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One police widow's horror story of pure hell
Suzie Sawyer and Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) prove pivotal in Kathleen Weir’s desperate fight for her fallen husband’s death benefits
It took Det. John Weir 14 years to die after a paranoid schizophrenic stabbed him in the head with a nine-inch boning knife, rendering him paralyzed with catastrophic brain damage. Then it took another seven years for his widow to win a bitter battle with the federal government over survivor benefits she justly deserved.
Kathleen Weir says this past Christmas was “the first in a long time that I could afford gifts for our son and daughter and their families. I finally feel like John has been acknowledged and someone appreciates what he did and how he sacrificed.”
The struggle to reach that vindication was “a horror story of pure hell,” she says. And the ultimate validating victory, she is quick to point out, would not have been possible except for the intervention and dogged tenacity of Suzie Sawyer, founder of Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS).
Worst Case of Injustice
“In my 30 years of working with law enforcement deaths,” Sawyer told PoliceOne, “this is the worst case of injustice I’ve seen.”
The assailant behind the knife had threatened to lobotomize John Weir, “and he very nearly did,” Kathy Weir says. The 38-year-old man was what some cops call a “frequent flyer,” the subject of repeated crisis calls because of his mental derangement. John, a 19-year veteran of the police department, had responded to a number of these and, though not formally trained in negotiation, had developed a track record of successfully “talking him down.”
Late in September 1990, the man barricaded himself in the dark, cramped basement of his parents’ house in their small city in Upper Michigan by piling up outboard motors to block the narrow stairway. From that “dark hole,” he threatened to set himself and the house on fire and to kill his parents with a boning knife they’d given him as a present.
Forty-three-year-old John Weir, who’d made detective a year earlier, was sent to deal with him. According to what Kathy says she learned later, he was instructed by a supervisor to avoid gunfire and flashbangs and instead to “use Mace and wrestle him into submission,” if force became necessary.
“John talked to the man for 20 hours without any relief,” says Kathy, herself the daughter of a police officer. Finally, after repeatedly screaming back threats and invective, the suspect calmed down and seemed willing to cooperate with a trip to a mental hospital. “With a can of Mace in one hand, John started to remove the barricade,” Kathy says.
Suddenly, the suspect lurched around a corner. He dumped a bucket he’d used as a toilet over the detective’s head. Then he flashed the boning knife and jammed it into John’s skull at the corner of his right eye, ripped it across the bridge of his nose, and dug it deep behind his left eye, into his brain. “The last thing John ever saw,” says Kathy, “was that nine-inch blade.”
For his action, the suspect spent 18 months in a treatment facility, then was released, Kathy says. She has no idea where he is today. For John Weir, the attack resulted in what she calls her husband’s “first death.”
“Initially, he was not supposed to live past a day,” she says. “Then the doctors said he wouldn’t live past a month. Then they said four months. Then they said he’d never get past a year.” He kept beating the odds, a questionable blessing.
“He was in a coma for three months, and when he ‘woke up’ he was in not much more than a coma for several months more,” Kathy recalls. At his bedside as he was initially shuttled from hospital to hospital in Michigan, she kept telling him, “John, you’re just resting. You’re going to wake up and everything will be okay.”
But then, she says, “At the end of six months, I had to face what we had and it was horrific.”
Except for movement of his left hand — his off hand — he was paralyzed. He was also blind, unable even to distinguish night from day. And he was amnesic, his recognition of who he was wiped out with everything else. “He’d forget every day that he was blind and you’d see him trying so hard to see. It was heartbreaking,” Kathy says.
“At one point I brought him home in a wheelchair for a visit. He didn’t know he was there because he couldn’t see. He kept saying, ‘I want to go home.’ When his parents came to visit, he told them, ‘You’re not my parents! I want my parents!’ He couldn’t remember getting married or having children. He didn’t know who I was. It took me years of reinforcing it every day to convince him that I was his wife.”
The Letter of the Law
Today, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program, administered by the federal DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, provides financial aid to families of officers who are catastrophically injured in the line of duty, as well as those slain. But in 1990, PSOB issued only death benefits. “John was stabbed just two months before the law started allowing benefits for injuries,” Kathy says. The program could not be made retroactive to include him.
To supplement the marginal income from his workman’s comp and Social Security disability, Kathy sold the family home eight months after the stabbing and moved to Battle Creek, where she’d found a medical facility she felt would offer the best services for her husband. The Weirs’ 19-year-old son moved to Colorado to live with a police officer uncle and their 12-year-old daughter moved south with Kathy. The family dog had to be put down because the small apartment they could afford didn’t allow pets.
Between periodic spells in the hospital or a rehabilitation center, Kathy cared for John in the apartment full-time. At one of facilities where he’d been a patient up north shortly before the move to Battle Creek, she’d found him one day strapped naked in a chair and slumped over, abandoned. She was determined that he never again be neglected and without stimulation.
“He didn’t know who he was, but he liked hearing about who he was,” Kathy recalls. She spent an eternity talking to him about the past, hoping to penetrate his fog of amnesia. Her reminiscing seemed to bring him “some contentment and happiness,” but there were no breakthroughs.
His capacity for speech was severely limited. Most often he mechanically repeated, “I wanna go home.” Or, almost daily, he cried out, “Mattress! Mattress!” That, Kathy finally concluded, was evidence of terrifying flashbacks to the stabbing in which he thought he might have used a mattress as a protective shield on the basement stairway.
