NYPD Officer Steven McDonald, left for dead by a teen gunman, never heard the prognosis of his imminent demise.
The paralyzed cop miraculously survived for the next three decades, living to see the birth of his son and become a global voice for peace and forgiveness across an extraordinary and unexpected life.
McDonald died Tuesday at the age of 59 after suffering a heart attack at his Long Island home on Friday.
“New York City is heartbroken by the loss of NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who for 30 years has been this city’s greatest example of heroism and grace,” Mayor de Blasio said.
Det. Steven McDonald was a role model for forgiveness
A parade of city officials past and present — including de Blasio, Police Commissioner James O’Neill and former NYPD top cops Bill Bratton and Ray Kelly — visited McDonald at North Shore University Hospital where he was on life support.
Hundreds of cops were lined up outside the emergency room Tuesday afternoon awaiting the removal of McDonald’s body.
The officers gave a final salute to McDonald as a procession of police vehicles pulled away from the hospital about 2:10 p.m.
“No one could have predicted that Steven would touch so many people, in New York and around the world,” O’Neill said.
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“Like so many cops, Steven joined the NYPD to make a difference in people's lives. And he accomplished that every day.”
NYPD Housing Bureau Chief James Secreto, who was McDonald’s sergeant in the 1980s, said the paralyzed officer was an inspiration to all members of the force.
“If there’s a better guy in this world, I want to meet him,” Secreto said outside the hospital, his voice heavy with emotion.
“They don’t come like him.”
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Among the other prominent figures to pay tribute to McDonald was Timothy Cardinal Dolan.
“Detective Steven McDonald was an icon of mercy and forgiveness, a prophet of the dignity of all human life, a shining example of the best of what the New York Police Department represents, a loving husband and father, and a fervent and faithful Catholic,” Dolan said in a statement.
McDonald emerged as an even bigger hero from his specially equipped wheelchair than during his time walking a city beat.
His unlikely second act brought the indefatigable McDonald together with President George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and Mayors Bloomberg and Koch.
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Though unable to walk or hug his family, he traveled on missions of peace to Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the Middle East.
His son Conor, born months after the Central Park shooting, even spent one night beneath the watchful eye of babysitter Bruce Springsteen.
McDonald sat for interviews with Barbara Walters and David Letterman, never varying from his personal gospel of faith and forgiveness.
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The officer practiced what he preached: McDonald delivered a stunning public absolution of his shooter on the day of his son’s baptism.
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“My simple understanding is that God has asked me to be a witness to do his will in this world,” McDonald told the Daily News before the 25th anniversary of the shooting.
“And I think that's my life.”
McDonald, the father and son of a city cop, barely dodged death in the attack where 15-year-old Shavod (Buddha) Jones blasted him three times inside the north end of the Midtown oasis.
The third-generation cop was the third of eight kids from an Irish-American clan. He was just 20 months on the job when his life was transformed during a routine shift on an overcast summer day.
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McDonald approached three suspicious-looking teens in the park on the afternoon of July 12, 1986. His new wife Patti Ann — pregnant with their son — was visiting her sister in Pennsylvania.
As the young cop moved in to frisk the trio, Jones pulled a .22-caliber handgun and fired three times.
McDonald — shot in the neck, wrist and face — was instantly paralyzed. His prognosis was dire at best, hopeless at worse.
“He’s dying,” said one of the first doctors to see the shattered cop at Metropolitan Hospital. “He’s not going to make it.”
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The officer, before losing consciousness, recalled seeing a vision of his wife as a simple prayer filled his head: “God, don’t let me die.”
It was far more violent than the apostle Paul’s moment on the road to Damascus — but the shooting transformed McDonald into a messenger of God’s word.
The mission began March 1, 1987, when the quadriplegic officer stunned fellow cops and cynical New Yorkers with a conciliatory statement about Jones.
“I forgive him, and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life,” McDonald said on the day of son Conor’s christening.
