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About the Author
Carol X. Vinzant is editor of BusinessWeek Stock Trader and has written for Fortune, Slate, Spy, and The Washington Post.
Carol X. Vinzant is editor of BusinessWeek Stock Trader and has written for Fortune, Slate, Spy, and The Washington Post. She is the author of Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
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Lawyers, Guns, and Money
One Man's Battle with the Gun Industry
By Carol X. Vinzant
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2005 Carol X. Vinzant
All rights reserved.
MURDER ON THE LONG ISLAND RAILROAD5:33: DECEMBER 7, 1993
The sound pulled Tom McDermott up from reading his newspaper. The Long Island Railroad train chugged away from the New Hyde Park station, the first stop outside New York City.
It was December 7, 1993, so even at 6 P.M. it was already dark. It was cold, but people on this crowded 5:33 P.M. train bound for Port Jefferson still clung to fall and their overcoats instead of trading them in for winter's down jackets.
Tom, 50, looked the part of an Irish-Catholic family man. He had the general look of John McCain, if the Arizona senator were a typical suburban commuter: suit, briefcase, trench coat, blue eyes, receding white hair. Tom wanted to return to the New York Times without investigating the sound. On the train this morning he had somehow missed a story about one of his cases. He was the lawyer fighting a tiny Long Island company that was trying to hang onto its contract to build a phone system across Georgia, in the former Soviet Union. He was now excited to be able to show his wife Rosemary the story when he got home to Garden City, just a couple of stops away.
Tom used to see his cases in the paper all the time, back when he was a white-collar crime prosecutor. He had gone after the mob on New York City's waterfront and crooked politicians on Long Island. But his days of socially momentous cases were long gone. For the past decade he'd had a small private practice and was counsel to the New York State Thoroughbred Racing Capital Investment Fund, an unheard-of agency that financed and supervised improvements at New York's three thoroughbred racetracks. It was just a steady job to support his family.
Those damn boys, throwing rocks at the train from the platform again, Tom thought to himself. And at this time of year.
McDermott had arrived at Penn Station just in time to take the 5:33 train. By the time he got to the platform, the crowd was three deep in front of him. This was a standard Long Island Railroad commuter train: two sets of doors that opened on both sides, forming two vestibules that divided the train into small front and back sections and one large middle seating area.
McDermott had gotten on at the rear door of the third car. He had turned right, toward the back section of the car. That back area was too crowded, though, so he turned around and got a window seat in the third row of the middle section. He was now dimly aware of some commotion in the rear, where he had tried to sit. ... As the train chugged forward he was on the right (or south) side of the car. The cars all have two-seaters on one side and three-seaters on the other. Tom was in a three-seater that faced toward the rear of the train. Two Asian men had taken the seats next to him.
Suddenly a hulking man in a suit planted his foot on the armrest of Tom's vinyl seat as he scrambled forward in the car. The man sounded no warning; he just lurched onward, clutching his briefcase and nearly whacking the head of the Asian man sitting on the aisle end of Tom's seat. There was more commotion from the back of the train.
A crush of business-suited passengers followed the lurching briefcase man. They crammed into the aisle. No one was shouting or screaming. They were just frantically, instinctively pushing away from some danger in the back of the car that the rest of the passengers couldn't see. This went beyond typical New York rush-hour rudeness. These scrambling people were the same normally methodical Garden City commuters McDermott saw everyday; to be the first off the train at Merillon Avenue, they got in the third car (the first two overhung the small station and didn't open there) and anticipated their stop by lurking in the doorways. They were the only ones who understood someone was shooting a gun at passengers. Everyone else's view was blocked by the ads covering the vestibule's plexiglass partitions.
McDermott normally would have been among these people standing up. He wasn't today only because he had driven his car to Mineola station, the next express stop, to catch an earlier train. McDermott usually felt lazy if he bothered to take the car to the Merillon Avenue stop because it was just a 5-minute walk from his house.
Finally McDermott recognized the sound as gunshots. As an army specialist, fourth-class, in Vietnam, he had realized why people said "the crack of gunfire." That's what the sound was, like a firecracker. Not just a pop. Not a boom, either. More electric. An overpoweringly loud but short crack that stings your ears.
The mind works in funny ways. When it is confronted with an impossibly horrible event, it tries to soothe itself by coming up with mild and acceptable explanations. McDermott explained the gunfire to himself as a shoot-out. His mind instantly jumped to what he figured was the most likely scenario for gunshots on a train: police confronting a suspect who pulled a gun.
Despite the continued gunshots, McDermott tried to calm people down: "Don't panic, don't panic," he said.
He slowly prepared to get ready to join the throng pushing forward. He worried about a ricochet or stray bullet, but that was all the danger he thought he faced. The man who nearly got decapitated by the briefcase went into the aisle, then the man next to McDermott. Now it was McDermott's turn. No one could move, though, because the aisle was jammed. McDermott was the last one in the line.