Day upon day, year upon year, she fed him, she washed him, she changed his diapers, which he often would tear off and fling around the room. Transplanted in an unfamiliar town, she had no circle of friends nearby. In time, relatives drifted away, absorbed in their own lives. John’s former fellow officers never called. At one point, she says, an administrator from his old department urged her to “let him starve” to bring an end to the mounting costs of keeping him alive.
“I never felt so alone in my life,” she says. “I was worn to a frazzle, but I never gave up hope.”
On 9/11, nearly 11 years after John was injured, Kathy and her daughter watched on TV as the Twin Towers came down and learned of the public safety lives lost to the violent acts of other madmen. “You know,” Kathy remarked to her daughter, “your dad is a hero, just like them.” Her daughter replied, “You’re the only one in the world who thinks that.”
“I cried and cried,” Kathy says. “It felt like John had done something wrong and we should be ashamed of him.”
Over the years, “John nearly died many times,” Kathy says. When the end finally did come, it was agony for him and agony to watch. “Everything in his body was failing, falling like dominoes,” she says. “His urine backed up. He bled…so much blood, all over him, all over the room. He was in constant, unbelievable pain from neurological complications.”
Holding his hand, Kathy said to him, “Would you rather stay here with the pain, or go to heaven?”
John murmured back, “No pain.”
He died — “his second death,” by Kathy’s reckoning — on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2004, 14 long years and nearly two months after the stabbing. A worker’s comp representative promptly telephoned and informed her that she’d have to return funds that had already been paid ahead beyond that date.
The cemetery wouldn’t open a grave because she didn’t have the money to pay up front. “It was the most terrible feeling in the world to think I couldn’t bury this poor man,” she says. “They finally made an exception because I had $10,000 coming from life insurance through his department.”
The Spirit of the Law
Her struggles were not yet over, as she was shocked to learn when she applied to the PSOB program for line-of-duty death benefits. The doctor who had performed a routine autopsy on John’s body at the funeral home had listed “natural causes” on the death certificate. The stabbing was mentioned only as a “contributing factor.” That was sufficient, the PSOB bureaucrats informed her, to disqualify her claim.
Kathy was stunned. “Every cop knows the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law,’’ she says. “Rejecting John’s case was not the spirit of what the benefits program is intended to be. It was obvious to me that he was murdered, but I couldn’t get them to see that.”
When Kathy desperately turned to the COPS organization for help, then-Executive Director Suzie Sawyer — a legendary dynamo of commitment to the well-being of officers’ survivors — grasped the injustice immediately.
Sawyer promised an all-out offensive in an effort to get the PSOB ruling reversed. But she warned that an appeal would be “a long, difficult process” and would require obtaining and reviewing “hundreds of medical records.”
Indeed, years stretched on as Sawyer helped Kathy build what COPS considered a convincing case, and frustrations arose on nearly every calendar page. “We seemed to hit very strong stone walls whichever way we turned,” Sawyer says.
For just one example, a local physician who had tended John was approached to see if he would write a letter challenging the conclusion about the cause of death, given a full understanding of John’s circumstances. “He stalled us for over four years,” Kathy says. “He didn’t want to get the doctor who performed the autopsy in trouble. Eventually he agreed to say the cause was ‘undetermined,’ but he wouldn’t go to ‘homicide.’
“I was 55 years old when John died. I wasn’t able to find a job after so many years out of the workforce. I was looking at old age with no future, and I couldn’t see a way out. I was very depressed. I thought a lot about putting a gun to my head.”
But bit by bit, reaching out to contacts across the country, Sawyer amassed evidence on Kathy’s side. In Minnesota, she recruited Dr. Janis Amatuzio, a pathologist internationally recognized as an authority in forensic medicine, who pored through “boxes and boxes” of medical records that Kathy assembled. Amatuzio, known as “the compassionate coroner,” became convinced that traumatic brain injury, paralysis, and medications affected all of John’s major organs, leading to his demise. It took him 14 years to die, she said, but homicide was definitely the cause of his death.
From Oklahoma, Sawyer brought Mike Grimes, retired deputy chief of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, into the case. Grimes’s twin brother had been killed in the line of duty during a shootout with prison escapees, and Grimes, once honored for police humanitarianism, had experience preparing PSOB claims for most of the surviving families of fallen officers in the Sooner State in recent years. For Kathy, he created a “tactical reconstruction” of the night John was attacked, “to show how he incurred his injury.”
“I’ve Got My Life Back”
Back east, Sawyer contacted Chief David Mitchell of the University of Maryland Police Dept. and former superintendent of the Maryland State Police. Mitchell is also an attorney and a specialist in disability law. He agreed to serve as Kathy’s lawyer at an appeals hearing.
A PSOB examiner heard evidence in the matter in January 2011, at a session in the Ingham County SO in Lansing, the state capital. Kathy, her daughter, and the COPS team testified.
When they finished, the hearing officer said he was convinced of the merit of their case, but he had to present his findings to his boss for final approval. It took PSOB 10 months to render a final decision.
“I waited and paced every day,” Kathy says. She nearly wore her carpet out. It was last November, just before Thanksgiving, before she finally got the call. Seven years after John died, she was at last approved for federal survivor benefits. The proceeds were calculated at the prescribed rate for the fiscal year of his death.
“After 21 years, I’ve got my life back,” Kathy told PoliceOne not long after she received the notification. “I can get haircuts, I can travel to see my grandchildren, I can get the brakes on my car fixed.
“Most important, I can tell people my husband died in the line of duty and he now has that affirmation to prove it.”