The Cop Who Forgave His Killer
Steven McDonald was shot three times by a teenager in Central Park, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down for 30 years. But he spent that time preaching one thing—forgiveness.
NYPD Detective Steven McDonald was just hours from the hour of his death last Monday when his son, Conor, took his right hand and a family friend took his left.
Conor’s girlfriend, Katie, took Conor’s free hand and that of the friend, completing a circle of love and faith. Conor’s voice had the urgency of belief rising to vanquish despair as he recited prayers known to all Catholics. Particular phrases of the Our Father and the Hail Mary seemed to linger in the still air of this room at the end of the hall at the Coronary Care Unit at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island.
“…as we forgive those who trespass against us…”
“…full of grace…”
“…now and at the hour of our death...”
Steven was unconscious, as he had been since that Friday, when he suffered what was reported as a heart attack complicated by having been breathing with only the assistance of a ventilator for just over half of his 59 years. But his skin felt uncommonly warm with the life that had always emanated from his smile and from eyes that were now forever closed. His hand was baby soft from being unable to reach or hold or clasp or stroke or push or pull or throw or catch or applaud or make the sign of the cross for the 30 years since he had been shot by a teenager in Central Park and paralyzed from the neck down.
Steven had been a big New York Rangers fan and a delegation from the hockey team had come to the hospital with a jersey that was now spread across his chest. On top of that was the silver shield he had been carrying as a 29-year-old police officer when he approached a 15-year-old named Shavod Jones. The teen had suddenly drawn a gun in the summertime splendor of July 12, 1986, and fired twice, then a third time while standing over Steven after he fell.
Beside the silver shield now on the bed lay the gold detective shield Steven had received as the department kept him on the job. The number was 104, the same as was carried by his maternal grandfather, Detective James Conway—known by some as “Smiling Jimmy”—who survived being shot in the chest by a stick-up man in 1939.
Other shields had been placed on Steven’s chest by cops who had driven him over the years as he addressed roll calls and attended memorials and traveled wherever he might possibly be needed as the NYPD’s most eloquent and compelling emissary.
And amongst the shields was a piece of paper printed with the text of a prayer that Steven had first heard as he lay in another bed, in Bellevue Hospital three decades ago, when his son was not yet born. Steven had been drifting in and out of a dream world where he played football and walked along a beach and danced with his wife, Patti Ann. The stark reality had been imparted by one of the doctors.
“A doctor spoke to my wife, Patti Ann and me,” Steven would later report. “He said that I would be paralyzed from the neck down—I would be unable to move for the rest of my life. I was married just eight months. My wife was 23 years old. And she was three months pregnant. Patti Ann was crying uncontrollably. I cried too. I was locked in my body—unable to reach out to her.”
Then into their lives strode a figure in sandals and a brown Franciscan robe who had a joyful smile and voice as if out of Steven’s better dreams. Father Mychal Judge recited a prayer that he himself had learned at Saint Francis Preparatory School in Brooklyn.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.”
The prayer continued,
“O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Steven had not yet regained an ability to speak. He could only mouth a question.
“What prayer is that?”
Judge understood him and replied, “The Prayer of Saint Francis.”
The prayer continued to resonate in Steven and it was joined by the support of his family, notably of his deeply religious and spiritually stalwart mother, Anita Conway McDonald. There was also an overwhelming outpouring of concern and goodwill from seemingly the entire city.
In the meantime, Patti Ann’s pregnancy progressed to where she could feel the baby move. Steven only had sensation above his neck and might not have been able to share this new parent’s thrill were it not for a remarkably dedicated nurse named Nina Justiniano, who was at his side 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Justiniano would later say that she closed the curtain to give the couple some privacy and urged Patti Ann to let Steven feel these stirrings of new life with the side of his face.
With the prospect of fatherhood came the question of what kind of father Steven would be. And with the Prayer of Saint Francis came a way to become an instrument of peace and feel something other than the hatred and anger sown by the teen gunman. Steven mouthed more words, words that Judge would later say seemed to be shouted from the mountain top.
“I want to forgive him.”
