Months after a fatal police shooting in northern Wisconsin, a young officer turns his gun on himself
THREE LAKES, Wis. — On the morning of the funeral, scores of police officers and sheriff's deputies filed toward the front of St. Theresa Catholic Church, silently saluting as they passed a black plaque and a silver urn.
The plaque commemorated the summer morning in 2016 when, after only a few months on the job, Sgt. Thomas Connelly opened fire on a suspect during a deadly standoff.
The urn marked the autumn evening 14 months later when Connelly turned his weapon on himself.
The 29-year-old's death had deeply shaken the Langlade County Sheriff's Department, whose 18 sworn officers were accustomed to dealing with suicides in this vast rural stretch of northern Wisconsin, but never one of their own. And it had stunned his parents, who had seen few hints that he was suffering.
Of their 11 children, he had always been the sober, steady one. What, his mother and father wondered, had they missed in those 14 months?
For answers, they'd turned to Dave Korus, a family friend and retired police commander who now stepped to the altar to deliver the eulogy.
Police work took officers to "some of the darkest places in America," he said, and few were darker than the scenes of officer-involved shootings, often called "critical incidents."
"Tom had a critical incident as a police officer," Korus continued, and afterward his father had worried about how it would affect him.
Although most officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty, police fatally shoot about 1,000 people each year in the United States, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
Some of those incidents trigger public outrage or prosecutions. But even when officers are cleared of wrongdoing, even when they are hailed as heroes for their actions, they can come away from shootings deeply damaged.
Korus knew that firsthand. His own son — a patrolman in St. Paul, Minnesota — had been involved in a fatal confrontation with an armed suspect only a few weeks before Connelly, he told the mourners.
What he didn't say was that he had heard his son's shouts on the police scanner hours before he could hug him to make sure he was okay. Or how, afterward, his son had stopped telling people he was a police officer and started wearing his concealed weapon everywhere, just in case. Or how the stress became so severe that his jaw began to lock up.
But where his son sought help, Connelly had not.
"The problem with us as first responders," Korus continued, "is that we don't take care of ourselves very well. We take care of others, but we don't want to be other people's problem. We want to be that brave person. We want to be the one that is standing tall."
Connelly's suicide had spurred Korus to ask his own son how he was coping, he said. Now he begged the church full of officers and their relatives to do the same.
"Those things that we pick up throughout our career can get heavy," Korus said. "The badge that proves we serve can get heavy."
Tom Connelly was a small-town electrician, itching for something bigger.
Fifth among the 11 children, he had always been the quiet, observant center of the boisterous Connelly clan. But the short, slightly built boy with dark hair and green eyes also displayed a protective streak, once chasing down a bully who'd insulted one of his seven sisters. When another sister got engaged, her suitor went to Connelly to seek the family's approval.
By his mid-20s, Connelly was tired of installing wiring. When an older cousin became a sheriff's deputy and began sharing stories of car chases and drug busts, Connelly was inspired to follow suit.
His father excitedly called Dave Korus with the news. They had met on a North Dakota Air Force base in 1977. Later, when George Connelly became a commercial pilot and Korus became a cop, they kept in close touch by telephone. Each was fascinated by the other's job.
Now Korus sounded a note of caution.
It was a precarious moment to become a law enforcement officer in America.
White police officers had killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, setting off protests about police brutality and inspiring the Black Lives Matter movement.
When two officers were later shot outside the Ferguson police station, a new slogan — "Blue Lives Matter" — also went viral, deepening the divide over policing in America.
Fatal attacks on law enforcement in the United States have fallen significantly since the late 1970s, but the job remains one of the country's most dangerous and stressful.
During his own 30 years on the force, Korus had been shot at by a bank robber, performed CPR on a dying baby and pulled myriad bodies from car wrecks.
Korus also had attended funerals for colleagues who'd killed themselves and talked several more out of committing suicide.
At least 140 law enforcement officers took their own lives last year in the United States, up from 108 in 2016, according to the police nonprofit Badge of Life.
That tally — which experts say is probably low because few departments or families disclose officer suicides — is greater than all deaths while on duty, including car accidents and heart attacks, and is three times as high as the number slain, according to the FBI and the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Law enforcement officers face a 69 percent higher risk of suicide than the general population, according to John Violanti, a retired officer who studies police stress at the University of Buffalo. They are also at elevated risk of depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of all the traumatic things officers see on the job, Violanti said, "shootings are the biggest stressors."
In 60 percent of fatal police shootings, the suspect is armed with a gun, according to The Post's data. And in almost half of those cases, the suspect fires his or her weapon. That gives officers a fraction of a second to make a decision that can not only end a suspect's life but also forever change their own.
