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“Homicide” cop battling life on the streets once again

Former Sun writer tells how a character in his book faces another reckoning with the bullets he survived 25 years ago

From The Baltimore Sun, March 11, 2012
Reprinted with permission.
Photo by Gene Sweeney for the Baltimore Sun.

Seven-baker-twenty-four unit turns at Mosher and rumbles past that stretch of Appleton Street where Gene Cassidy took two in the head for the company, the first one stealing his eyesight, the second lodging in his brain beyond the skill of a surgeon’s knife.

Cassidy was 27 then, not even four years on the job, strong and lucky and hard-headed Irish enough that he refused to do the obvious and inevitable thing. He did not die. At University Hospital that night, the other patrol officers and detectives were told it was certain, that their friend would not make it.

But Cassidy breathes still, and Appleton and Mosher looks much as it did in October 1987, when Cassidy tumbled out of his radio car to jack up a man wanted on an assault warrant. The same Formstone rowhouses — a few now boarded-up vacants — the same Amtrak rail bed at the north end, the same rusted fences and weeds in the gaping mouths of the alleys. Hallowed ground, it never was.

Bobby Mitchell is under the wheel of 724 and he concedes that for the last few months, this post is at the quiet end of the sector. Much of the action is down on the bottom end, near Edmondson or on the other side of the highway around Baltimore Street. For sector two, the strip along Bentalou is a hot spot. Corner of Bentalou and Harlem, especially.

“We roam around, follow the calls,” says Mitchell, 42, and older than others in his sector. “We try to be there to back each other up.”

He knows Cassidy. They all do. There probably isn’t a sworn officer in Baltimore who hasn’t looked into Gene Cassidy’s sightless eyes at one some point. In the years since the shooting, Cassidy became ubiquitous in the life of every new recruit. For years, he’s been one of the law instructors at the police academy.

“We all took his class,” says Mitchell. “We all know him.”

The radio barks and Mitchell picks up a call. Street trafficking on Bentalou. He wheels over the bridge on Lafayette as the radio crackles with cross-talk from his side partners in the sector — Hough and Price, Perry and Hopkins, and Santucci, the sergeant. As Mitchell rolls down Bentalou, fiends and slingers walk sideways, the crowd melting between parked cars.

This is the day-to-day in the Western District, where the truly epic tale — the grand tragedy, the hero’s journey — never long endures. Down the hill, over off Monroe, is the runt block of Frederick where, just a few years before the Cassidy shooting, Marty Ward was killed doing his undercover. And near the expressway, the house that claimed Weiner when he answered a domestic call in ’93. And down on Pennsie, the porch where Martin got shot. There are ghosts all over the Western, if you know where to look. But few do anymore, and the Western itself has changed.

When Cassidy came on the job there were 100,000 residents in the district, and blocks upon blocks of occupied rowhouses. The streets were full, the corners teeming. Back then, the vacants were the oddity. Now, a quarter-century down the road, the Western has 40,000 souls and long stretches of boarded-up derelicts, if not empty brownfield lots. This is the part of town where the past is never quite present.

Cassidy, of course, is no ghost, though no one quite knows why. Back in ’87, they all carried six-shot .38s and the Western credo was fire five and save one for yourself in case you’re captured. Not Gene Cassidy, though: “From now on, you can only fire three,” he was told after the shooting. “You need three just to kill yourself.”

Cassidy would laugh because what the hell else can you do? He came out of Shock Trauma and taught himself to live without sight, or smell or taste — all of it lost to the shooting. He learned to work a guide dog and to maneuver through the world. He refused to retire, began teaching in the academy.

At some point, he went back to Johns Hopkins and got his master’s. He and Patti had children, raised them, sold one house and bought another, made that into a home.

When he realized that there was a state scholarship for the children of Maryland police and firefighters who died in the line of duty, Gene asked what was available for those who were 100-percent disabled. Nothing, he was told, and so Gene called a state legislator. That was in January six years ago, with a legislative session already under way. By the end of the session, a bill, as they say, had become a law. And all of this was an answer — a remarkable answer to the gunman and the shots and what happened on October 22, 1987.

He lived a life. All of a life.

Until now, nearly a quarter century later — a new affront, a new challenge. Now, Gene Cassidy is once again dying from what happened at Appleton and Mosher.

t was last May when they began to figure it out, and only because of that brutal stretch in the sun on Fallen Heroes Day, when Gene insisted on standing for the entire ceremony, sweating out there with the other officers, refusing a chair with the civilians.

