There’s an armed madman on the loose. Should we go trick or treating?
On a crisp, quiet day in late October 1985, my father was in the backyard of our house in Piermont, a suburb of New York City, when he heard gun shots. He walked to the end of the driveway to investigate and heard a man yelling, “He’s got a gun! He went around back!” My dad saw a bleeding woman lying on the ground across the street and ran to her — she had been shot several times.
My dad told the man who had been yelling to call an ambulance as he tried to stop the bleeding using the woman’s nightgown and bathrobe. She was moaning and trying to move so my dad spoke to her and asked if she could try and stay still.
Two members of the Piermont Volunteer Ambulance Corps responded to the emergency call and loaded the woman into the ambulance. One volunteer had to drive so my father climbed in the back with the other and they continued first aid until they reached the emergency room. At the hospital, doctors and nurses started to work on the woman while my father stood off to the side and watched. When he inquired about the woman’s condition, the hospital staff brushed him off and told him he couldn’t be in there. They asked him to leave. I can’t imagine what he felt covered in someone else’s blood after trying to save her life and then being told to leave. My father was a humble man — he walked out of the hospital and asked for a ride back to Piermont from the ambulance crew.
My sisters and I were at school and knew nothing of what had happened and my mother was at work, also in the dark. When she got home in the early afternoon, she found our short, quiet, dead end street swarming with police and media. This kind of sums up my dad — he wouldn’t want to interrupt my mom’s day or cause her worry. He knew she’d find out when she got home and it was soon enough for him. How would it serve her to know any sooner than she needed? If it were me, I’d have been on the phone immediately sharing the news far and wide. Yet my dad kept the events to himself and let the day unfold.
The woman who was shot was the sister of our neighbor. Our neighbor and his wife, along with his sister (the victim) were New York City police officers. The victim’s husband (the shooter), was a New York City Transit policeman. Several weeks before the shooting, the victim had left her husband and her marriage and had moved in with her brother’s family diagonally across the street from us. The morning of the shooting, the victim’s husband drove to Piermont to force her to come back.
She refused to go with him. He dragged her to the car. He forced her into the front seat and shut the car door. He walked to the driver’s side. She tried to open the passenger’s door and he shot her from across the inside of the car. She still tried to escape. He walked around to the passenger side and shot her four more times. Then he ran behind the neighbor’s house and into the woods, which were plentiful in Piermont.
My mother picked me up after school that day to take me to Girl Scouts. As we drove, she told me what happened and included all the details. When she was done, I began to cry. I didn’t really want to cry but it seemed like crying was what I should do in that situation and the tears came on their own anyway. I didn’t want the man to kill me next. The only people I knew who had died did so of old-age. I was very new to the idea of a murderer wandering around the woods next to our house. I was also only ten years old.
My mother reassured me this man was crazy and only wanted to kill his wife because she wouldn’t come home with him. Even though my mom claimed he wasn’t going to kill anyone else on our block, I had lingering doubt. This madman was lurking around in the woods. Who knew what else he was capable of? Not something I wanted to think about when I went to sleep that night.
When my mother and I got home at dusk, our street looked like a movie scene. Every newspaper and TV station in the area was on hand to report on the cop who shot his wife and was hiding in the woods. Reporters eager to talk to my dad rang our doorbell throughout the evening and the phone rang constantly. My father wasn’t interested in publicity and turned them away. He removed himself from the melee by leaving to pick up my sister at school — after first having forgotten about her for hours. When she tried to call, she only got busy signals.
The evening news featured a neighbor who shared what had happened. He had begun to assist my father with the first aid but once he learned the shooter was in the woods, he quickly returned to his own house and daughter. My sisters and I couldn’t believe our dad had passed on the opportunity to be on television. We pestered and cajoled him into finally agreeing to talk to the reporters from two of the lesser New York stations. While I still felt uneasy and the media had started reporting the killer may have not one but two guns, and he could be hiding in the woods, I was thrilled to see my dad on TV standing on our front porch with our windsock blowing in the background. I’d never seen anyone I knew on TV and there was my dad who had tried to save someone’s life! I felt like a celebrity’s kid.
The woman who had been shot died the same day. Five gunshot wounds were more than her body could handle. Her estranged husband was at large for three days. The woods swarmed with teams of law enforcement and search dogs trying to find him. Eventually, the local cops thought he was long gone and not in the area. They were wrong. On Halloween night, three days after he shot and killed his wife, the killer walked out of the woods and gave himself up.
