On most days, Terri O’Connor drives out to the cemetery where her husband, Philadelphia Police Cpl. James O’Connor IV, is buried. She sometimes brings along her 17-month-old granddaughter, Callie, who says, “Hi, Pop.”
“There’s days I can joke. There’s days I’m mad at him,” O’Connor said Thursday in her Northeast Philadelphia home. And there are days when she tells him, “Please help me get through this somehow, please.”
A year ago, on Friday, March 13, she received a 6 a.m. call from her sister, whose husband works as a 911 dispatcher. She told O’Connor her husband had been shot.
O’Connor called her son, Jimmy, a Philadelphia police officer. He rushed over, and an officer drove them to Temple University Hospital. Inside, her husband’s cousin, Homicide Detective Sean Mellon, took her by the arm and told her her husband didn’t make it. She dropped to the floor, overwhelmed by grief.
Then she stepped into her husband’s hospital room.
“I screamed for him to wake up,” she recalled.
Cpl. O’Connor was shot inside a Frankford rowhouse when he and other SWAT officers went to serve an arrest warrant for a man wanted in a homicide.
As he climbed the stairs to reach the second floor, authorities said, Hassan Elliott, then 21 and wanted for murder, grabbed a rifle and fired a spray of bullets through a closed bedroom door. The SWAT corporal was struck in his left forearm and back left shoulder blade. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward at Temple.
James O’Connor IV, 46, was the first Philadelphia officer to be killed in the line of duty since March 5, 2015, when Officer Robert Wilson III was shot to death in a gun battle with a pair of robbers inside a North Philadelphia video game store.
He was posthumously promoted to sergeant. In October, hundreds of police officers gathered to dedicate a memorial plaque to him during a ceremony outside Fraternal Order of Police headquarters. Terri O’Connor spoke and in a shaky voice told those who gathered how “on a rainy Friday in March, my world and my entire family’s lives were turned upside down.”
So much has changed in the last year. O’Connor had been working as the school registrar at the private Philadelphia School, but after her husband was killed, she needed time to grieve and left her job.
She watches Callie a few times a week and cherishes the moments as she watches her first grandchild grow. She waits for the day she and her family can finally hold a funeral Mass for her husband at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, a ceremony that’s been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. And she awaits the trial of Elliott, who authorities say killed the man she loved.
“I’ve been so numb,” she said. “My mind’s always on that thought, that he’s not here. It’s so unreal.”
Sitting in her kitchen with her son and granddaughter nearby, she said: “I sit here and make dinner for one. I wake up every morning, like, ‘What did I miss last night?’ I have anxiety. I look at my phone. It’s like an unreal nightmare.”
There are times she will just sit alone and cry. That often happens on a Friday; her husband was killed on a Friday.
“I can’t stop crying,” she said. “It hurts.”
This Friday, on her 46th birthday, O’Connor will go to the cemetery.
On Saturday, the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death, there will be a small prayer vigil for him at SWAT headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia. She will go.
O’Connor looks back to a year ago when things were normal, when life was happy. She and her husband celebrated her birthday with Coronas — since it was the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They had just returned from a trip to Aruba. They were looking forward to their 25th wedding anniversary in a month. And they were delighting in their new role as grandparents, five months after their son and his wife, Nicole, also a Philadelphia police officer, had welcomed Callie into the world.
O’Connor last saw her husband around 11:15 the night before he was shot. He had called to ask her to bring his laptop to SWAT headquarters. When she did, she said, “He told me, ‘Happy birthday, I love you. See you in the morning.’”
The two met when she was a junior in high school. He went with her to her junior prom at Hallahan Girls’ High School. They married when she was 20 and he was 21. They raised two children, Jimmy, and daughter Kelsey, who is in the Air Force.
In three weeks, her son, who is 26, is expecting his second child, another girl.
To give her peace of mind, her son stopped working on the street as an officer in the Sixth Police District, headquartered in Chinatown. He now works as a physical-fitness instructor at the Police Academy. His wife, who had worked as an officer in the 35th District in Ogontz, also requested a transfer to the Academy, working in the Advance Training Unit.
The day his father was shot changed everything for Jimmy O’Connor.
“It was the worst day of my life. It still is,” he said.
He has dreams where he talks to his father.
“Where you been?” he asks his dad. And in the dream his father replies, “I was just sleeping.”