It was so uncommon to see NYPD detective and Riverhead native Brian Simonsen’s face without its signature grin that he got the nickname “Smiles” — and his widow says that’s what it was like to be married to him.
“In a nutshell, it was fun,” Leanne Simonsen said. “He was just so fun.”
Ahead of Feb. 12, the fifth anniversary of her husband’s death by friendly-fire, Ms. Simonsen agreed to talk about her life before and after.
“I would always say, ‘You never saw him mad,’ ” she said. “He always turned even a bad situation into a lighter situation, or he always just made everybody feel better. When I would be stressing out about anything, all he would have to do is say, ‘Don’t worry, babe. It’s going to be okay.’ And the minute he would say that, everything lifted off my shoulders.
“Even when he was killed, some of the people he arrested had nothing but good things to say about him. He was just able to de-escalate situations. And even as a detective — rookie cops are always afraid to go to the detective squad and ask questions.
“And the rookies always wanted to go to him because he was always nice. They would, you know, say, ‘He would make fun of us, but he was nice about it.’ So he was approachable and always just willing to help.”
The couple met in Las Vegas.
“He was there for a friend’s birthday and I was there for my sister’s birthday,” Ms. Simonsen recounted, “and I basically broke a float in the pool and he said some off-color things to me and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this guy.’ “
Eighteen months later they were engaged.
Around 6 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2019, Jagger Freeman and Christopher Ransom held up a T-Mobile cell phone store in Richmond, Queens, with a fake pistol.
Mr. Ransom was still inside the store when Det. Simonsen and Sgt. Matthew Gorman, both in plainclothes, reached the location the same time uniformed officers arrived. When Mr. Ransom aimed the fake weapon at them, police opened fire on Mr. Ransom — fatally striking Mr. Simonsen in the torso and hitting Mr. Gorman in the leg. In the space of a few seconds, 42 shots were fired. Mr. Ransom was hit eight times but survived.
After their arrests, he pleaded guilty to robbery and aggravated manslaughter and is serving 33 years in prison, according to court records.
“The first perp took a plea, so I did not have to sit in court and see the videos and see and hear what happened that night,” Ms. Simonsen said.
Mr. Freeman went to trial. For six weeks she sat in a Queens courtroom.
“He put me through hell with that,” she said.
Mr. Freeman was convicted of murder, robbery, assault and grand larceny and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.
Then-NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill spoke at Mr. Simonsen’s funeral in Hampton Bays.
“All of the police officers at that tragic shooting will carry their grief with them for the rest of their lives,” he said, adding, “Those cops responded to a call for help. They did not hesitate. And they are not to blame,” he said, according to the New York Post.
“The two people responsible for Brian’s death — the only two — are the career criminals who decided to go to that store on Tuesday night and commit an armed robbery,” Mr. O’Neill said.
On the night her husband died, the weather on Long Island was miserable — a relentless mix of snow, slush and rain, Ms. Simonsen said. She’d been working day shifts as a nurse at hospitals in Riverhead and Brookhaven, but this was her first week as a staff nurse at Long Island Community Hospital in Patchogue. (She did not return to nursing.)
Her husband, who drove 70 miles in each direction to live in Riverhead and work in Queens, had been in the city that day, at a Drug Enforcement Agency delegates meeting — a liaison role he served at the 102nd Precinct.
Attending the morning meeting “counted as a day of work, so he could have been home mid-afternoon,” Ms. Simonsen said.
But since he was planning a snowmobile trip that weekend with friends and didn’t want to take too much personal time, decided to stay in Queens and work.
His wife expected him home later. She tried calling him about 5 p.m. but he didn’t answer. She was working out in the loft of the couple’s Calverton home when a neighbor came running over, knocking on the front door.
“She told me that Brian was shot.”
The neighbor said her husband, now-retired Shelter Island police sergeant Terry LeGrady, was on his way there to drive Ms. Simonsen into the city. The weather was so bad that the NYPD couldn’t send a helicopter for her, she said.
“I could barely comprehend anything she was saying. I think I was in complete denial.”
Still, she kept thinking, “He would have called me if he was okay.”
She fought off the thought and grabbed some clothes, assuming she’d be sleeping overnight at the Queens hospital where she was being taken “while he was in surgery or whatever.”
Less than a mile into the trip, Ms. Simonsen turned to Mr. LeGrady for reassurance. “‘He’s going to be okay, right?’ And he told me that he had died.”
The couple had been married for five-and-a-half years.
“That whole ride to Queens was just awful.”
The next three years were a blur of debilitating grief.
“I gave up everything I loved,” she said. “I gave up on my life as well. I was pretty much self-destructive.”
She was surrounded by loyal family and friends, but added, “In the beginning I kind of shut them out. My whole thing was, ‘If you can’t bring him back, you can’t help me.’ But, I mean, no matter how difficult I was, they all stood by my side.”
One day, something changed.
“After his three-year anniversary, I don’t know what it was that opened my eyes, but I was like ,‘He would be so mad at me for what I’m doing to myself.’ He was able to power through his tragedies with the most positive outlooks on life,” she said, explaining that when he was 16, her husband lost his 13-year-old sister, who was hit by a car, and his father, a Riverhead dentist, in a matter of a few months.
“That’s where I had to change my attitude,” she said”I changed my whole life. I got back to the gym, back to yoga. I got back to doing things I loved.”
These days, she continued, “I look at life very differently. Now I ask, ‘What is this whole thing teaching me?’ I look at life as a huge lesson for us now, and each obstacle we hit — there’s a reason for it. I know it sounds cliched, but I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.”
Now she devotes her time to the Det. Brian “Smiles” Simonsen Memorial Foundation, which raises money to support a variety of causes, including scholarships for Riverhead High School students and donations of K-9 bulletproof vests — including one to a Riverhead Police Dept. K-9 named Onyx.
The foundation was launched in 2019 with a gala at East Wind Long Island, and a golf outing is held each summer at The Woods at Cherry Creek in Calverton. This year’s outing is scheduled for Aug. 16. The foundation also supports schoolchildren in the Queens community where Mr. Simonsen worked.
“We’re trying to give back to both communities,” she said. “And since Brian and I — we didn’t have kids, and so our babies were our animals. So recently we donated to the North Fork Animal Welfare League.”
These days, Ms. Simonsen said, “there’s not a day that goes by that, no matter what, no matter what joy I’m feeling or whatever, there’s like this piece of my heart where he’s always just with me. He’s always with me in my heart.”
In November, the East End Emerald Society announced that Ms. Simonsen and her mother-in-law, Linda Simonsen, will be the Grand Marshals for Jamesport’s St. Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday, March 23.
The parade marches past the Jamesport Cemetery, where Brian Simonsen is buried.