If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
NYPD Sgt. Peter Maginnis was in the family car, being a fun dad with his young daughter, when his wife returned from picking up a gift certificate for her best friend’s birthday.
“I’m like, ‘Look, daddy-daughter moment, that’s awesome,’” MaryAnn Maginnis would recall 17 years later.
“I wish she would remember that. She doesn't remember anything. She was 1 year old.”
MaryAnn remembers everything of that September day in 2002. Peter had driven her to get the gift certificate and then dropped her and their daughter, Joli, off at a restaurant for her best friend’s birthday lunch. MaryAnn still was having a great time when she saw that it was nearing 2:30 p.m., the end of the school day.
“Of course, you know girls, we talk way too much and we were late,” MaryAnn later said.
She repeatedly tried to get Peter on his cellphone to see if he could take the boys home from school.
“I’m calling, calling, calling; ‘Hey, hon, I’m leaving you messages, could you help me out picking up the kids?’” MaryAnn would recall. “But he never answered.”
A friend with a minivan told MaryAnn not to worry about it, and drove her to collect 5-year-old TJ and 4-year-old Jonathan. The friend dropped them home. TJ had a playdate and the boys were watching Spider-Man when Mary Ann went upstairs to change.
“I remember the intro, and that’s when everything happened,” TJ later said.
Up in the master bedroom, MaryAnn saw several envelopes on the bed. She figured they must be a surprise from Peter.
“I thought they were all gift certificates to get manicures, pedicures,” she later said. “That’s what he used to do.”
She had told him in the past that with three kids they could not afford such extravagances, but he had always insisted she deserved it. She could not help but be pleased and touched.
“I was, ‘Look at him,” she would recall. “He was awesome, because my husband loves me and I knew he did.”
She then began opening the envelopes.
“They’re not gift certificates,” she would remember.
“They’re goodbye letters.”
The letters were addressed to her and to each of the kids and to her parents. She immediately dialed his cellphone. She heard a ringing downstairs.
“I’m calling his phone, and guess what, he left it downstairs,” she would remember. “The phone’s ringing downstairs. I heard it.”
She used her cellphone and the landline to call everybody she could think of. The 911 operator could not help. Nobody had seen Peter. Nobody had any idea where he might be.
She still had no word of him when she stepped outside. She saw two NYPD chaplains, Msgr. David Cassato and Msgr. Robert Romano, approaching the house.
“Everything dropped,” she later said. “The world changed. I collapsed. Everything just fell apart.”
After dropping MaryAnn and Joli off, Peter had driven a few minutes away to Shore Road. He parked the car and crossed a pedestrian bridge over the Belt Parkway. He shot himself at the edge of New York Bay. He was 37. His body was discovered at 2:25 p.m., right about when MaryAnn had been calling to see if he could pick up the boys. Nine months into 2002, Peter had become the year’s first NYPD suicide.
MaryAnn was still struggling with the enormity of that single loss as this current year saw one NYPD member after another after another commit suicide. The total had reached nine in August when the annual average is around four or five. She decided she had to do something.
“When I see what’s going on, I’m like, ‘This isn’t cool. No! It’s not acceptable,’” she told The Daily Beast.
The people who had come to MaryAnn’s house to offer support on the day of Peter’s suicide included Bob Ganley, then vice-present of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. Ganley had since become deputy commissioner for employee relations and has been in the lead of the NYPD’s increasingly urgent suicide prevention efforts this year. The department has sought to make cops less reluctant to seek counseling and to make therapy more immediately available. Cops are encouraged to keep an eye out for fellow officers who seem to be in distress. Those determined to be a danger to themselves had in the past been relieved of their shield along with their gun. A new policy allowed them to keep their shield, thereby further distinguishing cops with emotional troubles from cops in disciplinary trouble.
MaryAnn now called Ganley and said she wanted to make cops more aware of what suicide does to the survivors. Ganley told her to email him a summary of what she might want to say.
MaryAnn did not pretend to know why so many cops were killing themselves. She still could not fully fathom why Peter had. Yes, he had injured his left hand while working with Brooklyn South Narcotics. Yes, that was his gun hand. Yes, his application for a disability pension had been deferred for six months. Yes, remaining out sick meant no overtime, no night differential, no side jobs. Yes, it made the mortgage and the bills harder to meet. But they were rich by a far more important measure.
“I was wealthy because I had three beautiful, healthy kids,” she later said.
They had a nice house near her mother’s home in Dyker Heights, one of Brooklyn’s better neighborhoods. And after two sons, they also had a daughter. Peter had been in tears after he saw the sonogram.
“I finally got the baby girl. We tried, tried, tried,” MaryAnn later said. “I thought everything was great; ‘I know you got hurt, but hon, toughen up and we'll get through this.’”
What MaryAnn did know about cop suicide was the impact on the family, particularly when you have young children. She knew what it was to have to pretend all was well even as you feel crushing grief complicated by the stigma that surrounds suicide.
“I had babies,” she said. “I had to take care of them. I had to make everything positive. I had to make sure my kids were happy and healthy and that was my number one.”
She also knew what it was to wrestle with how to tell the kids why their father was forever gone. The family observed Peter’s birthday and held a remembrance on the day of his death, but she initially told them that he had died in a car accident. She told the boys the truth when they were 10 and 9, old enough that they might see a reference to it online. She explained that a person can have emotional or mental troubles that are not visible like a broken limb would be.
“And unfortunately, that was what happened with dad,” she told TJ and Jonathan.
MaryAnn did not tell her daughter until she was 14. MaryAnn again tried to explain about invisible emotional and mental troubles. Joli immediately began to cry hysterically.
