If Kelly Ann McDowell’s police sergeant boyfriend hadn’t left his loaded, unsecured service weapon in the house they shared with their five children on April 17, 2017, she might still be alive, her family alleges in lawsuits.
McDowell’s parents, Kevin and Carol McDowell, of Galloway Township, and her oldest son, Ryan Strazzeri, filed civil suits Monday in Atlantic County Superior Court against Ventnor police Sgt. Francisco O’Neill for violating departmental firearms safety procedures and failing to secure his service Glock, which McDowell used last year to commit suicide.
“We’re here to make sure this never happens to another family again,” said Kevin McDowell, alongside his wife, sons Brian and Kevin, and his children’s grandparents, Betty McDowell and Arline Siatta.
O’Neill could not be reached for comment Monday. A listed phone number for him was not in service.
The Ventnor Police Department confirmed he is an active sergeant but did not comment on the pending litigation. Municipal officials said O’Neill did not have representation through the city as of Monday.
McDowell’s family and their attorneys said O’Neill’s case was unique because the sergeant was a certified firearms instructor and underwent the department’s training on general firearm safety, which includes the provision that “firearms shall never be left unsecured.”
The lawsuits also state O’Neill was trained to identify and address mental illness.
The D’Amato Law Firm is representing McDowell’s parents in one suit, and Oliver Barry, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gillin-Schwartz, will represent Strazzeri, 19, in another. The family members are seeking unspecified monetary damages and $26,000 in funeral service expenses.
The lawsuits state that McDowell, 41, took her own life using O’Neill’s service weapon, which was left unsecured and loaded in the bedroom closet of their Galloway home.
Family members said McDowell confided in them that the relationship was not working and that she had planned to leave. On the morning of her death, her family and attorneys said she was shocked to learn O’Neill was taking a trip to Florida, leaving her to care for five children.
Carol McDowell said her daughter had a history of mental health issues — something O’Neill was aware of, she said.
McDowell reported feeling increasingly anxious and depressed since moving in with her boyfriend, family members and health records stated. McDowell and her three children, now 8, 13 and 19, moved in with O’Neill and his two children, 14 and 18, six months before her death.
The lawsuits detail McDowell’s hospitalization for severe depression at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Mainland Campus, about one month prior to her death. Records from AtlantiCare Behavioral Health indicate she had reported increased anxiety related to her work and home lives.
Kris Brown, co-president of the national Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said about two-thirds of all gun deaths in the country are suicides.
More Americans died in gun suicides than in gun homicides in 2013, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of all suicides in the United States are gun deaths.
About 687 people in New Jersey died by suicide in 2016, state data show.
“These are preventable tragedies,” Brown said, adding if guns were removed from more homes, there would be fewer suicides.
Kevin McDowell said he and his family worried about his daughter and grandchildren living in a house with a firearm present, but said they had no reason to believe O’Neill wasn’t storing the weapon safely.
Holding back sobs beside his wife, Kevin McDowell described his daughter as a goodhearted, beautiful woman who volunteered for charities and was in her prime.
“Family meant everything to her,” he said.
Barry, speaking on behalf of Strazzeri, who was in the house when McDowell shot herself and discovered her body, said the teen was doing what he could to move on with his life.
“Unless we saw it with our own eyes, I don’t think any of us can put ourselves in his shoes,” Barry said.