During the three days of uncertainty before the shooter was caught, my parents had told us not to worry. They were both born city kids — born and raised in the Bronx — and we had only lived in Piermont for eight years when the shooting took place in 1985. By then, a lieutenant in 41 Engine in the South Bronx and before being promoted to lieutenant, he was a fireman at Ladder 14 in East Harlem for 14 years.
He had told us about a fireman he worked with, The Hack, who had been a prison guard before joining the fire department. While working with my father in the South Bronx, The Hack regularly encountered a former inmate who had threatened to kill him, cut him up and eat him when he got out. When this man walked by the firehouse on East 151st Street, The Hack had to dash inside to avoid being confronted. For me, this translated into: criminal who threatens to kill you directly = run for cover. Desperate, armed criminal who killed someone on the street and is wandering around the woods = not something to worry about.
As an adult and parent, I’ve tried to put myself in his shoes and often wonder, did he really think there was nothing to worry about? Was he inwardly concerned and putting on a brave face for us? Looking back, I’m convinced my dad thought the murderer was long gone. I don’t think he was concerned about a maniac lurking around in the woods.
Despite my father having a dangerous job and working in the New York’s toughest neighborhoods in the city’s darkest days, there was never worry about him in our house. My father knew when there was a time for concern and when there wasn’t. In the case of the shooter in the woods in Piermont, he said we were not in danger and so I believed him. When Halloween rolled around and the killer was still on the loose, I went trick or treating with my friends, as usual.
The following summer, the murderer’s criminal trial was held in Rockland County. On the day the district attorney wanted my dad to testify, we were supposed to leave for Virginia Beach for vacation. Because my dad’s vacation was assigned by the fire department, he couldn’t move it.
The morning of the trial, my father took a shower, shaved and put on his only sports jacket and tie and drove to the courthouse. Before then, the only time I’d seen him in a jacket and tie were for wedding and funerals. My mother, sisters and I packed the car and got everything ready for the six-hour drive. Then we waited. We had no idea how long it would take.
Fortunately, my dad returned home in the early afternoon, changed his clothes, and we piled into the car and began the trip to Virginia Beach.
Testifying the morning we were meant to leave for vacation was inconvenient. Yet there was never any doubt my father would do it — even though the D.A. hadn’t bothered to subpoena him and he wasn’t a witness to the crime. Testifying was the right thing to do — his civic duty. Like running to the aid of a bleeding woman was the right thing to do. Like doing CPR and carrying a man down multiple flights of stairs was the right thing to do. Just because he wasn’t wearing a helmet and carrying a hose, he was still committed to sacrificing to help others.
The evening of the shooting, I overheard my father tell my mother that he put the bloody clothes he had been wearing in the wash basket in the cellar. My mom later told me she’d wanted to put those clothes straight into the garbage but my father asked her to try to clean them — the jeans he was wearing were new. To humor my dad, my mother did her best. He had been a witness to the immediate aftermath of a gruesome murder and attempted to save a victim of multiple gunshot wounds. He reassured his family that we were safe. Then he recognized throwing away a new pair of pants would be wasteful and we were not rich.
My father was always level-headed and calm under pressure. He moved swiftly and with purpose but was outwardly unruffled by emergency situations. He simply did what needed to be done and made it look easy. The only outward indicator I saw that he felt any stress from the shooting was he started smoking again after eight months without a cigarette. He struggled his entire life to quit and the eight months before the murder were his longest cigarette-free stint.
He was both kind and tough when he had to be, yet no one would mistake his kindness for weakness. His physical presence could be intimidating — he was over six feet tall and when he wanted to, he could carry himself in a way that said, “Don’t mess with me or my family.” Though most of the time his demeanor was inviting and warm, when he had to, he could turn off the charm and show his tough side.
I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know how he heard gun shots and ran toward them instead of running into the house and hunkering down. I don’t know how he was known to most as gentle and kind but could work in Harlem and the South Bronx while the neighborhoods burned down around him. He never let anything harden him or diminish his gregarious nature.
Being Fred Scheffold’s daughter is both amazing and challenging. I looked him to up. I respected him. When he was recognized for trying to save someone’s life, I was proud. At the same time, modeling his behavior has never been easy. I try to be like him through kindness and in my choice of career at a nonprofit (even though he told me to get an MBA and go work on Wall Street.) I try to model the same good judgment for my own kids. I try to keep my moral compass on track. I know not everyone is like him so I try not to be disappointed when others don’t aspire to the same standards of decency, morality, and civic duty. Recently, I’m more disappointed than ever.