Newtown families form bonds with troopers that go beyond official duties
Hartford - As the family of slain Sandy Hook school psychologist Mary Sherlach mourned her death, Trooper Orlando "Lonny" Mo was the one who brought back her car and personal belongings. He escorted her husband and daughters to a meeting with the president, he answered the door at the family's house, and at the funeral he embraced her husband, Bill Sherlach, who told Mo he was like a brother.
Mo's detail with the family ended on the day of the funeral service, but only officially. Like many of his fellow troopers tasked with aiding the families of the Newtown massacre victims, he has stayed in close contact with those he helped through some of their darkest days.
"Our trooper liaison, Trooper Lonny Mo, is now and will forever be a part of our family," Bill Sherlach said. "I still get phone calls, 'How are you doing, what is going on?' "
In a first-of-its-kind program, the Connecticut State Police assigned troopers and some local officers to each victim's family following the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 first-graders and six women. There was no blueprint for it. As the families were plunged into grief and the small town became clogged with media satellite trucks, the troopers were told to provide whatever the families needed.
The troopers spent long hours at the families' homes, supporting logistics for out-of-town relatives coming for funerals and providing updates in the case. At least one officer went out in his cruiser to buy milk for children who wanted cereal.
For several parents, the troopers' presence was a tremendous comfort.
Jennifer Hubbard, who lost her 6-year-old daughter, Catherine, said she was still in a grief-stricken fog when she first met her family's trooper. Over the next few days, he made such a difference that she feels Catherine had a hand somehow in bringing him to her family. She said their son, Frederick, lights up when he sees the trooper.
"He watched us crumble, and he never cracked," she said. "He is now part of our family."
The parents of 6-year-old victim Josephine Gay often text and email with their trooper liaison and another trooper they met the day of the shooting. One donated his pay from the day of the shooting to a memorial fund they set up in their daughter's name, benefiting families with autistic children.
"Who would have ever guessed that state troopers could also serve as therapists?" Michele Gay said. "Just their presence, their strength, the way that they were there for us was enormously comforting and still is."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he and a state police colonel decided within hours of the tragedy to assign the trooper liaisons and, judging from the letters he has received from the families, it was absolutely the right decision.
"It made a difficult situation a tiny bit easier," Malloy said in an interview. "We needed someone to get them through what needed to be gotten through."
It was a delicate, emotional assignment for the troopers. Ian Hockley, whose 6-year-old son Dylan was killed, said his family's trooper brought his own son to play with their surviving son, and he became so tightly involved with the family that at times he cried with them.
Mo, 57, was so deeply moved by the tragedy that it inspired his first tattoo. With clouds in between rays of sun, the tattoo on his right forearm says: "6 heroes, 20 angels," along with the date of the shooting.
"I wanted people to know how profound that day was to me," said Mo, who was among the troopers inside a room with all the families when they were told their loved ones had died.
A 30-year veteran of the state police, Mo said the only similar experience was a liaison program created after the Sept. 11 attacks, when families of Connecticut victims relied on transportation from state police cruisers to get into New York City. But nothing really compares to his connection with the Sherlach family.
Some days, he would spend hours at the Sherlach house. Other days he would leave them in the company of friends. One of Sherlach's grown daughters is named Maura but goes by the nickname "Mo," and he gave her an old nametag that she was wearing regularly. He also gave Bill Sherlach a state police pin he has worn to legislative hearings and other events related to the tragedy.
At the funeral, Mo escorted the family and stood watch over them during the service. As the service concluded, Mo and Bill Sherlach hugged.
"Bill said, 'You're like a brother. You're always welcome at my home,' " Mo said.
Mo made three trips to bring Mary Sherlach's property back from the school, including her car, and he later felt awkward about possibly intruding on such a personal space.
"Mary drove the car to school, and I'm the next person to sit in the car," he said. "I think about it now."
The state police have had group sessions for the troopers to decompress, and Mo said they have been helpful for them to get out their pain and share it among themselves.
Bill Sherlach said he is grateful to Mo for taking such care of his family.
"I can't say enough of what these guys were able to do," he said.
Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.
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