For mother of fallen Pittsburgh police officer, ‘His spirit is here’ |
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Frances Kelly, 68, and Danyelle Cheatham, 26, the mother and sister of Pittsburgh Police Officer Eric Kelly who was slain in the 2009 shooting at Stanton Heights, stand in their Fairywood home near a portrait of Eric Kelly, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.

For several days after it happened, Frances Kelly insisted on returning to the site of her son’s murder.

City crews had done their best to clean up the crime scene. But they could not erase everything.

“Blood was still there. Where my son had laid,” she says. “We went up there, my daughter and I, and, uh … we’d sit on the sidewalk, in the road, you know, where he laid and suffered. We’d sit there and pray. We brought flowers. My daughter brought a rose. And we’d put them there. We’d sit there talking to him.”

More than seven years later, she describes it as if she sees it all still.

She does.

Sitting in a recliner in her Fairywood home, she looks down at the carpet and sees only the street. She motions to the floor and sees the spot of blood, the spot that crews could not remove.

“I went because I wanted to see,” she says in a low voice. “Everybody was telling me the way it happened, but I knew my son. He was a Marine. He was a warrior. I was trying to figure out how he walked up into an ambush like that. I wanted to see it for myself.

“And him laying there, suffering … he was there for a while. He bled out. I just couldn’t accept it. And I wanted to see. I wanted to be near my son.”

Her son, Pittsburgh Police officer Eric Kelly, was one of three officers killed on the morning of April 4, 2009.

His overnight shift had just ended, and he was driving his daughter to their Stanton Heights home. Then he heard a call over his radio about a domestic disturbance, a woman who wanted her son out of the house, just a few blocks away. Though he was off the clock, he decided to back up fellow officers Paul Sciullo and Stephen Mayhle.

He dropped off his daughter at their home and told her he would be right back.

But he never made it.

A 22-year-old man was waiting for him and the others at the house, 1016 Fairfield St. Armed with an assault-style rifle, he ambushed Sciullo and Mayhle, then shot Kelly multiple times as he pulled up in his car.

Kelly rolled out of the vehicle and tried to find shelter between the curb and his car’s wheels. The gunman continued to fire.

“Tell my wife and kids I love them,” Kelly told Officer Timothy McManaway when police finally were able to get close enough to pull him to safety.

McManaway told Kelly he would have to tell them himself. But it was too late.

Eric Kelly was 41, married and father to three girls.

“It didn’t sit right,” Frances Kelly says today. “Somebody telling you that three officers got killed in the way they got killed. It was just … I don’t even know what it was. No police officers are thinking people would be that evil. They’re coming in to help and someone is going to gun them down in that manner? It’s still painful.”

The morning it happened, Frances Kelly’s daughter, Danyelle — who was 22 years younger than Eric and viewed him not only as a brother but also a father — was taking a test at Community College of Allegheny County.

Frances Kelly was about to pick her up when the phone rang. It was Autumn, one of her granddaughters. She told her to turn on the TV.

Frances Kelly saw the news, but there were no details. So she drove to CCAC for Danyelle. She saw a police cruiser there and asked the officers if they had any news.

She identified herself as Eric Kelly’s mom.

“The officer called her lieutenant,” she recalls. “And they said for me to just stay there until someone got there. I said, ‘Oh my God,’ and I just jumped in the car and went to Stanton Heights. When I got there, I went running down, and they grabbed me and told me not to go down there.”

Eric was an athlete, his family says. Anything he played, he excelled at.

He was kind-hearted. He was the type of officer who preferred to send troubled youth down the right path than to jail.

And he loved his family above all else. His favorite holiday was Christmas, when he and his wife, Marena, would fill their trunks with presents for the girls, bring them to Frances Kelly’s house and spend the night wrapping gifts, laughing and talking.

“Was it his last Christmas? When you bought the Wii for the family?” Danyelle says. “Oh my God, we played that Wii all day long. Playing bowling and tennis, and our arms were hurting!”

Frances Kelly smiles at the memory. But the smile quickly vanishes.

Quietly, she explains that even after Eric passed, she would still find herself in the men’s department at stores, searching for just the right Christmas gift for her son.

“Looking at shirts,” she says. “Maybe a pair of pants.”

“For the longest time,” Danyelle says.

“I would just go look,” Frances says. “I couldn’t help it.”

“You did put something on his grave the first year,” Danyelle says. “Was it his boots?”

“I don’t know what it was,” Frances says. “But I do know that at Thanksgiving, I always bring out a plate for him.”

Later, she says she no longer celebrates her birthday. Because it’s Oct. 16 — or 10-16. And that was the address of that house on Fairfield Street.

“I don’t go out,” she says. “Nothing. I do nothing.”

When life is taken suddenly, there are no goodbyes.

For Danyelle, however, there was at least a final dream.

“It really wasn’t really a nice dream, though,” she says. “His shirt and his clothes were dirty and we were sitting on the floor, and we were talking. I was crying to him and asking where has he been and not to leave me, and he was just holding me and I was holding him, and I was telling him that I didn’t want to let him go, and he said he had to go …”

She stops talking.

She closes her eyes, but she cannot stop the tears.

“And that was pretty much it,” she says. “I felt like I got to say everything to him that I really wanted to say. That I loved him. I didn’t really get closure. But it helped.”

Frances Kelly also dreamed of Eric. He was driving past her house, looking back at her with no expression.

“Sometimes I think he’s here,” she says. “I’ll be sitting, looking at the TV, and something catches my eye, the corner of my eye. And I say, ‘Eric, is that you?’ I can be sitting here or something and I can feel something on my, on my shoulder or something. And I say, ‘OK, Eric, how you doing?’ His spirit is here. He comes around and checks on me.”

She looks down at the carpet again.

More than seven years ago.

And it’s as fresh as ever.

“When you lose a child, people say, ‘In time, you get over it,’” she says. “You never get over it.”

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