Photo Credit. Atlantic County Civil Courthouse Atlantic City by LourdesCam Licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0. Changes made. Converted from TIF to JPEG

In June and July of 2023, Ventnor City (Atlantic County, NJ) reached settlements in two separate lawsuits, each for $1 million. These lawsuits stemmed from a tragic incident in which a woman took her own life using a Glock handgun issued to her boyfriend, who then served as a sergeant with Ventnor City’s police department.

One lawsuit was filed by the woman’s parents, Kevin and Carol McDowell, on behalf of the woman’s estate and the other by her adult son, Ryan Strazzeri. Both lawsuits allege that the woman, Kelly Ann McDowell, who had been previously treated for severe depression, took her own life on April 17, 2017 using Ventnor City Police Sergeant Frank O’Neill’s .45 caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol. O’Neill allegedly left his unsecured service weapon, against the police department’s regulations and contrary to his training, on the floor of the couple’s bedroom closet before departing on a “hastily-arranged trip to Florida.” The weapon was reportedly loaded with 13 bullets including one in the chamber.

Strazzeri, who was 18 at the time of his mother’s death, heard the gunshot and discovered the heartbreaking scene in his mother’s room, according to his lawsuit.

Both settlement agreements contain provisions for paying a portion of the settlement amount out over time as structured settlements.

According to the City’s August 7, 2023 response to my records request, O’Neill is presently a Lieutenant assigned to patrol as a shift commander. His salary is $129,346.00 and he has served for 22 years.

The two cases are captioned McDowell v. Ventnor, et al, Docket No. ATL-L-793-18 and Strazzeri v. Ventnor, et al, Docket No. ATL-L-794-18. The estate’s attorney was Paul R. D’Amato of Egg Harbor Township and Strazzeri’s was Oliver T. Barry of Wildwood. The lawsuits and settlement agreements are on-line here and here, respectively.

None of the lawsuits’ allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreements both state that paying the settlement amount does constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Ventor City, O’Neill or another other city official or employee. All that is known for sure is that Ventnor City or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay out the $2 million than take the matters to trial. Perhaps their decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]