Cassidy’s weight was up to 240 by then, and he was swollen all over, almost unable to walk because of the pain in his feet. A doctor recommended bed rest, which didn’t much help. More doctors, more questions and, finally, a confirming test: Hepatitis C, full blown, contracted years earlier from the transfusions when Cassidy was fighting for his life at Shock Trauma.

That was before the blood supply was screened, and well before Hep C became a lethal, blood-borne epidemic to rival HIV. The estimates today are 3 million Americans living with it — many of them asymptomatic, having contracted the disease before testing made the blood supply secure.

Now, Cassidy has end-stage cirrhosis and needs a new liver. In January, a workday at the academy ended in confusion and collapse. Ammonia in his system accumulated until he couldn’t recognize coworkers or even family. Delirious, Cassidy was rushed to a hospital, stabilized, assessed and suddenly, the doctors were not talking about years, but months, unless a donor could be located and matched.

OK, asked Gene, I need a donor. How does that work?

There used to be a list: First come, first served for all those waiting to be matched to livers from recent fatalities among designated organ donors. But in 2002, a triage system was implemented, with a battery of blood tests administered to determine those in the most immediate need. And the new system works better, with declining mortality overall among those waiting for a new liver.

“The problem,” says Dr. Benjamin Philosophe, who directs the University of Maryland Medical Center’s transplant program and who is supervising Cassidy’s care, “is that not every patient reads the medical textbooks. Each individual case is different.”

Sometimes, a patient will show consistently good blood work almost to the very point when liver failure is about to prove fatal. And Cassidy’s blood numbers are, by standards, not as bad as others, making his selection for a transplant less likely. A second option exists, however: A living donor.

The liver, it turns out, is regenerative. Take half of a healthy person’s organ, give it to another patient, and both can and do survive, with each half regenerating itself and liver function returning to normal. But unlike the gift of, say, one of two kidneys from an altruistic donor, the bifurcation of a healthy liver carries with it modest, but meaningful risk.

The mortality rate for otherwise healthy donors is between one and five of every thousand patients. For that reason, transplant programs work with only the healthiest, strongest donors. And for that reason, too, donors are most often family members or the closest of friends, or, perhaps, members of some sworn, fraternal cohort for whom the ties that bind are beyond familial. A big-city police department, for example.

And so the call has gone out:

Gene Cassidy needs a new liver. Blood type A or O. His daughter is a match, but Lauren, 23, is petite, her liver too small. His brother, Tom, is a match, but at sixty-four, he’s too old for the risk. Others willing have pre-existing conditions — diabetes, heart issues, fatty livers — that leave only more questions, hope and doubts.

In February 1988, as the Cassidy case edged toward a jury trial, Terrence Patrick McLarney, then a detective sergeant in the homicide unit, held the sum of all departmental fears close to his heart.

Before then, Baltimore police had never lost a criminal prosecution against a defendant who had used deadly force against one of their own. Prior to the 1960s, in fact, it would be fair to say that only a minority of those who tried to kill city officers made it to the stationhouse alive. But in a more modern era of policing, trial by jury in the killing and wounding of officers had become an inevitable and frightening hurdle.

Some juries had failed to deliver first-degree verdicts. Some, in McLarney’s mind, had deliberated for longer than prosecutors and detectives ever thought possible before doing the right thing.

McLarney knew that the Cassidy case had problems. For one thing, Cassidy himself could not remember the events that led to the shooting; trauma from the bullets had obliterated his memory of the event. For another, McLarney had — in the immediate aftermath of the incident — locked up the wrong suspect.

Admittedly, the early hours of the investigation were anything but clinical. From his own time in the Western, McLarney had known Cassidy; the younger officer had served in his squad until McLarney — wounded himself two years prior, shot during a gas station robbery on Edmondson Avenue — had transferred back to homicide. In the immediate aftermath of the Cassidy shooting, with the young officer expected to die at University Hospital, a certain fury colored the police work. Witnesses might say anything in such a maelstrom; many did.

So in the months after, McLarney had to clean it up with careful, deliberate police work, knocking down the bad witnesses and eventually finding credible evidence that pointed to Clifton “Butchie” Frazier as the shooter. And when detectives and plainclothesmen were at last able to piece together the encounter on Appleton Street, McLarney was able to put another fear to rest, because Frazier, thank God, was a genuinely bad actor.

“That’s important,” McLarney remembers, “because I could tell Gene, this happened because you were trying to take a bad guy off the streets.”