On Jan. 29, 1987, six months and 10 days after the shooting and the very day the teenaged gunman was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years, Conor Patrick McDonald was born. The christening was in the Bellevue chapel on March 1, Steven’s 30th birthday. He was in a wheelchair, his head propped up with two small pieces of wood. He still could not speak and Patti Ann, now 24, read aloud a letter he had composed to the City of New York.
“I became a police officer to help the people of New York in any small way I could,” the letter began. “My father and grandfather before me had the same dream. When I first wore the badge of a police officer, I was so proud to and hoped that I would be able to live up to its tradition of courage and compassion.”
He went on, “There is no group of men and women who care as much about this city as much as the men and women of the New York City Police Department.”
He continued, “On some days, when I am not feeling very well, I can get angry. But I have realized that anger is a wasted emotion, and that I have to remember why I became a police officer. I'm sometimes angry at the teen-age boy who shot me.”
Patti Ann seemed to have difficulty reading these words. She steadied herself and continued.
“But more often I feel sorry for him. I only hope that he can turn his life into helping and not hurting people.”
Then came the transformative sentence that did indeed bring pardon to injury, faith to doubt, light to darkness.
“I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.''
The letter proceeded to thank New Yorkers for, “helping me more than I ever could have helped them, as much as I tried,” adding, “Our lives have been touched by new friends, who have brought us hope in times of despair, joy out of tears.
“Let me tell you, there is more love in this city than there are street corners,” the letter declared.
The letter recounted a remarkable occurrence after Steven had spent some of the eternal hours in the hospital watching his favorite movie, The Quiet Man, again and again. Word had gotten out that Maureen O'Hara was his favorite actress.
“So, when Maureen O’Hara appeared in my room one day, it was like a dream – as if she had jumped from the television set,” the letter reported. “She became a good friend, and we are so happy she is here to witness the christening of our baby boy.”
O’Hara was indeed there, along with a tearful Mayor Ed Koch and more than 200 others who listened as Steven’s letter again expressed his gratitude for the city’s love, going on to say, “But I ask you to remember this; I chose the life of a police officer with all it’s risks.
“I believe I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” wrote the young father who loved sports and dancing and who would never be able to hold his son or move his limbs again.
The letter ended with, “I only ask you to remember the less lucky, the less fortunate than I am and who struggle for the dignity of life without the attention and without the helping hands that have given me life.”
Steven departed the hospital in a motorized wheelchair. He remained able to breathe only with the aid of a ventilator as he embarked on a decades-long enactment of the principles in the Prayer of Saint Francis. He spoke at schools about the importance of forgiveness and made pilgrimages of reconciliation to Northern Ireland and the Middle East. He also addressed police roll calls, in 1999 speaking where he had last worked, the Central Park Precinct.
“He told rookies and veterans alike, to always think about officer safety,” Jimmy O’Neill, then the precinct commander and now police commissioner, would recall in his eulogy at Steven’s funeral. “And to always treat everyone they encountered on patrol with the same level of respect and kindness they’d afford their own, closest friends.”
O’Neill went on, “That’s what had such an impact on me: Steven was saying that putting your life on the line for strangers is not an easy vocation, but he knew the men and women of the NYPD could – and would – make a difference in people’s lives.”
O’Neill continued, “In fact, Steven’s was a life that underscores why most people decide to become police officers: Cops want to make a difference. Cops want to do good. Cops want to lead lives of significance. And Steven did that every, single day of his life.”
On many of those days, Steven was accompanied by Father Mychal, who saw in him the confirmation of his personal theology, which held that just as the devil is to be found in evil, God is to be found in good and that by recognizing good in others we strengthen it. Mychal saw unequaled good—and therefore God —in Steven and the other hero in their household, Patti Ann.
Almost every night, Mychal would call Steven, who could now talk between breaths from the ventilator. The cop and the priest would roam the city in Steven’s specially equipped van, sometimes stopping at the harbor’s edge, gazing out at the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers soaring behind them.
