A Tribute to Slain Lawrence Police Officer Tom Duggan, Sr

How a Hero was Killed 

And a Killer Went Free
(March 7, 1943 – March 16, 1990)

By: Tom Duggan, Jr – March 2010

Slain Lawrence Police Officer Tom Duggan
Slain Lawrence Police Officer Tom Duggan

Lawrence police officer Tom Duggan Sr., was a police officer for 18 years. 

He was my father. 

It wasn’t always easy being the son of a cop and the family member of many cops growing up. 

At a very young age, I learned to accept the fact that every time my father put on his uniform there was a real chance he might not come back. 

It was an awareness and a reality that most people can’t relate to. 

And though that awareness never went away as I got older, I also learned to have faith that my father was a great cop and he was smart enough (more importantly, wise enough) to handle whatever came his way. There was also a bizarre comfort in the thought that if he ever did lose his life on the job that, it may be protecting the lives of innocent people. 

March 13, 1990

Two blocks from the Lawrence Police Station, shortly after 2pm, Lawrence police officers arrived at the corner of Lowell and Broadway to find a man covered in blood laying in a dirt parking lot. 

Because of his condition, they didn’t even recognize who they were standing over when the officers tried to revive him and piece together what had happened. 

Before an ambulance could arrive, one of the officers commented “I’m surprised Tommy Duggan isn’t here, he must have heard the call go out.” Duggan was known as an aggressive cop who never passed up an opportunity to respond to an emergency whether on or off duty and had earned a reputation in the community (and especially among his fellow officers) as a “cop’s cop”. 

“Wait, that’s Tommy’s car, he must be around,” one officer said. It didn’t take a second or two for them to realize however, who it was laying at their feet fighting for his life. Officer Duggan wasn’t chasing down the suspect or just in the area trying to help, he was the unidentified man laying on the ground with multiple head and chest wounds from an apparent metal baseball bat attack. 

“My God, that’s Tommy Duggan,” Officer Samataro said out loud. Within an instant the call went out over the police radio “Officer Down!” 

According to witnesses and those who investigated the case, just a few minutes prior, Officer Duggan was taking a right hand turn from Winter Street onto Lowell St. A car being driven by William Rodriguez of Lowell nearly hit him, continuing toward Broadway and finally came to a stop at a red light at the next corner. 

Officer Tom Duggan, Sr. was on his way to court that afternoon and in civilian clothes. He was driving his own car when he pulled up behind Rodriguez and his girlfriend Doris Ortiz of Lawrence. 

Witnesses said Duggan got out of his car, identified himself as a police officer as he approached them, but before he could say anything more, Ortiz jumped out of the passengers side of the car and advanced on him, hitting and pushing him in the middle of Lowell Street. 

Within seconds, Rodriguez also jumped out of the car brandishing a metal softball bat. He advanced on Officer Duggan slapping the bat in his hand over and over. 

Because it was broad daylight, and on a busy downtown street where kids were walking home from school, and pedestrians were walking close by, Officer Duggan pulled out his gun and ordered Rodriguez to put down the bat while he backed up into a the vacant lot.

Duggan matched every advancing step by the perpetrators with a step back, luring them away from from innocent bystanders and into the vacant lot in case he had to shoot his weapon.

But as Duggan reached the edge of the lot, Ortiz jumped on him, grabbed at the gun, and held his hands, just long enough for Rodriguez to beat him in the head with the bat. As Rodriguez came down with the first blow to Duggan’s head, he fired his weapon, but the bullet only grazed the neck of Ortiz while Rodriguez began beating him repeatedly. Police would later learn that Duggan tried to fire again but his gun had jammed. 

Witnesses said that Rodriguez continued beating him even after he fell to the ground and the two killers eventually fled the scene leaving Duggan in the dirt to die. 

As Officer Duggan was rushed to Lawrence General Hospital and while doctors were frantically working to save his life, Rodriguez pulled into the parking lot to drop off his girlfriend to get treatment for her superficial gun shot wound. Rodriguez never made it out of the parking lot as police cornered him and took him into custody, covered in Duggan’s blood. 

