Few New Yorkers ever have been so admired as police officer Steven McDonald—and not only because he placed himself in the line of fire. McDonald’s recent death from respiratory failure at the age of 59 brought back memories of the painful day that changed his life forever—plunging him into an unimaginable tragedy, but compelling him to fight back, with grace and courage.
On July 12, 1986, Officer McDonald, then twenty-nine, entered Central Park with his partner, Sergeant Peter King, as part of a surveillance unit. There had been a string of crimes in the area, and the officers were trying to prevent more. As evening approached, the officers saw three teenagers loitering near the boathouse, at the Park’s northern end. McDonald and King tried to question them, but as soon as they did, the teens split up and ran away. King followed in one direction, McDonald in another.
When McDonald caught up with the teens, he thought one of them might be concealing a weapon. As he advanced to check, a second teen moved in. McDonald suddenly saw a gun pointed at him. Before he could seize it, there was a deafening explosion. McDonald had been shot, just above his eye. The force of the bullet hurled him backwards, but his assailant followed, mercilessly shooting McDonald a second time, this time in the throat. As McDonald lay motionless, bleeding profusely, the teenager fired a third bullet. Then, Steven McDonald was left to die.
The last thing he heard, before passing out, was his partner, shouting into his radio: “Ten Thirteen Central! Ten Thirteen!”—code for “Police officer needing assistance!” When an emergency crew arrived, they found Sergeant King cradling his critically wounded partner in his arms, rocking him back and forth. King was crying.
McDonald’s life was slipping away, and a miracle was needed to save him. For the next forty-eight hours, EMTs, nurses, and doctors worked feverishly to keep him alive. At one point, the chief surgeon, practically certain McDonald would not make it, advised the police commissioner to prepare McDonald’s family for death. But just when all hope seemed lost, McDonald bounced back—even as his injuries were devastating. One of the bullets had hit his spine, paralyzing him from the neck down. Another had severely damaged his throat. He couldn’t speak, and he was unable to breathe without a ventilator.
Recalling that shattering moment, McDonald later wrote:
When the surgeon came into my room to tell me this, my wife, Patti Ann, was there, and he told her I would need to be institutionalized. We had been married just eight months, and Patti Ann, who was 23 at the time, was three months pregnant. She collapsed to the floor, crying uncontrollably. I cried too, though I was locked in my body, and unable to move or reach out to her.
For the next eighteen months, first in New York, then at a special facility in Colorado, McDonald worked every day on his rehabilitation, with Patti Ann beside him. Dealing with a situation that would have broken many marriages, they stayed together, and their affection only grew, fortified by their profound Catholic faith.
They recounted their experience in The Steven McDonald Story, which covers their lives before, during, and especially after the tragedy. McDonald eventually regained his ability to speak, haltingly but clearly, with the aid of a “trache,” a tube through his windpipe that allowed air to pass over his vocal chords. And he eventually moved out of his hospital bed into a motorized wheelchair. He was still dependent on other people for basic needs, but he was learning to live again, despite all these challenges.
As vital as his physical recovery was, McDonald always believed his emotional and spiritual healing was even more so. After the shooting, and during the long, excruciating rehabilitation process, McDonald suffered bouts of depression, and even had suicidal thoughts. But Patti never let him fall into despair, especially with their child on the way, and both were lifted by the words and prayers of John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, who had ministered to them soon after the shooting.
When they returned to New York from Colorado, the NYPD, city officials, and generous benefactors made certain the couple were provided for, and McDonald was given round-the-clock medical care. A custom-made house was built for them, designed to accommodate McDonald’s disabilities. Overwhelmed by this outpouring of support, he expressed their gratitude: “There is more love in this city than there are street corners.”
Six months after the tragedy, Patti Ann gave birth to their son, Conor. McDonald wrote: “To me, Conor’s birth was like a message from God that I should live, and live differently. And it was clear to me that I had to respond to that message. I prayed that I would be changed, that the person I was would be replaced by something new.”
McDonald reached out to the imprisoned teenager, Shavod Jones, who had shot him. At Conor’s baptism, in early 1987, Patti Ann read a letter McDonald had written to the people of New York City. She conveyed McDonald’s desire to abandon all his anguish and anger about the attack, and say of his assailant: “I only hope that he can turn his life to helping and not hurting people. I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.”
True to his word, Steven McDonald—who was subsequently made a detective, and proudly remained part of the NYPD—spent the rest of his life speaking to precincts, elementary schools, colleges, and religious and political gatherings about the need to forgive evildoers and hope they will reform their lives. It was a simple and brave message, and one that remains urgent in a culture dominated by cruelty and vengeance.
Shavod Jones was paroled in 1995 and died just a few days later in a motorcycle accident. Given what he had done to McDonald, not many expressed sadness at the time. But this was not McDonald’s attitude, nor should it be any Christian’s. Jones had come to recognize the great suffering he had inflicted upon McDonald and his family, and had apologized to the McDonalds from prison. For his part, McDonald had hoped to travel the country and speak alongside Jones, as a lesson in healing and forgiveness. Revealing the depth of his faith, McDonald said: “I pray for Shavod all the time. He suffered terribly in his life, and our suffering in this life paves the way to Heaven. If he’s not in Heaven, he’s on his way.”
Gary Krupp, founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, who helped arrange McDonald’s trip to the Holy Land, told me what McDonald’s life meant to him: “It’s very hard to describe someone who was so filled with grace, but Steven was the personification of that phrase. He not only was merciful toward the teenager who nearly killed him; he devoted the rest of his life to spreading the principles of his Catholic faith, leading with love, hope and forgiveness.”
Msgr. Frank Caldwell, who has known the McDonalds for decades, and who ministered to them during Steven’s final days, concurred: “He would be at Mass every Sunday, and very often during the week. The Holy Eucharist meant so much to him, and the strength he took from it reinforced his beautiful faith and values which he communicated to everyone he met.”
Steven McDonald was a towering witness to the Gospel of Life in all its dimensions; and the thousands upon thousands who attended his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, who came to honor their hero in blue, his wife, and his son—now a police officer himself—will never forget his legacy of Christian love.
If anyone ever deserved to be embraced and made whole again by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it was Officer Steven McDonald.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.