By then, the two were themselves twin towers of another kind. Mychal had become a fire chaplain, and was as much the soul of the FDNY as Steven was of the NYPD. Mychal was in his friary on West 31st Street on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he learned that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. He raced down to the biggest crime scene in city history.
After learning that Mychal had been killed, Steven arrived in his van at the medical examiner’s office. He rolled in his wheelchair into a refrigerated room. An attendant pointed to a black body bag containing the person recorded as DM0001-01, the first official fatality of 9/11.
“There’s Mychal Judge’s remains,” the attendant said.
Steven emerged from the chilled chamber into the surreally sparkling day grief stricken and heartbroken, but still strong with what he and Mychal had shared. The two towers of spirit now stood as one.
On the Sunday before each anniversary of 9/11, Steven led a Walk of Remembrance that retraced Mychal’s route from the friary to Ground Zero, doing the Stations of the Cross in the way of his fallen friend, stopping at each fire and police station along the way.
A remembrance of an earlier death was held in Queens in the early morning darkness of Feb. 26, 2014, this marking the 26th anniversary of the murder of a 22-year-old Police Officer Edward Byrne, who was assassinated by drug dealers as he sat in uniform in a radio car. The ceremony was held at the murder scene in icy, wet cold that one police commander immediately forgot when he saw a familiar figure.
“There was Steven McDonald,” the commander would recall.
At the ceremony, the Police Commissioner William Bratton spoke of the bad old days when New York reported more than 1,500 homicides a year and said that Byrne’s murder had marked when things had begun to change. Spirit such as embodied by Byrne and Steven and all true-hearted cops had powered New York’s transformation into the safest big city in America, headed toward a historic low of 328 murders in 2014. Thousands of people who would have otherwise met a violent end were out living and laughing and loving.
The cops who were out keeping the city safe now included Conor McDonald. He had graduated from Boston College and could have done anything. He chose to follow his father and grandfather and great grandfather into the NYPD. Steven would sit in the wheelchair where he had been confined all of Conor's life and call out to make sure his son was up in time for another day in harm’s way.
“Boy-o!” Steven would say.
Conor would confirm he was awake and getting ready. He would soon after head for the door.
“Hey, dad, I love you,” Conor would call out.
“Be safe,” Steven would say. “Think smart. Think tactics.”
When Conor was transferred from patrol in midtown to the warrant squad in Queens, he would be out long before the dawn. Steven would call his boy-o at 5 a.m.
“Every day to say good morning,” Conor would remember.
On July 12, 2016, Steven marked the 30th anniversary of when he was shot. He made a video from his home in Malverne, the Long Island town where Patti Ann now served as mayor. He began with an expression of gratitude stretching back to the first day at the hospital and included the 10,9507 days since then.
“I want to say thank you for the support and the help you have given me all these years,” he said. “Thirty years is a long time. I never thought I'd be around that long.”
He went on, “I'm very proud to be part of the New York City Police Department and to be a friend, I'd like to believe, to all of you.”
He continued, “Today is my 30th anniversary of the shooting and in four days it will be my 32nd anniversary in the New York City Police Department and it has been so special to me and that I can pass it on to my son. My wife Patti Ann has been a great support to us both. You all have a place in my heart that can never be taken by anyone else. Thank you.”
By then, Conor had been promoted to detective. He made Sergeant in September and Steven was of course there in uniform at the promotion ceremony. Steven was unable to join the others and rising and saluting when the color guard came in, unable to applaud when it was Conor’s turn to step onto the stage.
Conor then proved that he is as much a genius of the heart as are his parents. He walked over to his father and bent to kiss him on the forehead.
The moment could have only been better if Steven’s mother had lived to be there. She died of cancer in 2013 at 82 and Steven continued to feel the loss.
Yet, for all that had happened, Steven’s spirit was undimmed from those early days when he was young and played sports and danced and fell in love with the beautiful Patti Ann and the whole world awaited. He could still rock his head to a good beat, which he did with such abandon at a family gathering this past Christmas that his siblings feared he might tip over in his chair.