“I thought it was my fault,” Joli said. “Because I was a baby. I was 1 year old and daddy worked all those hours, second jobs and I thought that because I was crying I kept him up at night and he fell asleep at the wheel.”
“Joli, you were the happiest, easiest baby,” MaryAnn truthfully told her.
MayAnn told herself, “And I thought I was protecting her all these years.”
MaryAnn could tell people about these moments. She could also tell them about Peter missing birthdays and first communions and confirmations and Joli’s Sweet 16 party. She could also tell them how she struggled to keep things positive.
“There’s almost this black cloud on my shoulder and I feel it,” she later said. “And it’s not fair. Kids shouldn’t be raised that way. They should be happy.”
But now her kids were grown and she could drop the brave facade and describe exactly how hard things were. She was ready to do so with the hope of dissuading other cops from devastating their families in a moment of unthinking despair.
“I don’t care what’s going on in your life, what you’re going to end up doing to your family is not acceptable,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
She also wanted to tell cops the importance of applying “if you see something, say something” to each other’s mental and emotional state. She was informed after Peter’s suicide that he had come into the stationhouse that very day to get his dress uniform even though he was still sidelined by his hand injury.
“I remember somebody saying to me they thought it was bizarre that he came to get this dress uniform and he was out sick,” she later said.
She cannot help but wish that somebody had recognized this as a danger sign and said something. The uniform was later found in Peter’s car.
“He wanted to wear it at his funeral,” MaryAnn later said. “That’s what they put him in. His dress uniform.”
The lengthy email MaryAnn sent to Ganley summarized all she had been through and wanted to share. Ganley arranged for her to address a meeting of police organizations at the academy in September. He told her he did not want her just to read from the life story she had written.
“He said, ‘I want you to get up there and I want you to just speak from the heart,’” MaryAnn recalled. “And that’s what I did.”
She saw the effect as she spoke.
“I gotta tell you, I saw men wiping their eyes,” she later said. “Women were definitely wiping their eyes.”
A number of people approached her afterwards.
“They actually came over and hugged me and thanked me,” she remembered. “They were like ‘ You have given us your side of it.’ I said, ‘Well, you know what? If I can make somebody feel bad, feel guilty, think and say, Well, if I do this, this is like not cool, because I'm leaving everything…’”
She was asked to speak again at the NYPD Holy Name Society’s monthly meeting. She had the same effect and afterwards several people came over and joked they had been lied to when they were told she was not a public speaker.
“I said, ‘It’s not that I’m a public speaker, I’m Italian,” MaryAnn said.
Others who joined the effort to prevent further police suicides included Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who said a Mass for survivors at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Oct. 13. MaryAnn was one of more than 100 survivors who attended. She is Catholic and had been raised at a time when church teachings held that suicide was a mortal sin that condemned a person to damnation.
“Is he going to hell?” she remembers asking herself after Peter’s suicide.
The church had since softened, allowing that most of those who commit suicide are suffering from mental illness, what the catechism terms ”grave psychological disturbances.” MaryAnn had decided Pete had not been consigned to eternal damnation and had asked her dying brother to seek him out in the hereafter.
Her brother had asked her, “You watch out for my kids.” She had replied, “Absolutely, and you punch Peter in the face. But hug him after that.”
But Maryanne had still felt and imbued shame whenever she entered a church. She now listened to the cardinal say what she what she hoped to hear.
“On behalf of the Catholic family of the archdiocese, we love you and pray with and for you and the ones for whom you rightly continue to mourn,” Cardinal Dolan said.
The survivors were invited up to the altar and shook. She shook Dolan’s hand.
“I said, ‘I feel like this weight is off my shoulders,’” she recalled.
She understood this was a weight she should never have felt.
“I didn’t do anything,” she told The Daily Beast. “My husband didn’t do anything. My husband was sick.”
Two days after the Mass, Sgt. Linhong Li of the 24th Precinct shot himself in his Queens home. Aged 33. A Marine who had served in Iraq. The winner of the First Deputy Commissioner’s Award for highest academic average in the academy. A top scorer in the sergeant’s exam. Newly married. And now the 10th NYPD suicide of the year, a record.
Li is said to have been in contact with the department’s early intervention unit. The particulars of that interaction are now being evaluated in the NYPD’s continuing effort to prevent future suicides.
The effort also includes MaryAnn Maginnis, who will soon have another opportunity to deliver what she calls “my speech.”
Meanwhile, her elder son, TJ, hopes to be going into the police academy soon.
“I said, TJ, you should be an architect,’” she told The Daily Beast. “That lasted five minutes.”
She added, “If it makes him happy, I’m for it. As long as he’s happy, I’m happy.”
She showed The Daily Beast a picture of TJ in a police uniform she made for him to wear as a tyke to his father’s promotion.
“It takes a lot to become a cop,” she said. “If you want to be a cop, you’re doing it. It’s in your bones. It’s in your blood.”
Underlying her message to cops who might fall into despair is what kept her going when she suddenly found herself a widow with three young kids as a result of something nobody felt comfortable talking about.
“Life is tough,” she said. “Life is very hard. You’ve got to pull up your bloomers and you’ve got to be a strong person.”
She added, “Hey, I got news for you, I did a pretty good job.”
Back in 1988 when Peter was 22, he had attended the funeral for a fellow young cop named Edward Byrne, who had been shot to death in his radio car while guarding the home of a witness in a drug case.
“It could have happened to anyone out there, any time,” Pete had told a reporter outside the church. “We can’t let it happen again.”
More than three decades later, 52-year-old MaryAnn is saying the same about police suicides such as claimed Peter.
“If I could save one and make one rethink a bad choice, it’s a good thing,” she said.