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Friends: Det. Brian Simonsen faced every situation with a smile

Around his hometown of Riverhead, New York City Police Detective Brian Simonsen was known by the nickname “Smiles.”

Friends and former classmates from Riverhead High School said Det. Simonsen, who was killed in the line of duty while responding to a reported armed robbery in Queens Tuesday evening, brought happiness into any situation he encountered.  

The 1995 graduate of Riverhead High School was among a close-knit group of friends who stayed in Riverhead Town, many of whom were together Wednesday mourning their friend.

“Brian was one of a kind, he was always all smiles,” said friend Scott Sulzer. “He never let you get down.”

Karen Skop, who befriended Det. Simonsen, 42, when they were in high school and lives down the block from the house he shared with his wife in Calverton, said he got his nickname in high school and it just stuck.

“He was just the most generous, heartwarming person who always had a smile on his face,” she said. “He would do anything for anyone at the drop of a hat, he would be there for you.”

Friends marveled at how Det. Simonsen persevered through the tragedies he and his mother, Linda, faced. He was just 15 when his younger sister, Melissa, was struck by a vehicle and killed crossing Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead. She was 13 years old. Their father, Dr. Paul Simonsen, a local dentist, died suddenly six months later.

“This is someone that made the best of their life,” said Mr. Sulzer, who also lost his father in high school and was consoled by his friend. “He could have looked the other way and said I could go one route and be depressed, but he totally went the opposite way.”

Brian Simonsen in his 1995 Riverhead High school yearbook. (Credit: Riverhead Free Library)

At Riverhead, Det. Simonsen played varsity football and baseball. He was also a homecoming prince and volunteered for Special Olympics in his junior year.

Det. Simonsen’s high school yearbook quote — “He that falls by himself never cries” — speaks to the way he lived his life.

After graduating in 1999 from Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., he attended the New York Police Department Police Academy. He was in his 19th year on the job and considering retirement next year, friends said.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday night, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said Det. Simonsen and Sgt. Matthew Gorman were working an unrelated case nearby when they responded to a call of a possible armed robbery at a T-Mobile store in Richmond Hill shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Officers at first did not see anyone inside through the window of the store. As they entered, someone emerged from the back fitting the description of the suspect, who pointed what appeared to be a handgun. The suspect advanced toward them and the officers fired, Commissioner O’Neill said. Det. Simonsen was shot while retreating out of the store, the commissioner said.

“Make no mistake about it, friendly fire aside, it is because of the actions of the suspect that Det. Simonsen is dead,” Commissioner O’Neill said.

Multiple media outlets have reported that the weapon the suspect allegedly pointed was fake.

Riverhead Town Councilman Tim Hubbard, a retired town police officer, echoed those sentiments.

“The onus for all this is directly on the suspect that committed the robbery,” he said. “Regardless of whether it was friendly fire or not, the onus is on the suspect who created the situation.”

Sgt. Gorman was shot in the leg but is expected to recover. A 27-year-old suspect in the robbery, who has 20 prior arrests, was injured and is in custody, police said. He was identified by police as Christopher Ransom of Brooklyn.

“Tonight highlights the incredibly brave action of the NYPD,” Commissioner O’Neill said. “This is an absolute tragedy.”

Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, said at the press conference that he had seen Det. Simonsen earlier Tuesday. An elected delegate with the 102nd Detective Squad, Det. Simonsen was considered a leader among his peers, Mr. Palladino said.

“Brian was a good man, he was a good detective,” he added.

Det. Simonsen became the 16th officer in the country to die in the line of duty this year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Those statistics include incidents such as an officer suffering a heart attack while on duty and automobile crashes. There have been eight deaths from gunfire this year.

In 2018, there were 150 line-of-duty deaths, 52 from gunfire. The last officer to die from accidental gunfire was Deputy U.S. Marshal Christopher Hill in Harrisburg, Pa., last year. He was 45.

