Most nights before going to bed, Mary DiNardo made a good-night phone call to her husband Marc, a police officer who worked the midnight shift in Jersey City. On July 15, 2009, the conversation was short. “He was like, ‘I really can’t talk. They found that car that was wanted in that shooting last month,’” Mary recalls. “‘I gotta go. We’re waiting for this to go down.’” Mary told her husband that she loved him, that he should be careful. Then she hung up. It was the last time she heard his voice.
In the early morning hours, Marc, a member of the police department’s emergency services unit, was one of five officers to raid 24 Reed Street, an apartment building in a neighborhood under constant police surveillance, where two suspects, a male and a female, were hiding. The male, a “fugitive gunman,” as police called him, was wanted in several states, and both were most recently sought for a shooting at a local gas station.
Before the officers were sent in, according to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, two Jersey City cops in an unmarked car spotted the suspects in front of the Reed Street building. The male pulled a shotgun from under his long, hooded robe and fired, wounding one of the officers before retreating into the building.
Backup was called. Marc, three other Jersey City police officers and a Port Authority police officer responded. According to the state police Uniform Crime Report for 2009, the officers conducted a floor-by-floor, unit-by-unit evacuation, clearing 14 units before their knocks on an apartment door went unanswered. Hearing activity inside, the officers broke through the door. Gunfire was exchanged in the narrow doorway. Both suspects were killed. The male was shot 19 times; the female, twice in the head. Four of the five officers were hit. Marc, shot at close range in the face and neck, succumbed to his wounds five days later.
Three years after the shooting, Mary DiNardo knows little more than these stark facts. Her requests for police reports, she says, have been denied by Marc’s former chief. That rebuff and the silence of Marc’s fellow officers have left Mary suspicious about the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death.
Marc and Mary grew up in Jersey City and met in high school. Their friendship waxed and waned for years. “I used to call him my seasonal friend,” says Mary, “because it would always seem like once a season, we would run into each other.” When Mary’s older sister was killed in a car accident in 2000, Marc proved to be a dedicated friend. “I didn’t take it well at all,” Mary says, “and he was there for me.” Marc eventually told Mary that he wanted more from their relationship, but she resisted. “I was still blind to the whole thing,” she says. The following spring, they happened to meet at a local parade. “We kissed and then were together ever since,” Mary says. In 2004, they were wed. A year after their nuptials, the first of their three children was born.
Mary never really worried about Marc getting hurt on the job. “You always know it’s a possibility,” she says, “but you don’t discuss it.” She took comfort knowing that Marc’s father had retired as a lieutenant after a long career on the same police force. But Mary says she started to dwell more on the dangers a month before the raid, when Marc, whose unit handles tactical entries and other specialized responses, jumped into the Hackensack River to save a woman who had attempted suicide. “I was like, ‘That water is disgusting. What are you doing?’” Mary recalls. “But that was him.”
On the morning of the raid, Marc was resuscitated several times on the way to the hospital. He was in surgery when Mary arrived. “You’re just praying that he comes out of this,” she says. But after a few days, Marc was declared brain dead; he passed away the day before his 38th birthday. During a press conference, it came out that he had arrested the male suspect on a gun charge seven years earlier. Marc, who’d been on the force for 10 years, was the only New Jersey police officer to be fatally wounded in the line of duty in 2009. He was hailed as a hero and posthumously promoted to detective. Friends say Marc, with his deep, loud voice and large frame (he stood 6-foot-2 and weighed almost 300 pounds), was a natural leader, serious about his job but also fun loving.
The raid made headlines across the New York metropolitan area, but it was left to Mary to explain the shooting to their children, who were 4, 3 and 1 at the time. “I just said, ‘Daddy was hurt by a bad man. It was part of his job to protect us, protect the people of the city, and the doctors did everything that they could to help him, but his injuries were just too great and it was his time to go.’”
Thousands of people attended Marc’s funeral, lining the streets for the procession through Jersey City and, for the Mass, packing St. Aedan’s Church at St. Peter’s College. “You could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet,” Mary says. In the months that followed, Mary says she did her best to take care of the three children, who each started seeing a therapist twice a week. All three still suffer from separation anxiety, and her youngest developed stress-related alopecia, which made all her hair fall out.
Mary attended several community events, including a blood drive and charity hockey game, that honored her late husband. The local police force, she says, often escorted her and asked her to speak. Many of the events raised money for the children’s scholarship fund, the Marc Anthony DiNardo Memorial Fund, created by the local Police Officers’ Benevolent Association. At the time, Mary was quoted in a news article saying that the support she received from the police force proved it really is a brotherhood. However, her relationship with local authorities soon changed.
Mary says she began hearing unsettling versions of what had happened the morning of the raid. It filled her mind with questions: Had Marc and the responding and commanding officers been properly trained for the operation? Why was immediate force deemed necessary? Were departmental procedures properly followed?
“Why didn’t they use tear gas?” she asks. “Why didn’t they wait the guy out? He just shot at officers on the street two hours earlier. What was the rush?”
About two months after the raid, Mary says she called Jersey City police chief Thomas Comey at his office to ask for the police reports. “He told me that I wasn’t ready to see them,” she says, “and I said, ‘I know I’m not ready. I want them for when I am ready.’”
Everything Mary knew about that morning had come from what the media reported and what people close to the situation initially told her. Despite attorney general guidelines on how authorities should inform families in cases of homicide and sudden death, Mary says she never had a meeting with any of the agencies involved to review the events leading to her husband’s death. She says she repeated her request for the reports to Comey and other officers and was eventually promised their delivery but never received them.
