One Summer Night
by Julie Wallace
Julie Wallace was married to Police Officer Ellis Parr
who became a victim of suicide on July 16, 1994.
The day was just like any other summer Saturday. We woke up late, ate a late breakfast and headed for the pool. It was hot and the pool water felt wonderful. Since he was off that day from the Police Department where he had worked for the last 4 years, he had volunteered to work extra duty at one of the local fast food restaurants doing security. Of course, the city allowed the officers who did extra duty to use their city vehicles, wear their uniforms and equipment including the city issued weapon. He got dressed about 5:30pm and went on to do his 4 hours of security work to earn extra money. He had 3 children from his 1st marriage. They lived with their mother but he constantly watched over them. Their mother led a very wild, promiscuous life and often the kids were left alone. Fortunately, the children came to visit us every other weekend but this was not their weekend to visit. My daughter from my first marriage was with me though. Any other weekend she would have been with her father but he had broken his ankle the week before. She was 3 at the time and she adored “Mr. Ellis.” The situation with my 3 step children had been tense. Their mother was dating a man who played in a band on the coast of our state and had mentioned plans to move there. Ellis was quite concerned that if they did leave that he could not keep an eye on them, but so far they were still in town. Their mother had managed to turn the oldest of the children, age 15, totally against his father and almost had the middle child, age 11, against him. Of course, we figured that this was just part of her way of getting back at him for divorcing her. The stress level was high for him. I knew this, but I had no idea as to what extent the stress level had reached. Not until that summer night, July 16, 1994.
Ellis was a tall, handsome, good man and full of life. He came from a small town and was an only child. His mother still living, epithamize the picture of an old Southern woman. He was all I could have wanted. Having come from an abusive first marriage, he was a dream come true. Never was a cross word spoken between us. I worshiped the very ground he walked on. He was funny and smart. He was a good police officer. He always wore his vest and seemed to be very cautious. He loved my child as his own. To me, he was wonderful. He was always smiling and joking and never did I realize he suffered from a deep depression. I only saw the side of my husband that he wanted me to see. Not until that summer night, July 16, 1994.
My daughter and I often went to the restaurant when he worked security and ate dinner with him which we did this particular night. As I said, we had a wonderful, relaxing day. It was a perfect day. He went on to the restaurant and we got there about an hour later. He was sitting in his car watching a group of teenagers who’d gathered in the parking lot as they usually did. As long as the teenagers did not cause any problems he left them alone. He loved the kids. We had chaperoned the D.A.R.E. Dance a couple of months back and I could really tell the impact he had on the teenagers. He was fair to them and did not give them problems unless they were causing a problem. He would get out of his car usually at the restaurant and talk with them, find out how they were doing and let them know he was there if they needed anything. If there were ever any problems, though, he dealt with them firmly and by the book. They all loved “Mr. Parr”. So, when I drove up and saw him just sitting in his car and not out with the kids as usual, I was a little concerned that something was wrong, but really did not worry about it. He passed it off as being tired from swimming all day. That was good enough for me. We went inside and ordered supper and sat down to eat. I noticed he was not the happy-go-lucky man who’d left our home that evening. He was quiet and seemed to be disturbed about something. I asked him repeatedly “What is wrong.” He replied over and over, “Nothing.”
After we ate, rather my child and I ate (he barely touched his dinner) we walked back outside to his car. He was backed in the parking lot and I had pulled my car in with a parking place separating our vehicles. Still he would not tell me what was going on. I told him I loved him and I left. I got almost home and turned around and went back. Something was not right. I could feel it. When I got back he was still sitting in the car talking on his cell phone. When I pulled in, I asked him who was he talking to and he said he was talking to his mother. I again questioned his saddness, his being withdrawn. Still, I got the same response. I was really disturbed seeing him like this. I tried to call my father to get him to come there and talk to Ellis but Daddy was not home. They were fairly close and I thought Ellis might talk to him. Finally, as my daughter grew more and more restless in the back sheet of my car, I realized I needed to get her home. I asked him one final time, what is wrong. This time I got a different response—“I only have one child and she really doesn’t belong to me.” I told him that I knew there were problems with his children but that one day they would realize that they were wrong in behaving like they were and that they were under the influence of an angry mother and this would pass. He simply said “I love you and I will see you at 10”. I told him I loved him too and turned around to back out of the parking space. That is when I heard the shot. I turned around and saw what I still see so clearly in my mind---my husband sitting in his police car with his head bleeding. I looked around and saw noone. I got out of the car and ran over to him. There was blood everywhere. Never have I seen anything so horrible. I called his name—no response. I was and still am an EMT, yet everything I learned faded away. I could not even remember the phone number to call to get help until I looked over at his car and saw the words “Call 911”…I phoned 911 from my cell phone but I never did even tell them my name or anything. My child was in the car seat screaming. Then everything went black.