Although media coverage often focuses on confrontations in major cities, half of all fatal police shootings occur in small towns or cities with populations of less than 100,000, according to The Post's data. Yet, smaller departments like Langlade's are less likely to have the experience or resources to help officers in the aftermath.
Over the phone, Dave Korus told George Connelly to keep close tabs on Tom. But he also tried to reassure his friend.
Korus had worked in small towns and big cities, he said. There was always an element of danger to the job, but the chances that something could go seriously wrong were lower in a place like Langlade County than in St. Paul, where his son had been on night patrol for six years without firing his weapon.
That would change just a few months later, with the sound of Jeff Korus shouting on the police scanner, followed by a flurry of gunshots.
As he reported for duty on a cool Friday night in September, Jeff Korus found himself surrounded by reminders of how easily a call could go wrong. A "Blue Lives Matter" flag hung on the wall of the St. Paul Police central district roll call room, its black stripe a symbol of officers killed in the line of duty. Beneath it was a poster featuring 50 mug shots and the title "2018 Most Active Gangsters." Patrol car keys rested in a bowl held by a stone figurine dubbed "the patron saint of pursuits." And underneath Korus's light blue uniform bulged a bulky ballistic vest.
"Extra patrol at Cherokee Park from 9 to midnight," Sgt. Jeremiah McQuay told Korus and six other patrolmen. "Neighbors are complaining that people are out there fighting, standing in front of cars and causing a ruckus."
Korus grabbed his AR-15 from the equipment room, walked outside to his squad car and thought about the call two years earlier that had upended his life.
At around 3:30 a.m. on May 9, 2016, Korus and his partner had just pulled into a gas station to grab some mid-shift caffeine when a call came over the radio of a man dragging a woman out of a nearby tow truck store at gunpoint.
"We've got shots fired," an officer suddenly had shouted over the radio.
As Korus pulled up to a small red house, gunfire crackled. His partner ran toward the woman, 49-year-old Beverly Flowers, who lay on the ground, bleeding and screaming for help.
Moments earlier, Jaffort Smith — a 33-year-old man who'd replaced his schizophrenia medication with methamphetamine — had shot Flowers in the face. By the time Korus arrived, Smith was hiding behind a garage, firing a handgun at the officers.
Korus took shelter behind a corner of the house. He doesn't remember screaming for Smith to drop the gun or, when Smith refused, the sound of his own Glock going off five times. What he does remember is the red vinyl siding at his cheek and Smith in his sights.
Korus and three other officers, all white, had shot Smith, who was black, at least a dozen times. Flowers, who survived but lost an eye, is also black.
Soon there was a swarm of other officers, paramedics and state investigators from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
"I'm OK," was all Korus could tell his fiancee, Elizabeth Nolden, when he rang her at 4 a.m. When she called his father, the retired cop began dialing his buddies, trying to piece together the shooting. Someone had uploaded a recording of the call online, and Dave Korus could hear his son shouting at Smith, then gunshots.
By then, Korus was in an office at the police station, where he sat for hours replaying the incident in his mind. After meeting with a union lawyer, he was taken to an interview room to answer questions from state investigators.
It wasn't until the adrenaline wore off a few days later, he said, that he realized, "I was basically being investigated for a homicide."
When authorities released the names of the four officers the following day, Korus worried that he would be next in the national spotlight. Smith was compared to Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray on Twitter. Protesters would later carry cardboard tombstones bearing his name in demonstrations against police brutality.
But the story quickly faded from the headlines, and Korus was told to return to work after only three days off. First, he had to meet with a St. Paul police psychologist — one of three mandatory meetings for officers involved in shootings.
"My head was still spinning," he said. "I didn't know what was going on."
His father also tried to help by taking him to the scene of the shooting before his first night back on patrol. But there was a gulf between the father who, during his 30 years as an officer, had never shot someone, and the son who in six years already had.
Although Jeff Korus would eventually be recommended for a medal of honor by his police chief, he stopped telling neighbors that he was an officer. After Ferguson, he had stopped driving to work in his uniform and tinted his car widows. Now he started carrying his concealed weapon everywhere — even to the grocery store.
Within a few weeks, his jaw began to lock up. He was grinding his teeth in his sleep.
Two months later, when a police officer in a St. Paul suburb fatally shot Philando Castile as he tried to show his license, the Twin Cities erupted in protests. Korus began to think about leaving the force, he said.
His jaw got worse, and his father sent him to a police psychologist specializing in the use of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing to treat trauma.
