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Ventnor settles suit for $2M in suicide with officer's gun

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A lawsuit by the family of a woman who killed herself with a Ventnor police sergeant's gun was settled for $2 million.

Kelly Ann McDowell, 41, was living with Frank O'Neill when she died 2017, after shooting herself with his unsecured service weapon.

O'Neill, who has since been promoted to lieutenant, had left it on the floor of their bedroom closet while preparing for what was described in court documents as a "hastily arranged trip to Florida."

The suit alleged O'Neill violated mandatory departmental firearms storage procedures, and was "grossly negligent" when he failed to use a trigger-lock device, gun safe or other safeguards to secure his weapon.

Prior to the settlement, the trial court found him negligent prior to the settlement.

The couple and their five combined children — her three and his two — had just moved in together about six months earlier. The change caused McDowell some issues, according to records submitted to the court.

Her mother took her to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center's Mainland Campus in Galloway Township on March 19, 2017, when she was admitted for depression.

O'Neill left for his trip that April 17.

Kelly Ann McDowell

Later that day, her then-18-year-old son heard a gunshot, and found his mother dead.

Attorneys Oliver Barry and Erika Lezama spoke on behalf of McDowell's son, Ryan Strazzeri.

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"We hope that this case will serve as a notice for law enforcement officers and agencies that they are responsible for taking firearms safety seriously and that they can help avoid further preventable injuries and deaths.”

The trip had been planned since March, but McDowell told her mother, Carol, that she only learned of it that morning.

“We feel daily the pain of Kelly’s loss, as do her three children, and the pain is even more searing knowing her death was absolutely preventable," Carol and Kevin McDowell said of their daughter's death. "Kelly Ann, who was a remarkable working single parent, would be alive today if police rules about gun safety and storage had only been followed.

"We hope, in the aftermath of this settlement, and the court ruling, other innocent lives can be saved through stricter compliance by law enforcement – individuals and departments — regarding gun-safety, including when officers are off-duty,” the McDowells added.

"There is no closure, no celebration that comes with the end of this case, “ D’Amato said. “But there’s vindication for the plaintiffs in having the court substantiate in its Motion for Summary Judgement finding, our position that O’Neill was obligated, and could be held financially accountable, under New Jersey law to follow his department’s gun-safety and storage requirements, even in his residence when he was off-the-clock. The case could have far-reaching implications throughout New Jersey and beyond for responsible gun safety applicable to law enforcement.”

In deposition, Dr. Maki Haberfeld — chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College — said the problem was not the absence of departmental gun safety and storage protocols.

Instead, Ventnor's Police Department “took no actions to ensure compliance by its officers,” she said.


Lynda Cohen

BreakingAC founder who previously worked in newspapers for more than two decades. She is an NJPA award-winner and was a Stories of Atlantic City fellow.




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