Police officer killed in hit-and-run one year ago
Updated 10:44 am, Thursday, June 9, 2011
Route 7 was clear and traffic was light as Danbury Police Lt. Matt McNally drove home to New Milford after finishing his shift on the evening of June 3, 2010.
As Lt. McNally passed New Milford High School, heading north about 10:30 p.m., his attention was drawn to a bicyclist riding in the opposite direction on the shoulder of the newly widened road.
"He was all lit up. He even had a light on his helmet," Lt. McNally said. "I was surprised. You don't see many bicycles on Route 7."
A short time later, as Lt. McNally was getting ready for bed, the momentary encounter was forgotten until the telephone rang. The caller, another Danbury cop, told him Officer Donald Hassiak, a fellow New Milford resident, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver as he was riding to work for the midnight shift.
That's when Lt. McNally realized the bicyclist had been the 41-year-old Officer Hassiak, a decorated, 16-year department veteran, who had resumed cycling to get back into shape after being injured.
"I must have seen him about 30 seconds before it happened," Lt. McNally said. "It was eerie."
Danbury Chief Al Baker was also home when the shift supervisor called to tell him Officer Hassiak had been killed.
A short time later, Chief Baker was with Mayor Mark Boughton and a police chaplain, driving to Officer Hassiak's New Milford home to tell his family.
As a veteran of more than 35 years in law enforcement, notifying the next of kin about a loved one's death was something with which Chief Baker was familiar.
"But this was different, because you knew the victim and the family," the police chief said. "I'd never done anything quite like that before, and I hope I never have to do it again."
Officer Hassiak was survived by his wife, Kim, and three sons, who ranged in age from 4 to 9 years old when he died.
The funeral, held at St. Francis Xavier Church in New Milford, drew hundreds of mourners, including more than 100 Danbury police officers and city officials.
One year after Officer Hassiak's death, a memorial service, sponsored by the family, will be held at the same church on Friday, starting at 6:30 p.m.
Six weeks after the accident, New Milford police obtained an arrest warrant charging James O'Neill, a Bethel man with a more than a dozen previous convictions for motor vehicle and criminal offenses, as the driver who ran down Officer Hassiak.
Mr. O'Neill, now 48, had been identified as a "person of interest'' almost immediately after the fatal collision, although by the time he was charged, he was already in jail and unable to make bond in connection with another hit-and-run accident on Route 58 in Bethel.
That crash occurred less than a week before Officer Hassiak was killed.
Mr. O'Neill, who has been incarcerated since his arrest, faces multiple charges in the death, and Litchfield State's Attorney David Shepack, who is prosecuting the case, has asked he be sentenced to up to an additional 10 years in prison if he is convicted, because he was free on bond for another crime when Officer Hassiak was killed.
Mr. O'Neill's next court appearance is set July 19 in state Superior Court in Litchfield.
Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, to name a bridge on Danbury Road (Route 7) in New Milford after Officer Hassiak continues to make its way through the General Assembly.
Sen. McLachlan said most lawmakers have signed on to the proposal, which has been added to the annual bill from the legislature's transportation committee typically voted on during the final days of the session.