The next memory I have is sitting on the ground against the brick wall of the restaurant seeing all the lights and ambulance and fire trucks and police cars. There were people everywhere. Someone had called my mom and dad and by that time, thank God, they were home. They were there beside me. Momma was holding my daughter and Daddy was crying. The next memory I have is being in the back seat of my parents Maxima and looking up and seeing the red lights of the ambulance in front of us. We arrived at the hospital and my daddy got me inside before they took Ellis out of the ambulance. It seemed like an eternity before anyone told me anything. A police officer had taken my mother and daughter to my grandparents and then brought my mother back to the hospital. Finally, the doctor came in. Ellis had a major head injury from the shot of the 9mm Smith and Weston semiautomatic weapon he had used. They were gonna fly him out to another, larger hospital where a neurosurgeon would be waiting. Daddy had already located all 3 of his kids and called the police in the town where their mother was visiting her boyfriend and they located her in a bar down there. There were police everywhere at the hospital, asking me questions. All I know is I sat there praying to God to let him live. I remember people there but I have no idea who they were. The helicopter that would take Ellis to the other hospital never came. Time went by. It seemed like forever. Ellis’s mother was on her way from the town she lived in, 45 miles away. Daddy had a state trooper friend there and he called him to bring her there. At 10:22, my daddy walked in, followed by the Chief, followed by the doctor. I knew. Ellis had died. It was a total nightmare. It was like I was having a bad dream and in a few minutes, I would wake up and be in my bed and he would be there and all would be OK. But that never did happen. It just got worse and worse.
I got to my mother’s house at 3am that morning. The forensic people came from 90 miles away and took him to have a forensic autopsy which proved he did fire the gun that took his life. His mom got there too late. I can even remember what my daughter and I were wearing that night, but I can’t remember the sequence of events that took place over the next few days. There were a swarm of people in and out of my parents house but I never saw their faces. Only blures and faded away voices. I remember the police officers with their black bands across their badges. But I just sat in front of the window watching and waiting for him to come. I knew that at any moment, I would see car 17 pull in the driveway. But it never did. My doctor came and put me on some kind of medicine I don’t remember but it did not calm me down. The following day, the Chief and the Captain came over early in the morning. I remember sitting at my parents kitchen table with them on either side of me talking about things I did not have any interest in until one of them said, “Was he still going to see the psychiatrist and taking the medication?” I told them I had no idea what they were talking about and then they said “Well, I guess we should have followed up but we didn’t”. Then they left. The wake and the funeral were nice. There were so many people I could not breathe. I just wanted it to be over. I cannot tell you how many of his co-workers said “I knew he would do something like this. We told them but they never listened.” I guess noone realized the extensity of his depression, especially me.
So, there I was. I remember the flag ceremony, the firing of the rifles and the singing of “Amazing Grace” and “In the Garden”. I later found out that Ellis’s ex wife had called him on his cell phone earlier in the evening while he was on the way to his security job and informed him she was moving the next week, taking the kids and that his kids hated him and he would never see them again. I guess it was more than he could take. The reason behind Ellis’s death is something he took with him. We have speculated but noone really knows.
For weeks, I had a hard time getting up in the morning. My mother would have to physically drag me out of bed. I was out of work for a month. I just did not have the energy or will to go on. I was angry—I was devastated—I was lonely—I blamed everyone for his death. I blamed everyone including God, including the police department, including his ex wife, and myself. It was not until after extensive counseling that I began to blame him. I remember the counselor telling me that if someone had murdered Ellis that I would have a right to be angry and blame that person. In reality, someone did murder Ellis. He murdered himself. At that point I began to heal.
The reason I am writing this is because now I realize where my husband was failed. He was failed by the system. There are so many law enforcement officers who suffer from mental illness that never receive the help they need. I wonder sometimes if Ellis had received the help he should have gotton, if the administration had followed up, would he be alive today. I have no answer. In doing some research over the last 5 years, I have been astonished at the rising numbers of police officer suicides and rate of mental illness. Now, these are the cases of mental illnesses that are reported. Just think of the ones that aren’t. If a police officer goes to his supervisor and says, “I need help” they take his gun, take him off the street and put him behind a desk. This is degrading and humiliating to them. They already have a low self esteem related to the depression and fear the outcome of reaching out for help.
