Wednesday, June 14, 2017

In Memory of Police Officer Matthew Giglio, Forty One Years after His Murder

The following essay appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of the WCHSA New & Views newsletter

NCPD Officer Matthew Giglio

The recent deaths of two individuals with a local connection provide an opportunity to revisit the somber history of a cop shooting in West Hempstead whose effect still carries strong reverberations, despite the long passage of time. The shooting occurred on October 7, 1975 and took the life of NCPD Officer Matthew Giglio, after a courageous two month struggle for his life at Mercy Hospital. This past August 4, Giglio’s killer, John MacKenzie, died in prison after an apparent suicide, while serving a 25 years to life sentence. And more recently, our friend and resident of nearby Malverne, NYPD Detective Steven MacDonald, himself a victim of a 1986 shooting while on duty, passed away on January 10.

There are few residents of West Hempstead who have resided here long enough to remember the only cop killing to have occurred in our hamlet. Indeed, most people walk right past the scene of the crime, right in the center of town along Hempstead Avenue, with nary a clue as to what transpired there. The following is a synopsis of the incident.

Since 1948, the row of shops at the corner of Hempstead Ave and Locust St. have occupied a prominent place on West Hempstead’s landscape.

One of these stores, Filnord’s Pharmacy at 492 Hempstead Ave, was the site of WH’s first permanent post office. The 1960s saw the popular Tony’s Delicatessen as the occupant at 486 Hempstead. By  1971, Tony’s gave way to a boutique clothing store called Thelma J’s, the kind of which was more common back in those days but rarely seen today. It was outside this boutique where the shooting occurred. On October 4th, MacKenzie and his accomplice, Colleen Irby, cased out Thelma J’s in the guise of customers, when MacKenzie asked to use the bathroom in the back of the store which contained a window facing the rear of the building. On a typical cool early morning of October 7th, 1975, two Nassau County patrol officers responded to a burglary at Thelma J’s, where it was reported that hundreds of articles of clothing were stolen. At 2:30am, the two officers on the scene questioned Irby, who was sitting in a car at the back of the store and called for backup, whereafter Officer Giglio, working as a police EMT, promptly arrived at the scene. Upon arrival, Giglio spotted MacKenzie exiting the front of the store when MacKenzie fired his gun, striking Giglio in the abdomen. The two officers rushed to Giglio’s aid and drove him to Mercy Hospital in his own ambulance. At the hospital doctors made the bleak discovery that the bullet had hemorrhaged Giglio’s aorta.

Back at the scene, hundreds of police officers, as well as two police helicopters, descended upon West Hempstead and started a massive manhunt for the shooter. At 10:00am, officers found MacKenzie hiding out in a nearby garage and located the weapon nearby as well. At the hospital, Giglio underwent eight hours of surgery and received 35 pints of blood in a desperate attempt to save his life. In the first few days, Giglio was able to communicate by scribbling simple messages on a piece of paper, but then he slipped into a coma, never to recover. As weeks passed, Giglio developed an infection in his leg, which required an amputation. All the while, his comrades and family members kept a bedside vigil, praying that he might rally. Local churches and synagogues also held special prayer services for Giglio until he took his final breath after a seventy day battle, on December 16th.

Matthew Giglio was born in 1940 in Brooklyn. One might say he was a typical Italian kid who tore up the stick ball circuit on the Borough Park streets where he grew up, and savored the victory of the Dodgers’ World Series win when he was 15 years old. Giglio moved out to Long Island and chose his calling as a police officer, like his father who was a patrolman for the NYPD. Giglio was in his eleventh year of service, and lived in Valley Stream with his wife and three children in 1975. Nassau County later honored Officer Giglio by dedicating the Matthew F. Gilgio Memorial Plaza at intersection of Corona Avenue and Dutch Broadway, not far from where Giglio lived and a few blocks from the 5th Precinct headquarters where he was based. In July 1976, MacKenzie was put on trial and convicted with 1st degree murder and given a 25 years to life sentence. Four years later, the NY Court of Appeals vacated his sentence and a retrial was ordered after the US Supreme Court affirmed the decision, after it was established that MacKenzie’s confession was improperly obtained. The case established guidance for police officers that is in use to this day, that if the suspect immediately requests a lawyer, then any subsequent confession cannot be entered as evidence, unless in the presence of the suspect’s legal counsel. In any event, the case was retried and once again MacKenzie was convicted and sentenced, making him eligible for parole in 2000.

Every two years since then, MacKenzie’s parole hearing has stirred up the passions of politicians and police benevolent groups, urging that his parole be denied. MacKenzie had exhibited remorse for the killing but always maintained that he didn’t know that Giglio was a cop, and he couldn’t remember details of the incident because he was on drugs. After his last denial in June 2016, Mackenzie gave in to despair and committed suicide in his cell on August 4.

A couple years ago I had the privilege of meeting Detective Steven MacDonald after he and his wife Patty graciously offered to drive me home from Manhattan. During that ride, Mr. MacDonald gave me a copy of a book that he wrote where he outlined his remarkable journey toward ultimately forgiving his shooter and finding peace in his life. My brief encounter with Steve and his book left a deep impression on me and caused me to bring new meaning to my understanding of human strength and courage.

The confluence of MacKenzie’s and MacDonald’s deaths this past year, together with this past Law Enforcement Appreciation Day on January 9th, one day before MacDonald’s passing, gives us all cause to be grateful for the lives of our loved ones and those tasked to protect them.

May the memories of Officers Giglio and MacDonald be for a blessing.

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