After three visits, Korus's symptoms had begun to subside when, on July 26, 2016, his dad called to say that Tom Connelly had just been involved in a fatal shooting.
For an hour, Tom Connelly watched through the sights of his AR-15 as Scot Minard begged officers to shoot him.
Minard's life was a mess. The 50-year-old had a long criminal record, mostly for theft, and had spent several years in prison. He struggled with addiction that only deepened after his daughter killed herself four years earlier. Police had recently begun investigating him again over a stolen gun, and Minard told friends he'd rather be shot than return to jail.
Then, on July 26, 2016, an officer spotted him driving a stolen car and pulled him over in Antigo, Wisconsin. Minard — drunk and high — stuck the stolen gun out the window and fired wildly before speeding off.
A 120-mph chase through the countryside had ended here: on a dead-end road at the edge of a field of grain as a family of seven huddled in a farmhouse basement nearby.
The officers closest to Minard, all white, pleaded with him to drop his weapon — their interactions were recorded by police and the videos were later released to The Post.
"We don't want to hurt you," said Joseph Husnick, the officer who'd stopped Minard. "Why don't you just show us your hands? Then everybody will put their guns down and you walk a little bit closer to us. So far you're lucky; nobody got hurt. Right?"
"You've got to think about your kids right now," added Lincoln County investigator Randy Ruleau. "Is this how you want your kids to remember you?"
Instead, Minard, who was also white, paced outside his car, smoking cigarettes and texting a friend goodbye. He told officers they'd have to kill him. Then, as an armored vehicle approached, he raised his rifle.
Husnick, Ruleau and another officer opened fire. Connelly also pulled his trigger. Minard fell to the dirt.
"Suicide by cop," his ex-wife, Tammy Minard, would later describe the shooting to The Post.
The standoff was the first time in more than a decade that an officer from Connelly's department had fired their weapon at a suspect.
Connelly had been a deputy for just six months. And he'd embraced wearing a badge.
"Every time I talked to him, he had a story," including one that ended with a suspect's car in a lake, said Tim Gensler, the cousin who inspired Connelly to go into law enforcement. "We'd call him a traffic Nazi; he loved to go out and do traffic stops and get into things."
But that eagerness began to take a toll. Within a few weeks, Connelly was called to a traffic accident in which a local teacher had been struck by a truck while cycling to work.
"Tom was the first one on the scene, and he tried to resuscitate her, but she was already dead," recalled his mother, Barb Connelly, who is no longer married to Tom's father. It was one of the few times he discussed his job with her, but he seemed haunted by the accident. "He said, 'You know, Mom, she did everything right. She wore a helmet, she was on the side of the road, she was riding safely, she had the vest and all the color-coded garb, and she still got hit.' "
He soon saw other bodies, mostly car crashes and overdoses — so many that co-workers gave Connelly a macabre moniker: "Fatal Tom."
On April 23, 2016, Connelly was patrolling near Antigo High School when a former student opened fire on a group of teenagers leaving their prom.
Antigo police officer Andy Hopfensperger spotted 18-year-old Jakob Wagner, holding a rifle.
When Wagner wouldn't drop his weapon, Hopfensperger shot him three times, including once in the head.
Connelly was the second officer there. As Hopfensperger tried in vain to save the teenager he'd just wounded, Connelly raced around the school to see if there was a second shooter.
Three months later, Connelly was finishing up his 12-hour overnight shift when he heard Husnick call for backup and joined the chase of Minard.
Of the 26 rounds officers fired that morning, only one came from Connelly. Even so, he was put on paid administrative leave as state investigators sifted through the evidence.
Connelly seemed shaken when he told his girlfriend about the shooting that evening. He began to cry before quickly burying his emotions.
"He didn't bring it up again," recalled Brittany Thrall. "We went on like it was a normal night."
When he went over to his mother's for dinner, Connelly joked, "Looks like I might have some time off." But he said little else about the shooting.
As the days of leave wore on, however, Connelly's mood darkened.
"He was really stressed out in the time he was off," said his younger brother, Jack, 19.
"It was a long time to have a potential homicide charge hanging over his head," Gensler said. "He didn't even know if he hit the guy."
He hadn't, concluded state investigators, who ruled in October 2016 that the shooting was justified.
Connelly returned to patrol after two months off. Almost immediately, he joined a search for a missing 3-year-old boy, who was found alive the next morning. The incident — and others involving children — weighed on him, said younger sister Laura Bailey, a nurse at a children's hospital in Milwaukee.
"I don't know the extent of the tools he was given to cope with these kinds of things," she said.
