Atlantic City police Officer Kevin B. Wilkins, who died of an accidental gunshot from his service weapon while on duty Thursday morning, was a former high school basketball star who was preparing to marry and buy a home. His former coach, Gene Allen, said Wilkins was “like a son to me.”

“Basketball is what brought us together, but our relationship was just extremely close,” said Allen, who coached Wilkins beginning with his freshman year at Atlantic City High School. “I was so proud of him when he became a police officer because, I thought he would make an impact in our community.”

Wilkins, a Venice Park resident, was sitting in his patrol car about 1:30 a.m. at Kentucky and Baltic avenues, outside the Stanley Holmes Village apartment complex, police said. He had removed the clip of extra bullets in his semi-automatic pistol’s handle to install a rubber sleeve on the grip, but he accidentally discharged the remaining  bullet  in the chamber. The bullet struck him in the face, police said. Chambered bullets are not readily visible in semi-automatic firearms. Police did not say whether the safety was engaged.

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Other officers were nearby and summoned medical help, but Wilkins was pronounced dead 15 minutes later, police said. Wilkins, 31, was the first city officer killed while working in five years.

“He was a city resident who knew and was able to interact favorably with the community, and it’s a great loss,” police Chief John Mooney said.

The official cause of Wilkins’ death is pending autopsy results. The department will arrange a police funeral, Mooney said.

In the mid-1990s, Wilkins was a 6-foot-7-inch force for Atlantic City High School’s basketball team, scoring 29 points and grabbing 21 rebounds in the Vikings’ Cape-Atlantic League title game victory in 1996.  The team observed a moment of silence for Wilkins at its home game against Absegami on Thursday night.

Allen said he hoped Wilkins’ example would help erode the prejudice some young black men have against police. He called Wilkins “a very easygoing guy.”

“He was like a little brother I never had,” City Councilman Marty Small said. Wilkins was an Atlantic City freshman when Small was a senior.

“We would always talk about being successful after athletics, and he definitely accomplished that by being a police officer,” Small said.

The two men had spoken Wednesday about Wilkins’ plans to buy a house. Small met with Wilkins’ family Thursday morning and conveyed to The Press of Atlantic City their wish not to speak to the media.

Wilkins graduated from the Cape May County Police Academy on Jan. 30, 2008, and joined the Atlantic City force with 34 other new officers, a class brought on to increase foot patrols in the city. His training lasted 10 hours a day, five days a week for 22 weeks, said academy director Anthony Saduk, who called Wilkins “a stellar recruit.”

Wilkins’ class received seven days of firearms training with Glock .40-caliber pistols “to the best of my recollection,” Saduk said. Atlantic City police currently carry that model.

An Atlantic County deputy sheriff sued Glock in 1996, contending her gun was defective when it discharged in her holster and injured her in 1994. Marybeth Goldberg carried a 9 mm Glock, a different gun than Wilkins’.

“It’s very, very unfortunate. They’re, in my opinion, a very reliable weapon. Accidents happen. It’s just a very unfortunate accident,” Saduk said.

Wilkins was a substitute teacher in the Atlantic City School District for several years, Assistant Superintendent Donna Haye said.

“He was part of our family. He’s going to be greatly missed,” Haye said.

After graduating from high school in 1996, Wilkins played two seasons for Tallahassee Community College in Florida. Wilkins was “obviously an integral part” of the college’s 1997 state championship in the National Junior College Athletic Association, athletic director Rob Chaney said.

Mike Gillespie, former head basketball coach at Tallahassee Community College, said Wilkins was “a terrific player, a power forward and a tremendous rebounder who could really score from the low post.” But he said what really impressed him was Wilkins’ work ethic and his determination.

He  recalled an example of Wilkins’ leadership as a freshman in the mid-1990s. Gillespie said the team was playing in a national semi-final tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., against the No. 1-ranked Indian Hills Junior College of Iowa.

“Our best player then was playing poorly,” Gillespie recalled. “Kevin, as a freshman, stood up at halftime and challenged that young man to play better.”

That player, Paul McPherson, would later play briefly in the pros for the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. But the then-sophomore McPherson did not appreciate Wilkins’ challenge and reacted angrily, Gillespie said.

“He wanted to fight Kevin,” Gillespie said. “He handled it poorly.

“Well, I didn’t play  that young man in the second half. I played Kevin,” he said. “We lost. We came up two points short. But Kevin’s will to win was amazing. He was concerned about his team and he wanted the team to be successful.”

Wilkins then transferred to Seton Hall University, which in his first season reached the Sweet 16 regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Seton Hall’s athletic department released a statement expressing sadness for Wilkins’ death, reading in part, “He continued to make his alma mater proud as a police officer in Atlantic City. ... Our thoughts and prayers go to his family, friends and former teammates during this very difficult time.”

Atlantic City’s last on-duty death came March 4, 2005, when Mooney’s nephew, Officer Thomas McMeekin Jr., died after being hit by a bus while directing traffic at an accident scene at Chelsea and Atlantic avenues.

Foot and ankle injuries from his basketball days landed Wilkins on disability leave for about a year. He returned to work Dec. 1 on general patrol in the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, Mooney said.

“Our agency has suffered a tragic loss,” Mooney said. “Officer Wilkins had dedicated himself in a career of service to the people of Atlantic City.”

Saturday is the first anniversary of the death of Wilkins’ mother, Anna Marie Smith.

Mooney said he is survived by his father, fiancee and three siblings, whom he did not name.

Small said two of the siblings are Sylvetta R. Smith and Stanley K. Branch, but he could not name the third.

Staff writer Lynda Cohen and special projects writer John Froonjian contributed to this report.

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