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McDonald was soon preaching peace and forgiveness at hot spots around the world. FDNY chaplain Rev. Mychal Judge, later the first victim of the 9/11 terrorist attack, accompanied McDonald to Northern Ireland.
The soft-spoken cop addressed the Republican National Convention in 1996, and the New York Rangers honored their hardest working player each year with the “Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award.”
He campaigned with Mayor Bloomberg against illegal handguns, and co-authored “The Steven McDonald Story” with his wife about their life after the shooting.
No less an authority than Cardinal John O’Connor, who became a cherished friend, hailed McDonald for doing the work of Jesus Christ.
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It was the cardinal’s comparison of Christ and the cop that helped convince the paralyzed McDonald to follow his new path.
“He didn't save the world through teaching and preaching and miracles,” the cardinal once told the cop of Jesus. “He made it possible when he was lying motionless on the cross.”
When the rock star attention disappeared, McDonald soldiered on. Riding in a specially equipped van, he traveled widely to address kids born years after the shooting, riding his motorized wheelchair into countless high school gyms.
As he spoke, the machine that allowed him to breathe sounded a steady background rhythm: Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.
McDonald kept a pace that would wear on anybody — speaking at elementary schools and police precincts, mourning with his brothers in blue at cop funerals, attending the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
His singular life lacked just one major wish: McDonald never fulfilled his hope of enlisting the teen who shot him as a sidekick in his calls for non-violence.
McDonald spoke with Jones while the young man was imprisoned, and they exchanged letters. But the shooter, released in 1995, died in a motorcycle wreck just days later.
The paralyzed policeman later recalled how his family was crushed by news of the death.
McDonald remained on the NYPD active roster long after the shooting, earning a promotion to detective first-grade just before Christmas 2003.
After his heart attack, McDonald bravely held on for four more days.
McDonald’s friends and former colleagues started streaming into the hospital about 8 a.m. Tuesday after learning that his family was preparing to take him off life support.
A source said so many people showed up that hospital staffers had to open up a conference room.
Starting at 10 a.m., a line of people waiting to say their goodbyes stretched outside McDonald’s room.
Patti-Ann and Conor were the last to go in, at about 1 p.m. McDonald was declared dead at 1:09 p.m., sources said.
“I think he exemplified everything that the NYPD strives to be,” Bratton said in an interview.
“Steven probably met every New York City police officer and addressed every precinct in the last 20 years,” Bratton said fondly. “He attended every graduation. It was his desire to stay on the active duty rolls after the horrific injuries he suffered and he truly stayed on duty.”
Bratton recalled how McDonald drove all the way to Massachusetts after the former police commissioner’s father died last March.
“He made the 250-mile journey up to offer his prayers and thoughts only to be driven right back,” Bratton said.
Former NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said he has long been in awe of McDonald’s strength, bravery and powers of forgiveness.
“I’ve said many times that Steven McDonald is a living saint,” Kelly said. “It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Catholic church will recognize that.”
PBA President Patrick Lynch described McDonald as the “most courageous and forgiving man I have ever known.”
“Despite the tremendous pain in his life, both physical and emotional, his concern for his fellow police officers and for the people of New York City never wavered,” Lynch added. “He was a true American hero.”
Heroism ran in McDonald’s family.
His grandfather was a decorated detective once honored by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for busting a Bronx robbery ring — and a survivor of a gunshot wound while breaking up a barroom heist in 1936.
McDonald’s father joined the force in 1951, taking his first-born son for rides in his radio car and planting a seed for Steven’s future.
His own son, Conor, joined the NYPD on July 6, 2010, nearly 24 years to the day of his father’s Central Park shooting. The younger McDonald was promoted to detective sergeant in September 2016, and his father attended the ceremony.
“I have to salute him now,” joked Steven McDonald. “He’s always made us very proud.”Send a Letter to the Editor