Then, on April 9, 2017, his beloved 6-year-old cousin, Gracie, drowned during a birthday pool party just a few miles from where Connelly lived.
"I never heard him cry," his mother recalled. "But when I had to tell him about Gracie, he sobbed. He was absolutely devastated."
Weeks after the little girl's funeral, Connelly was promoted to sergeant. But his relationship with his girlfriend was unraveling, partly, Thrall said, because his job had left him afraid to have kids.
In September, he surprised his superiors by giving up his sergeant's rank to work during the day. He seemed exhausted, recalled Sgt. Kevin Ison, who responded to an eviction call with Connelly.
"He said he didn't know if he could do this anymore," Ison said. "Job pressures, internal pressures, I think it was all ganging up on him at once."
A few days later, Bailey was in town visiting their mother. She and Connelly had made plans to have lunch, but when his sister texted him, he said he was busy.
Upset, Bailey invited him over for dinner, but Connelly — who'd always dropped everything to see her — never came out.
Instead, he began drinking. Thrall came over, and they got into an argument. When she left, Connelly went into his basement, where he kept his guns.
As soon as he picked up the phone, Dave Korus could tell that something was wrong. All George Connelly could do was sob.
Tom, he said, had killed himself.
Suicide catches many families by surprise, but experts say police officers are often particularly adept at hiding the warning signs. They are practiced at burying their emotions on the job. And as one of the few professions where mental health is a prerequisite, police have extra incentive to stay quiet, said Miriam Heyman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, who has studied police suicides.
"They are scared of losing their guns if they speak openly about their mental illness," she said, "and that fear is not unfounded."
As a result, many departments develop a culture of silence.
Connelly had hidden his distress even from those closest to him.
"He was just so steady that I didn't worry that he was going to do something stupid," Bailey said. "That wasn't even on my radar."
The family had first heard the news from a friend, not the police, and so for several frantic hours they tried to confirm if it was true.
But then Gensler had gone to his cousin's house and found it surrounded by fellow officers.
George Connelly insisted on driving up from Milwaukee to clean up the scene of the suicide himself. He stopped at a dollar store on the way and bought equipment. The next morning, he went down into the basement and scrubbed his son's blood.
"I cleaned up a thousand messes of his when he was a kid," he said. "I wanted to be the one to clean up his last one."
Barb Connelly went through his things. She found a letter commending his actions during the prom shooting and the black plaque praising his bravery during the deadly standoff.
"I don't think anyone in the family knew they existed," she said.
She found the bike in the attic he'd stopped riding after the teacher's cycling accident and a single printed photo of Tom holding Gracie as a toddler. When she searched his computer, she found something else that surprised her: a meme he'd saved of a squad car with an officer inside.
"Our job is keeping 99 percent of the population safe from the other one percent," it said. "The problem is we have to spend half our lives with that one percent, and the better we do our job, the less the other 99 think they need us. They are clueless. The only ones paying attention on the streets are the cops and the criminals. Everyone else is just going somewhere or shopping."
It was a side of her son she had never seen.
When Dave Korus told George that many officers felt that way and that many had suicidal thoughts, Barb decided that even though the retired police commander had never met her son, he should deliver the eulogy.
"I want people to hear this," she told him. "I want people to understand how tormented these guys get after just years and years of this drip, drip, drip of evil and unappreciation."
Connelly's parents worried, however, about how his department would react.
"Are you ashamed of him for what he did?" his father had asked the officers who came to the door after the suicide.
"God, no," one answered. "This could have been any one of us."
- - -
On the morning of the funeral, the entire Langlade County Sheriff's Department came out in uniform. So, too, did Antigo police and first responders from Oneida County, where Connelly lived. So many officers attended that two neighboring counties were called in to cover.
Among the more than 100 officers that filed through the church and saluted the urn and plaque were the three other officers who'd fired that day, two of whom did not respond to requests to talk for this article. The third, Joseph Husnick, initially agreed to speak but changed his mind.
"It's been a long road since July of '16 and no matter what I share in my story with you, it would not be close enough for anyone to be able to experience or even grasp what us [law enforcement officers] do on a daily basis," he wrote in an email. "I'm proud of my boys in blue and have chosen to speak only with them and my wife about the incident."
After the funeral, an honor guard carried the ashes to the cemetery, where they were put atop a grave right next to Gracie's. The officers touched a flag to the urn three times and handed it to Connelly's mother.
Then it was time for the last call.
"Langlade calling 444," said a dispatcher who'd gotten to know Connelly during long nights on the radio. There was silence.
"Sergeant Thomas Connelly, you are now cleared to end tour," she said. "May you rest in peace. We have the watch from here."