The oldest of his five sisters, Theresa, had bought the house they all grew up in and added a big deck, where she set up a heated tent for the occasion. The music included Steven’s favorite album—Quadrophenia by The Who—and he was not ready to stop when the heat gave out. His siblings sought to keep him warm by covering him with more and more blankets. Only his eyes were showing as he rocked on.
However mighty his spirit, Steven was only mortal and 30 years confined to a wheelchair on a ventilator is more than a body can be expected to endure despite the continual physical therapy that had been commenced by the nurse Justiniano back at Bellevue.
On Jan. 6, Steven’s body finally gave out. He remained unconscious after he arrived by ambulance at North Shore University Hospital. The doctors said he was in his final hours and indicated that the ultimate cause was the bullet wounds he had suffered that long ago day in Central Park.
“That makes it a murder,” a cop observed.
Shavod Jones might have rightly been charged with homicide, but after serving eight years he had died while riding on the back of a motorcycle that was popping wheelies.
Conor asked a number of individuals to join him and his girlfriend in forming a circle of love and faith with his father. Conor announced to Steven who was there.
“Dad…” he said.
Conor then led the circle in prayer, his voice strong with life and devotion and belief such as had shone from his father’s eyes. Those eyes were now closed, but there was still the hope that Steven could hear and maybe feel in the area above where the bullets had cut off all sensation. There remained a chance he could register a touch on his cheek as he had once felt the first stirrings of the life that had become the magnificent young man who now kept a vigil at his bedside. His crown was covered with a white knit hospital cap, but his forehead was bare and invited a kiss such as Conor had given him at the promotion and so many other times.
Along with the copy of the Prayer of Saint Francis on Steven's chest was the text of Mychal Judge’s last homily, delivered on 9/10 at a Bronx firehouse. Conor read aloud words that apply equally to the NYPD as to the FDNY and to all those who stand ever ready sacrifice their lives for the sake of others.
“That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job—which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”
The final hour approached on Tuesday. Steven’s father, retired NYPD Sergeant David McDonald, was there and said that in the days before the shooting Steven had come by to see him and said that there had been a rash of bicycle thefts in the park involving kids with guns. David said he had warned Steven that a kid could be quicker to shoot you than a grown man.
Soon after had come the day when David was sitting at the kitchen table with his 19-year-old daughter, Dolores and his 15-year-old son, Tommy and the news on the radio reported that a plainclothes cop had been shot in Central Park. David got on the phone and Dolores watched him sag with the weight of what he heard. Dolores went upstairs to where her mother was scouring the bathtub. Dolores told her that her son Steven had been shot, having been with the department not even two years.
A radio car rushed the family to a police helicopter that flew them to midtown Manhattan. They got into another radio car and were just pulling up to Bellevue when they saw paramedics rushing Steven inside. David would later lie in bed at night and try to remain completely immobile and imagine what Steven must be enduring. His body rebelled after only a few minutes.
“I couldn’t do it,” David remembered.
Some years later, David encountered a police academy classmate who had also retired.
“Was it a good job?” the classmate had asked, referring to their time with the NYPD.
“It was the only job,” David had replied.
Now, as Tuesday morning turned to afternoon, David stood in the hallway outside the coronary care unit and looked at all the cops who had come to the hospital to offer their support. They were ready to do anything at all if anything at all could have been done.
“It’s still the only job,” David said.
One of Steven’s former police drivers, Thomas Spillane, arrived with his 8-month-old son, Thomas James, in a stroller. He joined the line of cops and family and friends who went in to give Steven a final farewell.
Conor was on the far side of the bed, along with Katie. Pattie Ann stood by the foot in a Rangers sweatshirt and she instantly brightened on seeing little Thomas James. The baby was clutching a small toy giraffe and had eyes alight with life at its newest and purest.
“Oh, look…” Patti Ann said.
Little T.J. was one of the last in line. Connor emerged from the room and returned the shields the former drivers had left on Steven’s chest. Then it was time for Patti Ann and Conor and Katie to have some private moments. The end came as peacefully as this champion of peace deserved.
