Newsday
July 18, 2000

Cop Dies in Crash

Hits pole while chasing motorcycle on Staten Island

by GRAHAM RAYMAN AND BRYAN VIRASAMI Staff Writers

A police officer pursuing a suspect on a stolen motorcycle in Staten Island died yesterday after he lost control of his car during the chase and slammed into a telephone pole, police said.

He was the third officer killed in a car crash within the past year.

Police said Officer John Kelly, 35, of Staten Island lost control of his car at 1:23 p.m. as he pursued a man riding a black Suzuki with stolen license plates east on Gulf Avenue, police said. As he reached the intersection of Forest Avenue, the car spun out and slammed sideways into a telephone pole. His unmarked police car, a 1999 black Chevy Lumina, folded around the pole and was partially crushed, with the bulk of the damage on the driver's side.

Emergency workers extricated him from the wreck, but Kelly had suffered such severe trauma that he went into cardiac arrest four times, on the way to St. Vincent's Medical Center and in the emergency room, officials said. Each time, paramedics and doctors were able to revive him, keeping him alive long enough for his mother to be with him one last time.

As day turned to evening and word came that the officer had died, the emergency room, the sidewalk and steps just outside the hospital became filled with grief-stricken comrades of the fallen officer, leaning on one another for support.

His death seemed to tear a piece from the tightly woven fabric of the Police Department. Kelly was one of three brothers, all of whom became police officers. His wife, Patricia, is also a police officer who works in a Manhattan precinct, as is his brother-in-law. He also left behind two sons, one almost 3 and the other 9 months old.

One of the men grieving on the steps was Officer Bill Panzella, Kelly's partner in the Staten Island auto-larceny unit for the past four months. In one of fate's quirks, Panzella would have been by Kelly's side in the Lumina, but he happened to be on vacation yesterday.

"It still hasn't settled in that this happened,” Panzella said. "It makes me think what my next step is going to be. When I go back to work, will I still go after the criminals as hard as I can? I will still continue to be a police officer, but there's a little bit of thinking I have to do.”

The two friends met nine years ago through mutual friends, and they joined the police force at about the same time, eight years ago. Panzella said Kelly was an ambitious officer who relished the stolen-car cases that marched across his desk. He was also family oriented and enjoyed fishing and fixing up his Staten Island home.

Standing with ranking police officials, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani described the death as a "great tragedy... This family has served the City of New York, and now, unfortunately, they have been called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for the people of the City of New York,” Giuliani said. "He was a hero and a person who lived being a police officer.”

Kelly won four police commendations during his career, police said.

"John Kelly died a hero, doing what he was trained to do, doing what he loved to do,” Police Commissioner Howard Safir said.

There also were calls for justice.

"This is a terrible tragedy to have to deal with,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. "This is outrageous. The person who ran from this police officer should be held accountable.”

The man operating the motorcycle did not stop and is being sought by police, who are left with a sketchy description. It was unclear yesterday whether the motorcyclist was aware he was being pursued. Safir said the man could face vehicular homicide charges at least.

Kelly, assigned to Staten Island Auto Larceny, was on duty and in uniform at the time, working a red-light-enforcement initiative. He spotted the motorcycle, possibly as it ran a red light. Using the car's onboard computer, he ran the license plate and it came back stolen.

A witness told police the motorcycle was driving erratically and "zooming,” a law-enforcement source said.

It was unknown whether the officer radioed for assistance or notified command that he was pursuing the motorcycle. It was also unknown if he used lights and sirens during the pursuit.

Earlier this year, Officer David Regan died May 29 after he collided with a New York Post truck while responding to the scene of a shooting in progress in Brooklyn. In another wrenching loss in the tight-knit community of Staten Island police, Officer Matthew Dziergowski was killed last year after placing his car between his partners and a speeding highway motorist who had fallen asleep at the wheel.