This suicidal cop was saved by an angel on Christmas Eve

It was Christmas Eve, and Dean Simpson was feeling anything but joyful. Three months before, the Twin Towers had fallen. As his fellow police officers had rushed into burning buildings, Simpson was sleeping off another drunken night.

Disabled in a shooting some seven years before, Simpson had lost the sense of purpose that propelled him into the force. Now all the 35-year-old seemed to do was drink, and attend one funeral after another.

That Christmas Eve, Simpson writes in “The Blue Pawn: A Memoir of an NYPD Foot Soldier” (Newman Springs Publishing), he put a gun in his pocket and boarded a train to upstate New York. It was there that he planned to end his life — only to meet an angel: a chatty grandmother who, in a brief encounter, gave him a gift that changed his life.

Christmases in Brooklyn, where Simpson grew up, were “more idyllic than any Norman Rockwell portrait could depict.” Bay Ridge was one big, extended family, with Simpson running errands for neighbors and working in the grocery store across the street from St. Patrick’s Church, where he went to school. His mother, an alcoholic, died when he was 7, but he and his older brother had aunts, cousins and friends. Most of all, they had their father, James, a NYC police detective, who was Dean’s idea of what a man could be.

After an Army stint and college, Dean joined the force himself. Like his father, he wanted to help people. It was, he felt, a calling.

By 21, he was on foot patrol for Midtown’s Third Division. On Restaurant Row, he caught a burglar climbing down a fire escape. Once he passed probation, he got a squad car, but in 1993 a gunshot changed everything.

He was driving past Clinton Park, along 12th Avenue, when he saw two men in hoodies, moving furtively. Simpson left the car to check it out, as one man reached into his pocket and pulled out a gun. Simpson lunged for it and it went off, shattering his knuckle. He fell to the ground; pistol-whipped and breathless, he figured he was done. And then he heard sirens: Someone had called for help.

Simpson survived, but his mangled hand made it hard to handle a gun. He suffered vertigo and hearing loss, went on disability and slowly disappeared into the bottle.

Drinking, he found, was a great deadener. His father had died that June, after a brief but debilitating battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he and his brother were estranged. The woman Simpson dated for two years — the one he planned to give his late mother’s ring to — had fallen in love with someone else. Single and jobless, Simpson looked at his life and found it empty.

The evening of Sept. 10, 2001, found him at his usual Brooklyn bar. When he finally woke the next morning, the world was ripped apart — and his fellow officers were trying to pick up the pieces.

Simpson pulled on his uniform and got in his car. The Triborough Bridge police escorted him across to Manhattan, where he walked to the stinking ruin everyone called The Pile. Simpson worked there for three weeks, until he realized he was only getting in the way.

Then the police funerals started — 23 of them. In between, Simpson was at the bar, drinking enough Wild Turkey and Cokes to quiet the insistent thought: “What am I contributing?”

He’d long stopped going to church. When a priest from St. Patrick’s came by his home, Simpson hustled him out. And now it was Christmas. All the years before, he spent it with his father. Without him, Simpson had nothing to celebrate — and no one to celebrate it with.

He thought about a close friend, a fellow officer so troubled that he shot himself in a Midtown bar. Simpson thought of the mess the man left behind. One night, sitting on his bed with his father’s old revolver, he tried to think of a reason to live and pulled the trigger hard enough to make the hammer move. No, he decided: If he killed himself, he’d do it in a secluded place. No one would have to clean up his mess.

He remembered a couple he’d met as a rookie. They’d come into the city from upstate for the devastating duty of identifying the body of their daughter, who’d died in a fire. They told him they planned to spread her ashes on Black Mountain, overlooking Lake George — the most peaceful, beautiful place they knew.

It was just what Simpson was looking for. He just couldn’t bear to spend another Christmas alone.

On Dec. 24, 2001, he put his father’s small, worn Bible in one pocket, the gun in another. At Penn Station, he bought a one-way ticket to Albany; a taxi would take him the rest of the way.

He wasn’t alone for long. Just before the train pulled out, a woman sat down beside him. She gave Simpson a smile he didn’t return. The last thing he wanted was conversation, especially with some cheery, 60-ish lady with a Gucci bag and a bright red scarf.

“Isn’t it pretty?” she said of the snow-frosted trees flashing by their window.

She spoke about how much she loved the holidays and how beautiful the city was this time of year. On and on she prattled, as Simpson stewed in silence. It was a 2-and-a-half-hour ride, he thought. Maybe he should just throw himself out the train window and be done with it.

When she asked him what he liked most about the city, the rudeness of his response shocked even himself.

“I love anonymity,” Simpson told his seatmate. “I love that in a city with over 8 million people, I can go for days without talking to a soul and not feel as though I missed out on a single thing. However, the thing I love most about New York City is being left alone.”

Another person might have slapped him. This woman just stared back, wounded.

Shame washed over him. How could he treat someone that way? He stammered an apology and to his relief, she accepted it.

Her name was Erin, she told him. She was from Saratoga, and her husband, a doctor, had died years before. She herself was a doctor until her children came, and now she had two grandchildren. Gently, she drew him out about his own life.

It had been a long time since Simpson had talked with anyone, at least about anything that mattered. Now and then, he choked up and she touched his arm. Her compassion brought tears to his eyes.

Just before the train pulled into Albany, she excused herself. When she returned, she held out a slip of pink paper.

“I don’t know where you’re headed,” she told Simpson, “but when you get there, read this.” They hugged, and she disappeared.

He took a taxi to the path to Black Mountain. It was noon when he started climbing, and though the sky was bright blue, ice caps dimpled Lake George.

As he walked along the two-and-a-half-mile trail, he thought about the twists his own life had taken.

At the summit, he took out his father’s Bible. A scrap of paper fluttered out. On it, in faded pencil, his dad had marked a favorite passage: Corinthians 10:13. How strange, Simpson thought: 10:13 was police code for officer needing assistance. As he read the passage, with its message of salvation, he no longer felt alone.

Then he read the note Erin had given him.

“Dean,” she’d written. “Life is a gift meant to be shared. Don’t ever give up hope! Merry Christmas, Erin.”

He looked at it a while. A weight seemed to lift from inside him. He emptied the chambers of the gun, then tossed it into the abyss. Uplifted, he headed back down the trail.
Erin was right: He had been given a gift, and he was ready to share it.

Simpson stopped drinking. He knew he needed a change of scene, so two years after that moment on the mountain, he moved to Florida. In Delray Beach, he threw himself into volunteer work, helping traumatized war veterans slowly rebuild their lives. Whenever they resisted, he remembered Erin and her compassion and tried another way to connect.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2010, he met Diana. The soft-spoken, dark-eyed beauty had left Colombia to make a life in America for herself and her 7-year-old daughter. Suddenly, Simpson had someone to live for, someone for whom he wanted to be his best self.

“I wanted someone genuine,” Simpson, now 51, says. “And Diana was.”

Four years after they met, they married.

And Erin?

Simpson never did get her last name. He says he’s tried tracking her down, but she seems to have vanished. In the meantime, he keeps her note with his dad’s Bible on top of his dresser and whenever he reads it, he’s struck again by how one stranger’s compassion made all the difference in the world.

“Angels are around us,” he says. “People talk about acts of kindness. We may not realize how many of them are bestowed on us every day.”

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