A Ventnor police sergeant ignored his extensive training in weapons and mental illness when he left his severely depressed girlfriend at their home with his service weapon loaded and unsecured on the floor of their bedroom closet, lawsuits filed by her family claim.
Kelly Ann McDowell, 41, shot herself using Sgt. Frank O’Neill’s service weapon April 17, 2017, the same day the 18-year police veteran left on what court documents describe as a “hastily arranged trip to Florida.”
Suits filed on behalf of the woman’s family and children claim it was O’Neill’s “gross negligence” that led to the suicide.
The suits naming O’Neill, Ventnor City along with 10 not-yet-named people and 10 unnamed entities were announced during a press conference Monday at the Egg Harbor Township law office of Paul D’Amato, who represents McDowell’s parents, Carol and Kevin McDowell and her two minor children.
Wildwood attorney Oliver Barry is representing Ryan Strazzeri , McDowell’s then-18-year-old son who found his mother dead after hearing the gunshot.
An Internal Affairs investigation into the shooting was recently completed. Its findings are expected to be announced later Monday.
McDowell’s mother admitted her to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Mainland Campus in Galloway Township on March 19 for depression, according to the suit.
Four days earlier, she had started using Lexapro that had been prescribed by her primary care physician, medical records state. As a result, she said she developed increasing insomnia.
O’Neill knew of McDowell’s issues, her mother said at the press conference.
The trip had been planned since March, Carol McDowell later found out. But, she said, when she spoke with her daughter that morning, Kelly had just learned about it.
In a statement to investigators, O’Neill said he was “in rush mode” when he left for his trip, and that he had planned to lock the gun in his car, which he parked at the airport, D’Amato said.
“This was not just negligent, it was grossly negligent,” D’Amato said.
At the press conference he had a lockbox and a trigger lock that he said could easily have been used by O’Neill.
— Lynda Cohen (@LyndaCohen) April 16, 2018
The couple had been living together with their combined five children — her three and his two — for about six months prior to McDowell taking her life.
During that time, the relationship had deteriorated and McDowell had become severely depressed, according to both lawsuits.
“Regrets making change,” the medical records from her admission read. “Struggling with new life. … Miserable and unhappy… presents anxious, depressed, tearful affect. Poor self care, stopped exercising, not eating, not sleeping.”
After that hospital visit, McDowell started out-patient treatment at AtlantiCare Behavioral Health.
At an appointment on March 27, she told her therapist she work demands at the office where she was a receptionist had increased since their bookkeeper had left.
At home, she was now taking care of her children ages 18, 12 and 7, along with O’Neill’s 13- and 17-year-olds.
“I’m not functioning, it’s like I get up and I don’t even know how to move,” she said.
She would often wake up in sweats from persistent anxiety.
The suit details O’Neill’s various training, including in firearms safety and rules that state “one of the activities frequently resulting in police firearms accidents is improper weapons storage.”
“If a firearm is not under your direct control, the firearm should be inoperable or inaccessible to an unauthorized person,” the suit quotes as the Cardinal Rules of Firearm Safety. “The one approach which will reliably secure your weapon from unauthorized persons is to lock the firearm up.”
The suits ask for compensatory and punitive damages along with attorney fees and costs. The only monetary number is the approximately $26,000 for funeral expenses.