Ventnor City Police Sgt. Frank O’Neill would later tell investigators he was in “rush mode” when he prepared to leave for a trip to Florida on April 17, 2017.
According to court papers, O’Neill said he departed in such a hurry that he did not secure his department-issued handgun, which lay on the bedroom floor of the Galloway Township home he shared with his girlfriend, Kelly Ann McDowell.
Less than a month earlier, McDowell had been treated for depression at a nearby health care center. Medical records indicated that she said she was withdrawn, had trouble sleeping, and lacked motivation, and said the symptoms had worsened over the previous six months. “I’m not functioning, it’s like I get up and I don’t even know how to move,” McDowell is quoted as having said. “I feel so far gone that I don’t know if I can get back.”
On April 17, after O’Neill left for Florida, McDowell found the loaded gun and fatally shot herself in the head. Her 18-year-old son Ryan found her body.
On Monday, nearly a year to the day after her suicide, McDowell’s family filed two lawsuits against O’Neill and the Ventnor Police Department, claiming the cop was “grossly negligent” in leaving his loaded firearm unsecured in a house with four minor children and a girlfriend he knew was suffering from mental health issues.
At a moment when the national gun violence debate is focused on mass shootings, this case is garnering national attention for shining a spotlight on what gun safety advocates call “family fire,” the misuse of an unsecured gun inside the home.
“What is so frustrating to the McDowell family is that Kelly’s parents, Kelly’s sister, Kelly’s brothers were on top of this. They realized that she was having issues,” said Paul D’Amato, the attorney representing McDowell’s parents. “But the one other person in Kelly’s life, Frank O’Neill, was the most careless in leaving a loaded gun in the bedroom closet. It’s incomprehensible to them.” Ventnor City police are trained to never leave their weapon unsecured whether at work or home.
When contacted by WHYY, Ventnor City Police Chief Douglas Biagi said the city had not been served with court papers, so he could not comment on the lawsuit.
Biagi did say the police department concluded an internal affairs investigation into the incident but declined to share the findings. The chief also confirmed that O’Neill is currently working as a sergeant in the police department.
O’Neill could not be reached for comment.
At a press conference Monday, family members characterized 41-year-old McDowell as a hardworking mother willing to volunteer her time for charitable causes.
“Family meant everything to her,” said McDowell’s father, Kevin. “She was a beautiful, good-hearted young woman.” He said the family was filing a lawsuit to make sure no other family had to endure what they have been through.
Kelly was the oldest of four siblings, and could be both “feisty” and protective with her sister and brothers.
“I used to get picked on on the bus when I was little,” said Kelly’s younger brother Kevin, with a smile. “She went straight to that kid, and the next day he was as nice as could be to me. Gave me his seat and everything.”
McDowell is survived by three children and her two grandmothers.
The second lawsuit (which is nearly identical to the first) was filed by McDowell’s adult son, Ryan. “Though certainly the rest of the family and the other children are harmed by the loss of their mother, Ryan had a unique and horrible experience,” said his attorney Oliver Barry. “He was in the house and he came upon his mother just moments after she shot herself.”
Both lawsuits are seeking monetary damages.
Attorneys for the family said O’Neill’s failure to secure his Glock pistol before McDowell’s suicide was especially careless given his extensive and specialized training as a police officer. Thanks to courses required by the city, the lawsuit alleges, O’Neill would have known how to recognize the signs of suicidal behavior and would further have understood the need to store his gun safely while off duty.
“He wasn’t negligent,” said D’Amato. “He was grossly negligent.”
Suicides carried out with a gun are on the rise, according to a leading national gun safety group. Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, said 59 of the 96 people who die by guns every day are suicides. “These are preventable tragedies,” she said.
Brown noted that having guns around makes it easier for suicidal people to end their lives in an instant, but said many people who have attempted suicide and survived do not make a second attempt to kill themselves. She said it means that people with even a brief impulse to end their lives can make a decision they may have later regretted.
“The presence of a gun turns something episodic into something fatal.”