“In the beginning, it felt like they were going to be supportive, that they were going to give me the reports; then, all of a sudden, everybody gets locked out of the computer and nobody could even get the report,” Mary says. She was also told by a handful of people that everyone in the department had been instructed not to speak to her any longer about the events of that morning. When she asked one of Marc’s most trusted friends if there was something she needed to know, he became defensive, she says, and never spoke to her again. “You think that these people are here for you,” she says. “You think that they’re here for Marc’s family. You think that they want to do right by him, and then, when all is said and done, they didn’t care about us at all.”
In a recent telephone interview, Comey confirmed that Mary asked him for the reports and that he had promised to give them to her. He said that, about a month after Marc died, he gave all the reports of the incident his department had at that point to Marc’s friend, Sergeant Joe Santiago, to give to Mary as a favor. “She’s always had access to the reports,” Comey says. “She knew it.” (He also said the only people who would have had access to the department’s file would have been the investigator, appropriate division commanders and personnel in his office.)
Santiago, who was Marc’s fraternity brother in college, confirms Comey’s claim, adding that, at a birthday party he attended for two of Mary’s kids, he told her that he had the reports at work. “She never followed up with me; I never followed up with her,” he says. “From that point on, time went by and…the opportunity to actually give her the reports never presented itself.” Mary says she does not recall Santiago offering her the reports at the birthday party. As for Santiago, he says when his assignment changed last June and he no longer had an office, he shredded the reports. Now, he says, “I’m in no position to go back and print them for her.”
Retired Jersey City police chief Robert Troy, who left the force in 2006 and says he didn’t know Marc personally, has spoken out against the treatment Mary has received. “I don’t understand it,” he says. In 2005, when two officers accidentally drove off the Lincoln Highway Bridge on Christmas night and were killed, he stayed in constant contact with the families, telling them everything he knew. “It was difficult to do,” he says, “but it was the thing to do.”
Troy questions Comey’s actions. “I think the reason Comey holds back information,” he says, “is that [his department made] that decision that killed DiNardo, and they have to know they did have options that clearly [would have made] for a safer operation for the cops on Reed Street that day.”
Comey supports the decisions his commanders made the morning Marc was killed. “They believed there was a potential for imminent danger for someone in the structure,” he says. Further, he notes, the police on the scene did not know if the suspects were holding hostages.
Troy, who handled a hostage situation as chief, was not on the scene the morning of the raid, but he says it appears the department did not use what was perhaps their biggest resource: time. “Once they knew they had these people boxed in, they should have stopped,” he says. In his opinion, the authorities may not have considered all their options, since they knew that at least the male suspect was armed, and that he had just fired at police on the street and would probably shoot again. “They should have never entered that apartment,” Troy says. “Never.”
Almost a year after Marc’s death, Mary hired a lawyer, D. Gayle Loftis. They tried several times to obtain police investigation files, including witness statements, video and photographs of the crime scene, and recordings of radio transmissions between the various law enforcement agencies involved that morning as well as the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office’s review of the event. “I didn’t know what I was looking for,” Mary says.
She and her attorney also requested Marc’s personnel file, because Mary recalled Marc complaining that he was not receiving enough training. “I remember him being mad because he kept being denied for all of these training classes,” she says.
According to Comey, Marc never complained to him about a lack of training. “He was very happy with the opportunities presented to him in the [emergency services unit],” he says.
In May 2010, Mary and Loftis launched their legal battle. Their open public records request, filed with Jersey City, was denied on the grounds that the reports are, according to the city, part of a “criminal investigatory file” not subject to the Open Public Records Act. (Information that might “jeopardize the safety of any person or jeopardize any investigation in progress or may be otherwise inappropriate to release” is exempt from OPRA.)
A month later, they sought permission from the Superior Court of New Jersey in Hudson County to file a late notice of claim against Jersey City and police chief Comey. (The motion was necessary because Mary had missed the 90-day window for such a claim.) The motion included her request for the reports and $10 million in damages, which took into account wages that her husband might have earned during his lifetime and his pain and suffering.
In its response, the city argued that “despite the significant emotional effect of the loss of her husband…the plaintiff was not incapacitated or otherwise prevented by her loss from presenting a written notice claim” since she was able to attend “various memorials, fund-raisers and similar social activities.”
Appearances, Mary responds, can deceive. “When I look back at that first year,” she says, “it’s all a haze. Every event I went to, I couldn’t tell you one from the other, because it all seemed like one big function, one big awards ceremony.”
Comey says he was still willing to give Mary the reports, but he was advised not to. “Once she had a lawyer and started civil litigation,” he says, “I was told by the law department not to do it.” He says Mary deserves to see the reports, but they are graphic and he doesn’t “know why someone would want to relive something like that.”
In August 2010, the court sided with the city and denied Mary’s request to file a late claim. The judge ruled that, even if Mary had made the 90-day deadline, the lawsuit would have been barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act, since it is not unreasonable to believe that a police officer, especially one in an elite squad, might be killed in the line of duty.
“Even though he is a police officer,” says Loftis, “you don’t sacrifice him to the criminals, and that’s sort of what we felt might have happened in this case.”
An appellate court later upheld the lower court’s decision.
In a recent telephone interview, Jersey City’s corporation counsel, William Matsikoudis, said the city will continue to honor Marc’s memory. “He tragically and heroically gave his life on behalf of the city where he was born and raised,” Matsikoudis says, “and he will always be commemorated for that.”
In 2011, when memories of Marc at their apartment in Bloomfield got to be too much, Mary and the kids moved closer to family in Morris County. It remains difficult to explain the situation to the children. “They take everything at face value,” she says, adding that she’s tried to help them understand that their father didn’t choose to leave them. It has also been tough having such a public struggle. People have criticized her and accused her of going after money, but Mary says that’s not her motivation. “I am after the truth.”
By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.