|Tribute to Charlie Wassil: a cop who made a difference|
|Written by Leo Dylewski Peekskill, New York Police Dept.|
Police week is here again. It is the time of year when officers are acknowledged and recognized for their hard work and dedication. We do this job because we love it. We love the feeling of accomplishment as we are able to help a person in need and make their day a bit better. We never think twice about running towards danger and assist others. Sometimes the price we pay for these selfless acts don’t show up right away, they wait and appear years later as what happened to my co-worker, mentor and friend Charlie Wassil.
I first met Charlie in August of 2000, after I transferred from the New York City of Department of Environmental Police to the City of Peekskill. I saw this guy with blond hair and tattoos standing in the parking lot smoking a cigarette. He was a detective and asked me if I was the new guy. I obviously told him yes. He introduced himself and started talking to me as if I was just like everyone else. I was a little apprehensive meeting new people at the time. I had spent most of all of my adult life working as a mechanic in an amusement park and was very blue collar. I found out quickly at my old department that people were not going to be the same in law enforcement as they were in my previous career. I was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and losing the job I had fought so hard for. However five minutes talking to Wassil put me at rest and made me feel like I was in the right place. We were similar in many ways.
Charlie Wassil with former NYPD Commissioner and LAPD Chief Bill Bratton (right) and Rich Miller, a highly decorated retired New York City Detective whose story is featured in Cynthia Brown's book Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Pride, Pain and Courage.
Charlie Wassil was from Peekskill and was known to get into trouble as a kid (Just ask some of the old timers!). Once he graduated high school, he left Peekskill and joined the Marines. After six years in the Corps, he came back and was soon hired by the NYPD where he worked five years at the 44th precinct in the Bronx. Charlie then was given the opportunity and transferred to work in Peekskill.
Wassil pulled no punches. He told a person how he felt and didn’t hold back. He was not afraid to tell you what he thought, even if it meant he would get into trouble. When he did step over the line however, he never made excuses. He would admit to what he had done and take his disciplinary action without question. He told me there was no sense in trying to argue or hide about something you had done. Accept responsibility for your actions and move on. The ones who get really jammed up are the ones who lie and try to avoid the consequences. “We are cops” he said. “We investigate stuff for a living. There is no way you’re going to be able to get away with something. Just accept it and move on.”
Soon after meeting Charlie, I did my field training and upon completion was assigned the midnight shift. I would see Charlie from time to time as I was getting off and he was coming on. The first real time I saw him in action was on September 11th 2001, however, it was not at ground zero but here in Peekskill.
Right after the attack, Charlie and a bunch of other officers volunteered and went to NYC to assist on the World Trade Center site. That same night, a shooting had occurred back in town and a female was killed. Charlie was called back to Peekskill to work the case. When he arrived, I was already securing the scene. He knew I had only a year on the job and not much experience. Some detectives did not like to show others what or how they did investigations. Charlie was different. He called me over and first asked me what I had seen. He next started showing me signs, explaining how he had a pretty good idea where the shots had come from and how the victim was killed. I was eager to learn and he was more than willing to teach. Next he interviewed the witnesses. He was not like you saw on TV. He spoke to everyone with respect and dignity. He stayed on their level, never acting as if he was superior to them. They respected him back and were willing to speak without hesitation. An arrest was made shortly thereafter. The next day Charlie along with other officers from the department responded back to Ground Zero and worked directly on the pile for about a week. Charlie developed a cough about three months after the attack.
A couple of years later, I was able to work another case with Wassil. I had responded to a burglar alarm at a car dealership. Upon arrival I was met by the owner. He stated someone had stolen his custom Harley Davidson out of a locked showroom. The perpetrators had gained entry by pushing an air conditioner out of a wall outside and into the office. I contacted the desk and informed them of the situation. Wassil was working that night and was assigned the case. Charlie came in and immediately interviewed the owner. He was friendly and easy going, like he always was, yet the owner was extremely agitated and upset. Charlie continued speaking to him. He then pulled me to the side and had me follow him to the back of the building where the “perpetrators” had made entry. He immediately asked if I saw anything wrong with this call. He then pointed out inconsistencies in the caller’s story. He next showed me that there was no way a person by himself had pushed a 12000 BTU air-conditioning unit out of a wall and into the office without destroying it. The unit was in the office on the floor unbroken, as if it had been place there intentionally. The call was looking more like an insurance job and less like a burglary. It was enjoyable watching him work and be himself. He taught me that I could do the same.
A few years later I was able to see the true Charlie at work. I was working an anti-crime detail at the time. All patrol units were busy on calls. My partner and I were sent as a backup unit to a call for an unresponsive male. We responded to the call along with another officer. Upon entering the apartment however, we immediately knew something was extremely wrong. We found an unresponsive 17 year old male lying on the living room floor. His sixteen year old girlfriend was telling me that he wouldn’t get up. I knew her from my work with juveniles and was able to talk to her. I asked her what happened and she told me he had been stabbed and that she was the one who stabbed him. We immediately took her into custody as the ambulance tried to revive the victim. Unfortunately he did not make it.
Charlie was the detective assigned to the case. He knew I had a good rapport with the youth in the community, especially this girl. He brought me in to help with every aspect of this investigation. I sat in on the interview and observed him work. It was an awesome thing to watch. He spoke to her the same way he spoke to anyone else on the street. He took his time and was thorough. She gave him a full confession as to what had happened and why.
I wish to this day that was the end of the story. Later that night we had to inform the victim’s mother that her son was dead, the fatality of a senseless murder. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. Charlie sat her down and told her. At first she was in disbelief. Soon the reality set in and she lost all control. Charlie held her and let her cry and lash out at him. We stayed and consoled her for several hours and tried to answer all of her questions as best we could. Charlie never forgot her. He made a point to go to the trial and sit and be with the mother every day. In the end, the female was convicted and is still serving time. I ran into the mother a few weeks ago. We chatted a bit and she told me that she would not have been able to get through the ordeal if it had not been for Charlie taking the time to be with her. To her, as with many of us, he made a difference.
Charlie Wassil spent a week in the rubble of the world trade center looking for survivors. Shortly thereafter, he developed a cough which didn’t go away. Eventually he was diagnosed sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease which he had contracted due to his work at ground zero. He retired from the department in 2008. Shortly thereafter his health began to deteriorate and was confined to a wheelchair. Even in his diminished state, he was always thinking of others. Charles Wassil died on Wednesday May 1st 2013. He is missed by all.
Once again Police Week is upon us, the time of year where we are recognized for what we do every day without thought. We never give a second thought about running into danger as others are running the other way. Many times that danger is staring us in the face yet other times unfortunately it is hiding and does not show its ugly self until many years later, as it did to my friend and mentor Charlie Wassil. You will be missed brother.