When Rodriguez was arrested, police recovered the bloody bat still in the back seat of the car, but Duggan’s badge was no where to be found. He was brought to the Lawrence Police Station, booked and questioned while word spread through the city and news crews rushed to Lawrence General hospital to report the story. 

Rodriguez confessed, admitting he had hit Duggan but denied hitting him in the head saying that he knew a strike to the head would be fatal. He did admit to hitting him in the chest and side with the bat and Rodriguez even signed a confession. 

For three days, Officer Duggan was kept in a drug induced coma to keep down the swelling in his head form the multiple blows he took from Rodriguez. Doctors worked around the clock to keep him alive, but said in the first 24 hours that there was little chance he would make it. 

Though the incident happened shortly after 2pm, It wasn’t until I turned on the evening news that night when I saw Channel 7’s Gerry D’Amico standing outside Lawrence General Hospital, reporting that a Lawrence police officer was fighting for his life. 

Two days earlier the local newspaper had mistakenly identified my father as a police officer who had been wounded in an attack, so I dismissed the report allowing me one more minute of sanity before my life, and the life of my family would be shattered forever. When the photo of my dad filled the television screen and D’Amico repeated his name three more times, reality set in. This time, it really was him and the television reporters were painting a very grim picture of his chances of survival. 

Friday, March 16, 1990. 

Slain Lawrence Police Officer Tom DugganAfter three days of multiple surgeries, Lawrence Police Officer Tom Duggan succumbed to his injuries and was the first police officer to be killed in the line of duty since 1953 When officer Peter Manning was hit by a drunk driver. 

The whole city came to a standstill. It was all anyone could talk about. Everyone knew who Officer Tom Duggan was. 

In a small city like Lawrence, his 18 years on the force had earned him a popularity and respect that was unmatched and still is, even today. I knew the loss my family was going through was unbearable. And so did the people of the Merrimack Valley. 

When they called out the name “William Rodriguez” in Lawrence District court at 10am that morning the entire courtroom, in fact the entire court house came to a complete stand still. He was big, muscle bound, and young. The clerks, the judges, the parole officers even some of the criminals waiting to be arraigned on other charges had tears in their eyes, which was puzzling but something I dismissed as I tried to focus on trying to keep my composure in front of everyone. 

As the District Attorney read the charges and Rodriguez’ attorney plead “not guilty” on his behalf I caught him winking to his family members siting just a few feet away from me. It seemed like every cop in the city was there, and every television news station was crowded outside the courthouse waiting for the arraignment to be over so they could do their report. 

When it was over, Officer Justin Hart came over to me put his arm around me. “Can I tell you something?” he asked. “Your dad and I never got along,” he said nervously. “But I can tell you Tommy as god is my witness, if I was ever in trouble and had to call for backup, I would pray that your dad would be the guy answering my call. He was great cop, and he loved this department. He was not going to let anything happen to me or any other cop in trouble. He was a cop’s cop, and that’s no lie.”

I was numb from what was happening but Justin’s words spoke volumes. Oddly enough, it was the mere fact that I knew he and my dad had issues with each other that made his words ring truer and more powerful than if he had been a friend. He had said it all. Like him or not, Officer Duggan was the go-to-guy and within days I was about to find out exactly how true his words were. 

Superintendent of Schools Jim Scully announced that morning that schools in Lawrence would be closed the following Monday for dad’s funeral. Shops on Essex Street closed, a large black cloth was draped over the entire police station as the flag was lowed to half mast. 

There was even talk of canceling the annual Saint Patrick’s day parade scheduled for Sunday, but dad was a staple at the parade every year, working a detail and usually on hand afterward to quell any rowdiness from revelers drinking at the many city pubs along the parade route. “He would want the parade to go on,” I told one of the parade organizers. And though I couldn’t even imagine that it would, I am so incredibly grateful today that it did. 