There have been 18 officers killed from accidental gunfire since 2011. Det. Simonsen is the first NYPD officer killed in the line of duty since July 2017, according to The New York Times. It’s been a decade since the last fatal friendly fire incident in the NYPD, the Times reported.

In a letter to department members Wednesday, Commissioner O’Neill called Det. Simonsen a “true hero” who died “doing his job: fighting crime and keeping everyone in our city safe.”

Louis Gioppo, a resident of Richmond Hill, said he was phone shopping with a friend inside the T-Mobile store just 20 minutes before the shooting. He said two other customers and two employees were in the store at the time he was there. Mr. Gioppo said his friend later called him to ask if he heard the shots.

“It’s surprising,” he said of the incident. “This is a nice neighborhood and [Mr. Ransom] is someone from the outside who came in and did the damage.”

The area of the shooting remained an active crime scene Wednesday, as dozens of officers continued to investigate. Walking in a row, 18 officers could be seen counting steps down 121st Street and Atlantic Avenue. An NYPD forensics team studied the outside of the T-Mobile store, where an evidence collection team continued to canvas the area. A total of 42 shots were fired by seven NYPD officers, officials said Wednesday. Five officers were equipped with body cameras that investigators are reviewing in addition to other surveillance cameras.

Crossing guard Luzcue Llar worked with Det. Simonsen at the 102nd Precinct before retiring last year. She has family in Jamesport, where Det. Simonsen was raised.

She saw his photo on the news Tuesday night and immediately wept.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” she said. “I got to meet this guy and now he’s gone.”

Riverhead police stood guard Wednesday morning at the Calverton home Det. Simonsen shared with his wife, Leanne Kinnavy. Friends said the two were married “only a couple of years” and were inseparable. Officers said Ms. Kinnavy was too distraught to speak with reporters from regional media outlets who set up outside the house seeking comment.

Neighbors instead spoke to Det. Simonsen’s kindness. “He was always friendly,” said next-door neighbor Jamie Stidd.

“It’s very sad,” added neighbor Colleen Marcello. “Tragic.”

The family will receive friends on Monday, Feb. 18 from 7 to 9 p.m. and on Tuesday, Feb. 19 from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. The funeral will be held on Wednesday morning, Feb. 20 at 10 a.m. All services will be held at Saint Rosalie Roman Catholic Church, 31 East Montauk Highway, Hampton Bays.

Interment will be at the Jamesport Cemetery following the funeral mass. DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home in Mattituck is assisting the family.

Congressman Lee Zeldin called Det. Simonsen’s passing “a tragic reminder of the dangers our local law enforcement officers face each and every day, their commitment to putting the safety of our communities above their own and the sacrifice of their families and loved ones.”

“Detective Simonsen dedicated his life to protecting ours, and we are forever indebted to his service and the heroic actions of all our men and women in blue,” the congressman said in his statement.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed flags to half-staff on all state government buildings from Thursday until interment in memory of Det. Simonsen.

“This tragedy is a heartbreaking reminder of the risks the brave men and women in law enforcement face every day to keep us safe,” Gov. Cuomo said.

Chris Turbush, another friend, said Det. Simonsen was a hero in more than one way.

“He was a hero to me for becoming the man of the house at such an early age and then to go on to become a hero to everyone to give his life for his fellow officers and all the people he swore to protect,” he said.

Friends said Det. Simonsen’s impact on their lives will remain strong.

“You think friends come and go but our core friends … we’ve always stayed close no matter what has gone on in life,” Mr. Sulzer said. “I think what’s so good about our friendship is no matter what it was in life — what tragedy we had — it’s always been strong.”

Top caption: The area of the shooting remained an active crime scene Wednesday. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Secondary photo: Christopher Ransom, the suspect who used an imitation gun during a robbery attempt. The NYPD is asking anyone with information about him that would help the investigation to call 1-800-577-TIPS.

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