At 1:09 p.m., Steven was pronounced dead. A team of cops came in and lovingly wrapped him in an NYPD flag. They placed him on a gurney and wheeled him to an elevator.
A crowd of uniformed cops was waiting outside the hospital and saluted as Steven was lifted into the back of an NYPD ambulance. A police helicopter hovered protectively overhead.
The wake was held Wednesday and Thursday at St. Agnes parish hall in Rockville Center on Long Island. Thousands attended, standing in line for hours to offer the family their condolences and to say a prayer at Steven’s open coffin. He had lost all the uncommon warmth he had in the hospital.
“He’s so cold,” his sister, Dolores, said.
The question was where all that warmth and life and light had gone. At least part of the answer came in the number of people who were still waiting long past the posted hours on both nights. Steven was demonstrating as Mychal had that nothing is more powerful than touching what is good in people.
“Good is God,” as Mychal would say.
Among those who came was Justiniano, who recalled playing The Quiet Man again and again.
“Until Maureen O’Hara herself showed up!” she said.
Steven’s ability to touch what was best in you caused a number of the mourners who had met him only briefly to say the very thing O’Hara was quoted saying of him at the hospital.
“I feel like I’ve known him all my life,” the actress had said.
In recent days, Steven's favorite song was “Home” by Phillip Phillips. Connor had set his phone by his father’s ear in the hospital and played “Home” again and again. Word had reached the NYPD Detectives Endowment Association and somebody there had made a call.
Just as O’Hara had shown up at Bellevue, Phillip Phillips appeared at the wake on Thursday night. He of course played "Home" and hearing it made some wonder if Steven had sensed that the end was approaching.
“Settle down, it'll all be clear
Don't pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you're not alone
’Cause I'm gonna make this place your home.”
Steven’s sister, Dolores, imagined that Steven was now with their mother, running though the moors like in the last scene of Wuthering Heights. A fire widow noted that Mychal Judge had taken up ballroom dancing just before 9/11.
“Mychal's telling Steven, ‘Hey, they got a great ballroom here, come on!’” the fire widow imagined.
The funeral was on Friday at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Phillips had ended with “Amazing Grace” the night before and it was now played by a lone piper among the NYPD Emerald Society’s Pipes bands as an honor guard carried Steven’s flag draped coffin up the front steps. Thousands of cops stood at attention in the street, giving a white-gloved salute.
The cops then filed inside and filled the cathedral. The coffin stood before the altar, the NYPD flag having been replaced by a white pall for its time in the cathedral. Conor sat with Patti Ann and Katie at the front, to the right.
The same gospel was being read at every Catholic Church in the world that day. The passage just happened to be Mark 2:1-12, in which Jesus forgives and heals a paralyzed man.
When Monsignor Seamus O’Boyle rose to give the homily, he noted that Steven would not have called this a coincidence.
“There was no coincidences, but God-incidences,” O’Boyle said.
O’Boyle spoke with authority, for he is Patti Ann's cousin and presided at her wedding back in November of 1985. That had given her and Steven all of eight months of marriage before the shooting, 14 months before their son was born and she read aloud a letter that announced a lifelong pilgrimage.
“Steven was a man on a mission,” O'Boyle said. “Steven wholeheartedly believed there’s no point in feeling hate in your heart. It is a destructive and wasting disease.”
He noted as we approach Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day that Steven was a great admirer of the civil rights leader.
“Martin Luther King famously said hate cannot drive out hate; only love can,” O’Boyle noted.
Steven had delivered the same message after he regained his voice.
“From the confines of a wheelchair, accompanied by that staccato cadence of his ventilator, Steven spoke,” O’Boyle said. “It was never about him. It was never ‘poor me.’ It was about the treasure he held in that fragile and wounded vessel of his human body.”
O’Boyle posed a spiritual question.
“If Steven was the gift, what does it tell us about the giver of the gift?” he asked
Police Commissioner O’Neill, also spoke. He said he first met Steven in 1999, while commanding the Central Park Precinct. That was when Steven had addressed the roll call.