March 18, 1990

With so much to do, so many things to take care of and a wake that was sure to be impossible to deal with, I just couldn’t bring myself to think about the parade. But, dad loved watching the kids have fun and it was something he had enjoyed his entire life. It was hard enough just going to the store to buy milk or go through the drive through for some food as it seemed every person I ran into would either break down into tears upon recognizing me or would just be completely speechless not knowing what to say. Strangers randomly came over and hugged me and even the paperboy knocked on my door to say how sorry he was. 

I just couldn’t see anyone. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t even leave the house because of the affect my mere presence was having on other people. 

But, as I sat in my living room that night, still trying to figure out if all this was real, in shock by what was happening and what was surely to come, my grief turned to utter amazement and even joy as I flipped on cable access. A replay of the Saint Patrick’s day parade was running and it was far better than watching more news reports about Rodriguez and endless recounting of the beating that lead to dad’s death. 

Looking at the tv screen, I instantly noticed almost every float in the parade, nearly every marcher, and the thousands of parade watchers on the side of the road were holding hand made sings saying, “we love you Tommy Duggan”, “Rest in Peace Tommy Duggan” “He died for us, A real hero, Officer Duggan”. 

The spontaneous nature of thousands of people in such a short period of time, on their own with no organized effort to publicly reach out to me and my family to express their love and respect for my dad. It is an image that will be seared into my mind for the rest of my life. It was at that very moment that I realized the magnitude of what Justin Hart had said just a few days before. The man I had only known as dad, was a hero and a mentor to more people than I could have ever realized. 

Tears of joy ran down my face as I thought about him watching this surreal, almost twilight zone-like scene from above. Could he ever have imagined that he had touched the lives of so many? Did he ever realize how many people he had helped, how many families he had saved, how respected he was, not just among his colleagues but by the very citizenry he put his life on the line for during his 18 years on the force?

Could he believe it? I could barely believe it. It was as if the whole world knew how I and my sisters and my aunts and uncles were grieving. It was as if they too felt the enormous weight of what was going on. Like our grief was shared by the rest of the community. This was what he had lived his life for. These were the people he was willing to sacrifice his life to protect. And now that he had lost his life in that endeavor, they were all reaching out to say thank you. It was a more fitting tribute than anything I, or anyone else could have orchestrated. 

Son, Tom Duggan, Jr, Daughter Melissa Duggan, Sister Dorothy Incropera
Goodbye Dad

March 19, 1990

During the wake and the funeral thousands of people crowded Lawrence and Lebanon Streets outside and down the street from Saint Mary’s Church. Cops I had known growing up, their wives, their children, shop owners, crossing guards, even men my dad had arrested showed up to pay their genuine respect. 

“He kicked my ass more times than I can remember,” one man told me, dressed in a leather vest with tattoos up and down his arms and looking at least double my dad’s size. “But if it wasn’t for your dad setting me straight, I would be dead or in jail right now.” Hundreds of people told similar stories without a hint of exaggeration in their voices. 
When word of a news report that the killers, Rodriguez and Ortiz, were claiming racism and that my father had targeted them for being “Latino”, a group of young Dominican men came over to me just an hour before the funeral was to begin. 

“We heard the reports,” one said indignantly. “Benny might have been a lot of other things, but he aint no racist and if you don’t believe me you just watch.” Dad had a special relationship with the Latino community and had, on several occasions reported other cops for acting out on their own racial bias. They called him Benny because they said he reminded them of Benny Hill, the English comedian. 

I had no idea what they meant and I didn’t care. I hadn’t heard the report but the very thought of my dead father being used for race baiting so the killer could pretend to be the victim was enraging. But as the funeral procession made its way from Saint Mary’s Church to the cemetery I witnessed first hand just exactly what those Dominican young men were trying to tell me. 

Hundreds, if not thousands of Latinos lined the funeral procession through North Lawrence all the way to the cemetery with signs in English and Spanish, saying “We will miss you Benny”. “Benny was one of us”. 