For most of us, the suspect’s villainy goes without saying, given the fact that a police officer was the victim. But to Baltimore police, all of whom understand the gradations of sin and vice in ways that civilians never do, this was, by 1988, something to be considered in more precise shadings.

Even 25 years ago, the drug war was creating a wedge of disconnect and alienation between the Baltimore department and places like Appleton Street. Even then, it was getting harder to make alliances with residents, to prioritize arrests in communities consumed by the burgeoning narcotics trade. By 1987, there were different reasons a Baltimore officer might get out of a radio car and jack up a pedestrian. Some of them were essential and meaningful — others, less so.

With Frazier, however, Gene Cassidy had pulled up on a man whose name had been read out at roll call, who was wanted on an open warrant for badly battering an elderly victim. The older man had told Frazier to stop beating a girl and Frazier had turned on the interloper, permanently blinding him in one eye.

Cassidy had recognized Frazier on Mosher Street and had pulled around on Appleton to cuff the suspect. He wasn’t hassling touts or runners, or clearing an “indicted” corner of pedestrians, or randomly jacking up residents for loitering. This was police work — precise, necessary, and worthy of the risk. Whatever else people living in different Americas might believe, whatever the disconnect has become, all of us want the same thing when someone beats an old man and a young girl.

“It was clean,” McLarney remembered.

And it was still clean when McLarney waited in the hallways outside Judge Elsbeth Bothe’s chambers that May, listening to shouting from the jury room, shouting that seemed to go on for hours. McLarney and the other officers waiting on that jury were appalled that this might be the one — the first case in which a Baltimore officer is killed or seriously wounded and a jury gives the suspect a walk.

When the jury did come back, police and prosecutors were elated to get the verdict they needed — first-degree attempted murder — but dismayed to stand in a courthouse hallway and hear the tale of a young, blond-haired juror. She told them nine fellow jurors had no opinion, they just wanted to go home. And another sought acquittal, saying she no longer trusted police and telling the others: “If you lived in my neighborhood, you wouldn’t trust them either.”

A college student training to be a special education teacher, the young juror, allied with an older woman, fought a pitched battle to bring the rest of the jury around. It was a transforming experience, so much so that years later, that juror would be a Baltimore City prosecutor, her life changed by the experience in that jury room.

“I still think about what happened in that room,” says Tracy Varda, who joined the state’s attorney’s office in 1999 and now heads the new mental health unit there. “It was one of the things that made me want to do what I do.”

For McLarney, the verdict was a temporary reprieve. There would be other juries, other verdicts, and the distance between the department and the city that it sought to police would grow. Eventually, a decade or so later, the fears would be realized and the death of a city officer would go unavenged. But not with Cassidy, thank God.

McLarney was there, too, that day in Jessup a decade later, when Cassidy stood in a hearing room and offered a loose-leaf binder to the parole commissioners, explaining that while they could view the pages, the contents should remain private from Frazier, who sat nearby, staring at Cassidy.

The commissioners looked at a few pages of photographs. Cassidy at his graduation from York College. Cassidy in his rookie photo from the Western. Gene and Patti in the limo at their wedding. Then, abruptly, a page of black construction paper, punctuated only by the date of the shooting. Then, photographs of Cassidy’s children — Patti, and Lauren, who was conceived a month or so before the shooting and born seven months after, and Kevin, three years after that.

Cassidy has kept the binder. He offers it to a visitor in his basement rec room, waits, listening as the pages are turned. His face is gray-yellow, jaundiced. He isn’t at his best today. In fact, he’ll be headed back to the hospital an hour or so after the interview ends. But now, remembering the hearing, he is animated.

“They asked me if I wanted to sit for the hearing, but I wouldn’t do that,” he remembers. “I told them, no thank you, I’m fine.”

Patti remembers the look on Frazier’s face: “He was looking at you, amazed that you were standing there,” she tells Gene. “He couldn’t believe that you were there in front of him.”

The commissioners looked at the binder. Then they sent Butchie Frazier back to prison. And Cassidy went on with life itself, which is the real and righteous revenge.

He is now 51 years old, retired as a sworn officer but still teaching at the academy. That’s more than two decades of cadet classes, each and every member of which bears the stamp of Gene Cassidy. He taught them law; the vagaries of probable cause, the way it works on the street. And he taught them something more. For them, he’s a talisman, an argument — walking, talking, living proof that what they do every day matters, that they are beholden to each other, that what they are asked to do and expected to do carries with it a fixed and constant risk.