“Arguably, his life was shaped as much by those three bullets fired by that 15-year-old boy, as by the three words he famously expressed afterward: ‘I forgive him,’” O’Neill said. “Although he was able to breathe only with the help of a respirator, Steven’s voice was always strong, like his message: His message for improving relations between cops and community. And his message of peace and forgiveness.”
O’Neill reported, “He often told people that the only thing that could be worse than being shot, would have been to nurture revenge in his heart. Had he allowed that to happen, he said, his injury would have extended to his soul, and further hurt those he loved.”
O'Neill noted that during his continuing mission Steven had spoken with everybody from President Reagan to Nelson Mandela to Pope John Paul II. He had met Pope Francis in 2015 in Central Park.
“Not far from where his shooting took place,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill suggested that Steven’s life offered a lesson. He did not have to add that this was a lesson that is particularly needed in these divisive times.
“What we can learn from Steven’s life is this: The cycle of violence that plagues so many lives today can be overcome only by breaking down the walls that separate people. The best tools for doing this – Steven taught us – are love, respect, and forgiveness.”
Conor rose to speak, giving his mother a hug and pausing to kiss the coffin. He began much as his father had in the letter his mother read at his christening.
“Thank you so much for showing tribute to my beautiful, amazing father,” Conor said.
He went on, “I never thought this day would come. My father was the real Superman.”
He said there had been many hardships since the shooting, but his father had awakened each day with unflagging purpose.
“Despite being in a wheelchair and dependent on a ventilator,” Conor said. “There were many ups and downs, lots of tears shed, but more hope shared. He was the greatest man I could have asked for to be my father.”
Conor told the assemblage that forgiveness had not been as simple as just composing a letter.
“When many of us would have let anger fester in our hearts, my father forgave the young man who shot him every single day,” Connor said. “He made it his mission to have all of us realize that love must win.”
Connor said that his father had been proud to serve as a Navy Corpsman with the Marines, but the high point had come when he joined the NYPD in 1984.
“Doing the greatest job in the greatest city,” Conor said.
His dream had seemed complete with the most important element of all.
“My mother, Patti Ann,” Conor said.
The assemblage rose for a standing ovation that lasted a full minute, sounding like holy rain. Connor reported something his father had told him about the moments after he was shot.
“His thoughts were all about mom,” Conor said. “He knew he had to fight to see her again and fight he did.”
And she had joined him in the long fight that followed.
“My parents created the most phenomenal life out of such darkness,” Conor said.
He understood the source of their strength.
“Unmatched unconditional devotion and love for each other, which I've witnessed since the beginning of my life,” he said.
The son of the cop who had once declared himself the luckiest man on earth made a declaration of his own.
“What a lucky son,” he said.
And even while on his perpetual mission, his father had been there on the sidelines to cheer him during his high school sports games and had happily driven to Boston just to have lunch when he was at college.
Conor now read aloud the Prayer of St. Francis with much the same voice as he had in the hospital. And everyone who could hear him could almost have been at Steven’s bedside.
“God Bless America, the city of New York, and our saint—my dad—the legend, Steven McDonald,” Conor ended by saying.
The assemblage rose for another standing ovation, this also a full minute of holy rain. The uniformed cops filed out to fall into formation as the two-hour service ended with everyone who remained singing “God Bless America.”
The white pall was replaced by the NYPD flag before the honor guard carried the coffin into the street, where the temperature had dropped, the day turning chilly as if the air itself were feeling the loss of Steven's warmth. The thousands of cops again saluted and a pair of buglers played taps. The flag was ceremoniously folded and solemnly presented to Patti Ann. Nine police helicopters flew overhead in formation. The NYPD pipes and drums struck “Irish Solider Boy” as they led the procession down Fifth Avenue.
The procession continued on to the cemetery and the band turned about and came back up the avenue, now playing “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The mourners who continued to stand in front of the cathedral included representatives of the Detectives Endowment Association, who were wearing green ties as a testament to the many times Steven McDonald had come up this same grand street during the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. A number of them wondered aloud what it will be like this coming March 17 without him.
In Irish there is an expression, “Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.” It translates to, “The likes of him we'll never see again.”