The injustice System. 

By October 1st jury selection had begun for the murder trial of Rodriguez and Ortiz in Salem Superior court. It was a media frenzy that dwarfed the death and the funeral. 

Right out of the gate these criminals were demanding that “Latinos” be empanelled on the jury claiming racism that the jury was all “White”. It was a charge that garnered lots of media attention and again raised the “race card”. Adding insult to injury, Judge John Ronan began to unravel the evidence against the killers, first throwing out Willie Rodriguez’ confession claiming that it was “coerced” because the environment of the Lawrence police station where he was interrogated made him “feel coerced” being surrounded with officers who had worked with my dad. 

Throughout the trial Rodrigues changed his story multiple times, contradicting previous statements and claiming that it was Officer Duggan who had assaulted his girlfriend and his assault on my father was in defense of the woman he loved.

But the myriad of witnesses told a different story. A story of an enraged and out of control Rodriguez who wielded the bat and continued to advance while being ordered to drop the weapon. Several witnesses said they watched the brutal attack from the bay window of a car dealership right across the street, in the middle of broad daylight. While other witnesses said that they had seen parts of the incident in progress as they drove down the busy downtown Lowell street, all recounting how Rodriguez was the aggressor and Officer Duggan was backing away. 

After 12 days of testimony, unforgivable mistakes by prosecutor Bob Wiener, and truly bizarre rulings by Judge John Ronan it was time to give the matter to the jury. 

That’s when Ronan stunned the courtroom with his jury instruction. 

Ronan told the jury that in order to find Rodriguez guilty of 2nd degree murder they had to find that Rodriguez was the aggressor in the situation. He also told them that because Officer Duggan was not in uniform that they had to disregard the fact that he was a police officer at the time of the incident. This, despite the fact that multiple witnesses said he identified himself as a cop, and that his badge was never found at the scene left the courtroom attendees in shock. Ronan’s jury instruction also flew in the face of Massachusetts State Law which says that a police officer who activates himself in response to a crime is considered “on duty”. Not to mention that according to the law, police officers are considered on duty while traveling to and from work, including going to court. 

It didn’t take the jury long to come back into the court, but even with the bungling prosecutor and a judge who was clearly trying to skew the verdict we were all convinced that the jury couldn’t possibly come back with a not guilty verdict given the mountains of evidence they had heard. 

At about 6pm on the Friday before a long weekend the jury foreman, Mr. McDonald stood and read the verdict, “not guilty” on all counts for both defendants. For a minute, it seemed like nobody in the courtroom even heard what he had said. There was a long pause for what seemed like forever before the killers cried and hugged their lawyers. Within a few short minutes though, Rodriguez, Ortiz and both their families began singing and dancing all the way out the courtroom under police protection before our family was allowed to leave. But not before Rodriguez looked me directly in the eye and literally laughed in my face. 

I had been on the news every day trying to correct the misinformation he and his lawyers were spewing into the community and I had become a lightening rod for snide remarks by his friends in and out of the courtroom during the 12 day trial. Now it was he was having the last laugh. 

It had all come down to this. A stone cold killer, spitting on the life my father lived and laughing after getting away with taking his life after backing him up on a busy downtown street. 

I couldn’t help but think, and I may have even said out loud, “he died for nothing!” At least if he had been convicted and gone to jail, my father’s death would have resulted in getting a cold hearted killer with no regard for the law off the streets. At least dad’s death would have protected other innocent people from this man’s rage and disrespect for the lives of others. 

It was dark and raining outside when we finally left the courthouse on October 12, 1990. We were stunned and confused, outraged and filled with grief all at the same time. It was like he had been beaten with that metal baseball bat all over again. As we got outside I could see McDonald, the foreman of the jury being interviewed by a local TV reporter. He was saying in a very casual tone how he and the other members of the jury had no choice but to let Rodriguez and Ortiz go free because they had to disregard the fact that officer Duggan was a police officer at the time of the incident. 