Cassidy built that legacy when many thought he was finished, that having survived his shooting in miraculous fashion, he should take his 100-percent disability and do whatever it is one does when you are no longer required to show up. They didn’t get it.

After the shooting, he told his closest friends that he would not quit. I want, Cassidy told them, to have my children grow up watching me get up every morning and going to work. That was essential.

Only days after he came home from Shock Trauma and from all that rehab, Gene turned to Patti and asked her if she wanted to go out to dinner; that nice place in Hunt Valley, the one they liked.

“Gene, we can’t go out to eat.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t. I’m not ready for that.”

“Sure you are.”

Patti Cassidy met her husband at York College, where he was majoring in law enforcement. He had grown up in North Jersey, but attending college in York soon oriented him toward the metropolis just to the south. She can remember him new to the Baltimore department, standing in the Inner Harbor — a short world away from the Western District — taking in the city’s brand-new waterfront, telling her that this was a place he wanted to police.

And yes, there were later moments when Patti would begin to wonder, aloud, what life might have been like with other choices, other decisions.

“Don’t even go there,” Cassidy would tell her, shutting it down.

This is the life that is. He carries it like that, day after day, year after year.

Cassidy’s old shift spends the afternoon chasing calls that haven’t changed since 1987: domestic complaints, juvenile shoplifting, car stops, and, of course, drug trafficking on Lauretta, on Lanvale, on Payson, on Bentalou.

Everyone backs the calls, showing up in twos and threes, leaving no one to get out of a one-man car and stand alone. Shanice Price, a young female officer with little time on the job, pulls up a pedestrian, thinking him right for an outstanding warrant. But when she keys her mike, she’s told by dispatch that the computer is down.

She holds him for as long as she can, but eventually, when the system stays down, Price gives the suspect a walk. Later, she learns that, yes, she’d been thrown a false name. The rest of sector two spends hours hunting the mope, hoping to make right on the insult.

“There’s ways to hold a guy if you have to,” explains Santucci, schooling her in street legal. “You can always come up with reasons.”

They hunt some more for the man, checking the Bentalou corners, but, no, not today. They finish their shift and come home, parking the units around the house. Run sheets are dumped, keys exchanged.

In the roll call room, another shift will soon hear the same things said that morning from Cliff McWhite, the major: The same assurances that they need not stand to attention at his entrance, that formality in the Western matters little; the same item about the Northwestern District having blown up overnight, about the lookout on a vehicle wanted from a homicide in that district; the same gentle warnings to make yourself heard on the radio when you are talking to dispatch, and to back each other as they always back each other, and to come home at the end of the shift.

As at so many rolls call these days, another shift lieutenant will bring up the news about Gene Cassidy, the talk about how the F.O.P. is planning a day for a blood drive and for donor registration and information about what is required. March 19 at the union hall. Eleven to six. And then, as was done that morning, the lieutenant will read out the open warrants.

And they will go to the cars.

About the author

David Simon is a writer and television producer whose work has often centered on Baltimore, crime and policing. Two of his critically acclaimed HBO series, “The Corner” and “The Wire,” were both set in Baltimore.

Simon worked for 13 years as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and after covering the crime beat for four years, he began research for his 1991 book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.”

The shooting of Officer Gene Cassidy, with the ensuing investigation and prosecution, was recounted in that non-fiction narrative.


  • Hello Mr. Simon, I am reading your fantastic book Homicide. I look up every name so I can see the faces of the people you write about. This tribute to Gene Cassidy is beautiful. What an inspiring, amazing man. Thank you for your great work. Homicide: Life on the Street is my a time favorite show. Best wishes

  • David-Just coming across your website and reading this (also see my email directly to you about me and Gene). Gene and I were childhood friends and neighbors (He lived a few doors down from me) growing up in Oakland, NJ. Thank you for staying on top of this. I need to give him a call, check in, and see how he is doing. Thank you again-Mark Sedita

    • Unless something happened since the last time I was in Baltimore and inquired, no. But you’ve reminded me to throw a call and check on it. Thx.

      • Update: I’ve checked and Gene is still waiting on a transplant. He’s had one additional hospitalization because of ammonia buildup, but is now back at home. All eyes are fixed on finding a donor.

  • Thank you for keeping those of us who care about Baltimore aware of this evolving narrative in such a richly contextual way. The stakes remain too high to give up on caring.

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