As for me, I am since remarried. I remarried in 1996 to another police officer. He has 19 years in law enforcement and was my friend at the time of Ellis’s death. He was also Ellis’s friend. It was a hard decision to remarry a cop. Being a cops wife isolates you in a sense. The only friends you usually have are other cops and their wives. Would you believe that one officer even asked me out to a movie the night after the funeral of my husband. I could not believe it. I definitely found out which ones were loyal to their fellow officers. I could not ask for a better life than I have now. My husband loves me and he loves my child. We have an understanding about Ellis. He understands that Ellis is part of my life and always will be. That I loved Ellis but I also love my husband. He has visited the cemetary with me, visited Ellis’s mother with me and been supportive. I felt extremely guilty about getting involved with my husband now. Finally, I came to the point that Ellis did not kill me too. He could if I let him, but for my sake and the sake of my child, I could not let that happen.
Police suicide is very prevalent in our nation. I think mainly it is attributed to the financial strains of being a police officer, the bad that they see on the street and the problems that are individual to police officer. Ellis did not have the strength to overcome them. Sometimes, the go to drugs, alcohol and domestic violence and, of course, suicide. I am still very angry with him for committing suicide. I have never understood, nor will I, what was so bad and could not be fixed that he thought the only way out was to take his own life. Why in front of me? Why in front of my child? I have concluded that I need to accept what happened and not ask questions. However, even after 5 years, I often think about it and wonder yet still, WHY?? I have opened up a new life. My husband now is much older than me and settled. He put me through college a few years ago and we have a good life. I love him with all my heart.
I think we need to examine our own husbands/spouses/significant others and let them know that someone is there for him. There is so much that they go through during a shift day after day. They see the scum of the earth. They are made fun of, ridiculed and the first to be persecuted if something goes wrong. They risk their lives, yet they rarely get a thank you. So, why did I marry another police officer? Well, I guess it is because that is all I knew. It was familiar. I was still in the “law enforcement family” even as a widow and the people I was around were cops. It was a year before I started dating. Several of the officers asked my husband after we married “How could you marry Parr’s wife”? My husband simply stated—she is not Parr’s wife, she is my wife now. I have a life too.
Being the survivor of a police suicide is hard. The media really gets involved –everyone speculates on the reasons, thus come the rumors. I got through it all. I gave the flag to his mother when I remarried. I tried to close the door on that part of my life. Yet, I still cannot go eat at the restaurant. I have gotton to where I can go through the drive in but not go sit in there and eat. Car 17 is still on the street. The cleaned it up, replaced the upholstery and put it back on the street—life goes on. Not only is suicide a lot of the end results but many officers are abusive both physically and emotionally to their spouses in children. This is also a result of mental illness. Please don’t become a victim of this.
This is the first time I have talked about this publicly. But I think that I could help others who go through similar situations. I never realized nor dreamed that Ellis was depressed. It was like Dr. Jeckl and Mr. Hyde. He never showed me that side of him. I never knew—but everyone else did. For a long time, I was angry that he never was supported by the police department. I asked, “If you knew, why DIDN’T you follow up.” All I got were empty answers. I was approached by 3 lawyers in reference to legal action against the city but I live in a small, Southern town. All the money in the world would not help me. It would not undo what was done. Besides, the only friends I had in the world were cops and their families. I wish there was something we as wives could do to let our husbands know it is OK to ask for help. God knows they see it all. It has to bother them. Ellis never talked about it. My husband now talks to me about the bad stuff that really bothers him and for that I am grateful. We have to keep the lines of communication open. We have to see things for what they are and not for what we want them to be.
As a result of Ellis’s death, our department’s eyes have been opened. No longer do they look at the obvious signs and sweep them under the mat. They deal with it. If I can say anything good has come out of this it is that maybe mental illness will not be looked at as cowardly. Maybe those officers who are depressed will seek the help and their superiors will get it for them. As for me, I finished my education and have a successful career. I learned a lot about myself. I, too, sought counseling and was subsequently diagnosed myself with depression and am leading a happy, fulfilled life with the help of my family, God and an antidepressant every day. I pray for all of you ladies out there who have spouses with a mental illness. I pray that you will not end up sitting on the side of a fast food restaurant looking at an ambulance drag your husband out of a police car with a gunshot through his head. The ironic part is---he wore his vest religiously. He was afraid of the criminals with the guns, yet the biggest threat he had was himself—not them. Another irony in the entire situation is this—his car door was open when he pulled the trigger. The bullet lodged in the car door instead of coming out of the open window and directly to me. Yes, if the door had not caught the bullet, it would have hit me or my child. I felt like God gave me another chance. Another chance to fullfill my life, to help someone else. It still hurts, but I have learned to target the hurt in a positive direction. That is why I am writing this to you.