He further explained that a man who was not a police officer, approaching someone else’s car the way my father had done, showed aggression on his part and, to add insult to injury, McDonald said that a gun was a more aggressive weapon than a bat. To find second degree murder the prosecution had to prove Rodriguez was the aggressor and “with what we had to work with, we felt they didn’t do a good job of proving that.” 

I rushed at him and demanded that he tell that to my father who was laying in a box, “explain to him that a gun is a more aggressive weapon than a bat.”

Eight months later Rodriguez car jacked a man in Lowell telling his victim “I just got away with killing a F*ing cop if you don’t do what I say I will kill you too”. Rodriguez served eight months in prison for that crime. The last I heard he was still living in Lowell and according to our sources his former girlfriend, Doris Ortiz still lives in the city of Lawrence. 

A Hero Remembered

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial

In May of 1991, Lawrence Police Officer Thomas Duggan, Sr. was honored in our nation’s capital at a ceremony for Police Officers killed in the line of duty. His name is now permanently etched on panel 36W of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial on Judiciary Square in Washington D.C. Every year in May, police officers who had been killed the year before are honored at a candle light ceremony and the names of those officers are added to the national monument. 

The memorial was built entirely with private money after Congress deeded the land for national monument to our nation’s peace keepers who made the ultimate sacrifice. 

Lawrence Police MemorialIn Lawrence, the men and women who served with my father also erected a memorial to commemorate the service and sacrifice of both Officers Tom Duggan Sr. and Peter Manning, the only two police officers to lose their lives protecting the people of Lawrence. 

Former Lawrence MayorMike Sullivan approved the naming of a street for both officers, Duggan Way and Manning Way, the two streets surrounding the Lawrence Police Memorial in Saint Mary’s Cemetery on Tower Hill. 

Officer Duggan’s name also appears on the Massachusetts Police Memorial in Boston. 

He is survived by his daughters, Becky, Kelley, Melissa, and one son. He is also survived by a sister, Dotti Incropera, a brother-in-law, former Lieutenant Frank Incropera (who was his shift commander at the time of his death), and five grandchildren. 

Thomas Duggan, Jr.at the National Law Enforcement Memorial
1990 Police Survivor Thomas Duggan, Jr. speaks at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial services in 2010, before Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and thousands of law enforcement officers and family members.

On this, the 20th anniversary of his tragic death, and the senseless incompetence of our criminal justice system which set his killers singing and dancing out of a courtroom, it is important for the community to remember how he died. But far more important is remembering how he lived. A father, a brother, a husband, a grandfather, a man who was always there to answer the call when someone’s life was in danger. 

I was honored to be the guest speaker at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. to read from the Roll Call of Honor on the 2oth anniversary of my dad’s death. A memorial which has inscribed upon it, the names of every police officer killed in the line of duty in our nation’s history. There, before President Obama’s cabinet and the families of slain officers from across the country, Officer Duggan’s service and sacrifice was honored thanks to Craig Floyd, President of the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund.

Even today, thinking about how he took such precautions to back up into a vacant lot to make sure he was in a position to fire his weapon without harming an innocent bystander, instead of just taking out his attackers as they advanced on him is a glaring example of how he cared for other people and always thought of others before himself. 

He wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. But he walked the walk every singe day of his life. He didn’t leave the hard work for others and he was always the first guy in the door when someone called for help. 

A piece of our safety and security died that day on March 16th 1990 when his life slowly slipped away forever. And a piece of me died when the people who killed him were set free as if his life had meant nothing. But his memory and the cause he took on every single day, protecting others, live on in the men and women who continue to put on a badge and a gun and carry on without him. 

Rest in Peace dad. Your spirit lives on. You are not, and will not be forgotten.

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All pictures and written material are (C) Copyright, Valley Patriot, Inc., 2010 all rights reserved, Funeral photo by STAR, used with permission