in a muffled and low volume, Yeah!
Eileen got up to let me in, but then thought twice. As she was now somewhat more
awake she realized it didnt sound exactly like me and instead of opening the door right away,
she wisely decided to look out the peephole. She could see it was a man, but not too much more.
This time Eileen asked, Who are you? What do you want?
The man responded, again in a muffled and barely discernible tone, one word which
sounded something like Maintenance!
Something wasnt right here and Eileen knew it. The small hairs on the back of her neck
were standing up. (Yes, I related to her through my own life experiences that when things dont
seem quite right, they probably arent, and thats what those little hairs are for. They are NOT to
be ignored.) Eileen didnt further respond to the man at the door. She made sure the doors
deadbolt was still in locked-mode (as I had reminded her on this trip to utilize whenever she was
in any hotel room alone), as well as the actual door handle being in locked-mode too, and she
backed away from the entrance to the other side of the room. Fortunately, about forty-five

seconds after the initial knock sequence she saw the silhouette of a human form walk in front of
the exterior of the window of the first floor hotel room. It was that of a man leaving the
immediate door area. Needless to say, Eileen did not fall back asleep. She anxiously awaited
my return.
Upon hearing all of this, my first reaction was to look outside into the hotel parking lot
and its immediate environs in an attempt to locate and possibly identify this man. I did this
having Eileen (and, of course, Sean) next to me. I wasnt leaving her alone again, at least not in
this place. We didnt see anyone who looked like the man she saw through the peephole and
walk past the window. Eileen didnt have much of a description except he was maybe in his 30s,
balding, and wearing a white tee-shirt.
I next called the hotel desk and asked the manager if anyone from their staff had a reason
to knock at our door in the last hour. He told me there wasnt anyone from maintenance even
working this afternoon and the housekeeping staff was done for the day. I thanked him, told him
what just happened, and advised him I wanted the police sent to my room. He agreed to call for
me and we waited for the officers arrival.
Within fifteen minutes a Halifax police officer arrived and knocked on our door. We let
him in. He was very professional and was appreciative of us providing him with this
information. He wrote down everything Eileen told him. As we learned, there had been several
sexual assaults and/or attempts at area hotels and apartment buildings over the last six months or
so, and from Eileens physical description and the apparent modus operandi of the door knocker,
this possibly was the guy. He was suspected of hanging around hotels with exterior doors on the
first floor which opened directly to parking lots and then watching who goes in and who goes out
of the various rooms. As earlier Eileen had walked me and Sean out the door with my bike, two

helmets, and a water bottle clearly in hand, and motioned a demonstrative goodbye to us, it was
very likely that the potential offender knew wed be gone for at least a little while and that she
was fair game in the room by herself if he could just get inside. And, the officer also told us, the
guy never kicked in the hotel doors or picked their locks. It was always some form of subterfuge
hed use to trick the female lodger into allowing him to enter the room. Then, the sexual
assault/rape would occur.
Damn! This certainly wasnt on our trip agenda. How close did we come to this
horrendous event occurring on our much anticipated vacation?
And, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, of all places?
The officer assured us that his city was a safe one, with a relatively low crime rate with
only this potential sexual assaulter, and yes, rapist, rearing his ugly you-know-what every once
in a while. They really wanted to catch him, he told me.
The officer and I talked a little bit about our respective police departments, differences
between the U.S. and Canadian laws, work schedules, equipment, etc., but my mind wasnt
really into it. Learning that my wife could have been a sexual assault victim while I was
innocently tooling around on a bicycle with our son did not sit well with me and definitely threw
off my level of concentration with him.
Nonetheless, the officer was professional and thorough and represented the Halifax
Police Department very well. We exchanged contact information, to include business cards, so if
he happened to learn anything more about this guy he could contact us. Also, in our one
remaining day in Halifax if Eileen should happen to see this guy again, we would know who to
call. We thanked him and he went on his way.

Nothing more happened on our trip which mirrored this event. And that was a very good
We came back to the U.S. via the port of Yarmouth, but this time took a traditional ferry
boat, albeit a large one, to Bar Harbor, Maine. (The previous overnight ferry from Portland to
Yarmouth actually resembled an ocean liner. We even had our own cabin.) To this day, that sixhour trip to Bar Harbor was the roughest continuous patch of sea Ive ever experienced. Little
Sean, with his much lower center of gravity, was fine with it. He was running all over the
interior and exterior decks, even after joyfully eating a hot dog and French Fries. As I followed
him as he was traipsing around the various exterior decks, I would further deposit parts of my
two meals from earlier that day into the rolling swells of the Bay of Fundy. Im sure the various
aquatic creatures below appreciated the chum I was providing to them from above.
Finally arriving on U.S. soil was never so welcomed. Not because we didnt necessarily
enjoy our time in Canada and Nova Scotia (besides the Halifax hotel incident), but just to be on
terra firma once and for all after six hours on a water-borne roller coaster ride.
We stayed at a hotel close to the ferry terminal that evening. We needed to rest after our
nine-day long driving and biking journey, and very difficult bay crossing. I never left Eileens
side that night. She didnt want me to, nor did I.

On that last night of our vacation, being very curious as to what was happening at the
Bensalem PD, I called collect from our hotel room. I was curious during the whole trip, of
course, but I didnt want the PD to have to pay for a collect call from another country. But now
that I was back stateside, I figured their budget could afford it.

I was somewhat friendly with the dispatcher who happened to answer the phone. Her
adult daughter had been dating Officer Bob Yezzi at the time of his death, and I became closer to
both mom and daughter as we collectively tried to help her child deal with her personal loss too.
After some small talk, the dispatcher told me long distance that night rumor has it that a new
chief has been selected. But no one knew who it was, at least not yet. It was being kept a deep,
dark secret, at least to most of the BPD.
I asked the dispatcher if it was suspected that Deputy Chief Zajac, by some political
miracle at this point, was going to be the new chief. She said no one in the PD seemed to know
any details regarding our next chief, only that it leaked somehow that the guy had, in fact, been
chosen and we should all know by the following Wednesday nights special Board of
Supervisors meeting. I bid her farewell from the rocky coast of Maine and told her Id see her
in next week when I was back at work.

That Wednesday night meeting was only several days away. Id be working that night.
As with many others in the Bensalem Police Department, the Township itself, and the rest of the
surrounding area, I would learn of the future of my agency by 9:00 or so that evening, at least in
terms of who would be in charge of the BPD for the foreseeable future.
I recall thinking over that next few days that even if someone had held a gun to my head
before that Wednesday evenings announcement and introduction, I could have never come up
with the name of the next BPD chief of police.
Interestingly, the gun to a head analogy was hauntingly closer to reality than I could
have ever imagined. That is, in a bizarre, ironic, turn of events sort of way for me.

Related Interests