He looked backward and saw a neatly dressed, pudgy black man holding a gun in the vestibule. The man was serenely calm. His jeans had been ironed so fastidiously they had a crease in them. His black shoes were shiny, and he wore a clean tan jacket.
McDermott could not see past the man who turned out to be Colin Ferguson, or he would have seen blood splashed on the windows and walls. The partitions hid McDermott's view of commuters who were minutes from home, who were now slumped over in their seats, covered in gore. The gunman's bulky frame blocked the sight of Kevin McCarthy, shot in the head and leaning on his now-dead father, Dennis. McDermott could not see this hideous back section of the train car, where Ferguson had done the most damage and where McDermott had tried to sit when he first boarded the train.
All McDermott could see was a man calmly reloading his Ruger 9 mm pistol. Undercover cop, McDermott's mind told him. McDermott was about to ask what was going on when Ferguson met his gaze with a blank stare.
Then Ferguson lifted up the gun and pointed it at McDermott. Only then did Ferguson stop being a cop in McDermott's mind and become a threat. The two stared at each other for seconds.
Oh my God, he's going to shoot me, McDermott finally realized.
The army had taught McDermott one sure thing about getting shot at: Don't give the shooter a clean, full, head-on target. At the last second he flipped himself sideways and forward. He curled his shoulder under.
The bullet burst into McDermott's left shoulder from behind with such force it pushed him to the floor and threw him two rows forward from where he had been sitting. He tried to crawl under the seat. He tried to hide but his feet still lay out in the aisle. All he could see was Ferguson's polished shoes and meticulous jeans approach. If McDermott moved his feet he might call attention to himself. He thought Ferguson was stalking him, standing over him, preparing to shoot him through the train seat. So he decided he had better stay still and play dead. He expected to die anyway. He said a short prayer: "God, make it quick."
McDermott thought about how he would not get to say goodbye to his two teenage children, Katie and Ryan. He had gotten angry with Ryan because Ryan left a cousin's wedding early and the two hadn't spoken in days. What a stupid way to spend his last days.
Then Tom closed his eyes. The world became dark, as black as a pool of oil, yet calm. He was certain he was going to die, but he was overcome with the unexpected sense that everything would be all right even if he did.
McDermott heard the gunfire and realized he hadn't been shot again. Instead Ferguson had shot two people hiding under the next seat forward. Then McDermott heard Ferguson's steps moving on again. As soon as McDermott realized the shooter had gone by, he started crawling away under the seats. He wanted to get to the back of the car to pull the emergency brake, the only thing he could think of to stop the shooting. The train car itself was helping Ferguson hold these hostages; if it stopped, at least people could jump off. Pulling the brake would certainly let the conductor know something was wrong.
Now that Ferguson was in the car's middle section, everyone could see him calmly walking up the aisle, shooting anyone he found. Terrified, people hid under seats or tried to. Some seats jammed with people piled on each other, searching for the safety of the floor. They knew they would not make it through the throng of commuters trying to wedge themselves through the door to the second car, where passengers were oblivious to the shooting.
"This is real life, people," someone said. The shooting was not like anything anyone had seen in the movies. No one screamed or cried out loud. The passengers were stuck in slow motion, just pushing to get to the front of the car as Ferguson closed in behind them, grinning and systematically shooting people. He did not just shoot into the crowd, which would have both killed and terrorized. Instead he picked his victims one by one, seemingly relishing their anguish.
McDermott continued to crawl under the seats. Get away, get away, was his only thought. When he got to the last seat in the middle section, he stood up and scrambled to the back of the car. Only then did he see the people who were shot, slouched in their seats. One bloody man lay on the lap of the man sitting next to him, who had also been shot. Miraculously, one old woman was unharmed in that section. She rocked in her seat, head in her hands, mumbling over and over, "God help us, God help us, God help us."
Ferguson continued shooting. Now he was nearing the front set of doors.
McDermott searched for the emergency brake, but he couldn't find it. Up front, Frank Barker, thirty-six, pleaded with Ferguson for his life. He said that he had seven children. He held up his hand between his head and Ferguson's gun.
There was no mercy. The bullet pierced the man's hand and grazed his ear. He was the last one shot before Ferguson ran out of bullets again.
Ferguson had shot his way up to the front vestibule. As soon as he paused, a man held up a briefcase as a shield and charged him. Two other guys helped tackle Ferguson, take away the gun, and hold him in a seat. Ferguson suddenly turned calm and docile. He put up no resistance. "I've done a bad thing," he said.
McDermott finally found the emergency brake, but by then the train had stopped at Merillon Avenue, and the doors opened to suburban Garden City.
The shooting was over less than three minutes after it had started. In that short time Ferguson managed to get off thirty rounds. He shot at close range and seldom missed. He had shot twenty-five people, and six lay dying or dead.
A FAMILY REACTS TO THE SHOOTING: DECEMBER 7, 1993
At first one policeman, then dozens converged on the Merillon Avenue train station.
The station looks like any other you'd find in a suburban bedroom community. Each train track has its own concrete platform a few steps off the ground, and each platform has a few ads and a small glass and steel shelter. The station isn't in a downtown area; there's just a parking lot, a couple of businesses, and then the suburban houses of Garden City, a village of about twenty thousand middle-class or upper-middle-class commuters, mostly married white couples with kids. One-third are Irish-American.
This train splattered in blood was not expected. Kathleen Giblin, an EMT who happened to be riding in another car on the train, ran up to treat the wounded. The smell of blood overwhelmed her. "It just looked to me like someone took a hose and painted the car with red paint," she said.
The cops weren't sure what had happened. Looking at the incredible carnage, they first thought there must be another gunman.
Barker, a Garden City technology manager and the last man Ferguson shot, ran off the train and onto Nassau Boulevard, a usually calm street with just a few one-story businesses. The sight of the bleeding, frenzied man, who had been shot through the thumb, arm, leg, and mouth, was so inexplicable that the first few cars avoided him. Finally he flagged someone down who took him to the hospital. "I wasn't waiting for an ambulance," Barker later said to Tom.
The rescue workers walked through the car, finding some passengers already dead and some just sitting motionless among them, physically unhurt but in shock.
Tom stumbled out of the back of the third car and walked onto the concrete platform. Dazed, he went back in the train car through the front set of doors. This was only a couple minutes after the shooting stopped and Tom saw two young women, one white, one Filipino, on the floor with head wounds. The white woman was clutching her keys in her hand.
A man came in from the second car and said "Oh, God, Oh, God. I've gotta get help." Before he left, he guided Tom to a seat. Tom gave the second man who came by his home phone number and asked him to tell his wife Rosemary that he was shot but okay. A third dazed man came by, took off his tie, and made it into a tourniquet for Tom's left arm. Next, a man came on the train, announced he was a police officer, though he wore no uniform, and then started to leave.
"Where are you going?" Tom, still dazed, called after him. LIRR Police Det. Andrew Roderick, who had been waiting at the station for his wife, was getting his handcuffs from his car. Roderick came back, handcuffed Ferguson, and walked him out of the car. As he passed a few feet away, Tom yelled out, "It's him, he's the one who did it." Tom sat in shock on the train, bleeding from the shoulder, watching as police officers moved up and down the aisle with medical equipment. The man who had put the tourniquet on Tom's arm returned and led Tom off the train to the platform railing, where a line of shooting victims was forming. A woman wearing a badge nearly tipping off its chain approached. She said that she was a cop and also a nurse, and she wanted Tom to take off his jacket to check out his wound.
"Are you really a nurse?" he argued, suspicious of her precarious badge.
When she said she was, he took off his trench coat. She inspected the wound with her penlight and declared that he would be okay. It seemed like hours, given all that was going on, but really it was only about five minutes since the shooting.
A uniformed police officer stood at the end of the train platform directing the traffic of injured bodies to seven Long Island hospitals so that no hospital would be overwhelmed. Many victims wound up nearby at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola or at Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow.
McDermott thought of his wife Rosemary, whom he called Roe. Rosemary had grown up in Garden City. She attended Marymount University, a Catholic college in Virginia, then went to work as a secretary on Wall Street. She met Tom when they were both out with friends drinking in New York in the spring of 1970. Back then Tom had a full head of brown hair and an athletic build. He was just home from Vietnam. They married within a year. She was now an administrative assistant to the principal of a local grammar school and the mother of their two children, Ryan, seventeen, and Katie, who had just turned twenty.
Rosemary hated driving outside Garden City. When the policeman told McDermott he was going to South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, way down in a residential neighborhood near the south shore of Long Island, Tom rebelled. It wasn't even that far — fewer than ten miles — but Tom focused on the mundane part of the situation, not yet fully grasping the enormity of the tragedy.
"I can't go to that hospital. My wife will never find it," he told the cop.
The cop ignored him.
"If you don't send me at least to Mercy Hospital I'll get up off this gurney."
"Okay, fine," the cop said. "You're going to Mercy."
Jennifer Logan, a CBS television reporter who lived up the block from the McDermotts, had run to the train station with her camera. She captured McDermott's bizarre, animated exchange with the cop. In the subsequent TV coverage, the tape was played so often it became a family joke: Tom, moments after getting shot, arguing with a police officer about the logistics of his emergency medical care.
Within ten minutes of the shooting, Tom was in an ambulance. The ambulance back doors opened as it sped up the hill, but the paramedics caught the gurney so that Tom didn't roll out.
Excerpted from Lawyers, Guns, and Money by Carol X. Vinzant. Copyright © 2005 Carol X. Vinzant. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Shooting * A Miracle, A Mission: Finding Purpose in Tragedy * Walking Victim Impact Statement: Tom Speaks Out * McDermott vs. the NRA: The Fight for Local, State, and Federal Gun Laws * The Courts: Colin Ferguson's Victims Seek Justice * Firing Back: Taking on the Entire Gun Industry * Follow the Money: The Lorcin Bankruptcy * The Chase: Unraveling an Insurance Scam * Tightening the Noose: More Documents, More Cases * Guns: Just Like Any Other Business