Police widow relives Stanton Heights tragedy: ‘His memory is definitely not going anywhere’
Every time it happens, she returns to that day.
Stephen Mayhle should have been home at 7 a.m. But when his wife, Shandra, awoke at 8 a.m. on April 4, 2009, he wasn’t there.
“I always told him, if you’re going to be late, just text or call,” she said. “I don’t care that you’re late; I just don’t want to worry. I want to know you’re OK.”
First, she checked her phone. The last text was one she had sent him the night before. Stephen’s brother and his girlfriend were visiting the next day, so she had asked Stephen:
“Could you pick up a pack of buns and some chips for sloppy joes for lunch tomorrow? I could fix stew or venison with noodles for supper.”
He never replied. She still hasn’t deleted the message.
Next, she checked for missed calls. Nothing.
With her daughters — 6-year-old Jennifer and 3-year-old Brooklynn — still sleeping, she went online to see if there were active police situations in the city.
There had been a shooting.
In Stanton Heights.
She called Stephen’s dad. He hadn’t heard from him either.
She searched the house for phone numbers — of fellow police academy cadets, officers, their wives — and found nothing.
Finally, she remembered that a childhood neighbor had become a Pittsburgh police officer.
“Sorry to bother you,” Shandra said when she called. “But there was a shooting, and I want to see if Stephen is OK.”
“You should call Zone 5,” the officer said.
“Oh, I don’t want to be made fun of,” Shandra said. “You know, the worried wife calling to check on her husband.”
“Oh no, it’ll be fine,” the officer said. “Call them.”
Shandra looked up the number and dialed it.
“This is Officer Stephen Mayhle’s wife, badge number 4137,” she said. “I’m just calling to make sure he’s OK.”
“Who did you say this was?” said a female officer who answered the phone.
“Stephen Mayhle’s wife. Badge number 4137.”
“Oh, honey,” the officer said. “We’ve been trying to get ahold of you. You need to get here right away.”
It was 9:30 a.m.
She dressed the girls. They drove from their Brookline home to the Zone 5 station on Washington Boulevard. Nobody there could tell her anything, in part because police still did not know how bad it was. But three miles away, the picture was beginning to crystallize: Around the time Shandra and the girls arrived at Zone 5, police spokeswoman Diane Richard began briefing media who had gathered on Fairfield Street.
Visibly shaken, Richard gave out bits of disjointed information, either unable to process the details or unwilling to do so.
Finally a reporter connected the dots:
To be clear, you have multiple officers shot and injured, but you don’t know how many or how badly they are hurt because the suspect is still armed and preventing other officers from reaching them?
Richard paused, quietly said “yes,” then walked away.
Around 11 a.m., police officials at Zone 5 moved the Mayhle family to headquarters on Western Avenue in the North Side.
More of Mayhle’s family arrived. They gathered in a conference room, waiting. A couple officers took the girls into another room and gave them food from McDonald’s.
At 1 p.m., Asst. Chief Regina McDonald entered the room. She went to Shandra and delivered the news:
Stephen had been shot and killed with fellow officers Paul Sciullo and Eric Kelly while responding to a domestic disturbance. A 22-year-old man — who had argued with his mom after his dog urinated on the carpet and who was armed with an assault-style rifle — waited for them to arrive and ambushed them.
Stephen was gone. Just like that.
A few weeks before, Shandra recalled, she had told Stephen: “I feel like I have it all. A nice house, a great marriage, beautiful kids. I feel like I have everything.”
Now she was alone. With the sudden absence of the person she had promised to grow old with, it was all over.
Except, it wasn’t.
Because the new widow was still a mother.
“After I kind of collected myself,” Shandra recalled, “I asked them to bring my girls to me.”
She got down on the carpeted floor and held them.
Then she told them: “We don’t have a daddy anymore.”
Brooklynn did not understand.
“She immediately started wailing, ‘I want Daddy, I want Daddy, I want Daddy!’” Shandra said. “That’s the one part of it that I just, that I’ll never get over — telling them.”
Which is why, every time it happens, she returns to that day.
It’s where she went Nov. 10 when she learned Canonsburg police Officer Scott Bashioum had been shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance call.
Like Stephen Mayhle, Scott Bashioum had two young children.
“It makes you sick,” Shandra said. “Knowing exactly what the family is going through right then. Being at the hospital, being informed, telling the kids. Going to the funeral home, picking out a casket for your husband, who you just had dinner with the night before. It makes you sick inside because you just know.”
Shandra Mayhle knows.
She knows that for young children, the grief comes in waves.
“They can’t deal with it all at one time,” she said. “They push it to the back of their brain, and then they pull a little piece out, and they deal with it and they’re sad and it’s bad. But then they push it to the back of their brain and they’re just kids again.”
She knows that every child handles death differently. In the immediate aftermath, Jennifer clung to her memories, often starting sentences by saying: “Remember when Daddy did this?”
But Brooklynn was so young that the memories slipped away.
The 3-year-old fell into a depression that frightened her mother.
“She’d say things like, ‘When I grow up, I want to work in a funeral home, where Daddy had his funeral,’” Shandra said. “Or you know how when a dog dies and their legs stick straight out? She’d say, ‘I think that’s how Daddy is.’”
Christmas came, and Brooklynn said, “I don’t like my skin.”
“I don’t like anything,” she said. “I don’t want to play. I don’t know what to do.”
The memories, or lack of them, created a division between the young, grieving sisters.
“Jennifer was the memory holder,” Shandra said. “And Brooklynn was angry because she didn’t have any of those memories.”
Shandra knows exactly what awaits the Bashioum family.
But she also knows that it gets better.
There is help — from Pittsburgh police, who never hesitate; from national groups such as Concerns of Police Survivors, which hosts annual summer camps for children of fallen officers; and from an informal group of local police widows who, every time it happens, rally around the newest member of a club that no one wants to join.
“We hate why we’re together,” Shandra said. “But you won’t find anyone with a stronger bond.”
It does get better, she said. The girls are thriving. Shandra remarried, to an old friend of Stephen’s who has two daughters of his own. They live in Leechburg and love it there. They are happy.
And when things calm down in Canonsburg, she will tell Bashioum’s widow just that: It never leaves, but it doesn’t have to.
“We are constantly surrounded by memories of Stephen,” she said. “His memory is definitely not going anywhere.”
They will never forget, she said.
Because they don’t want to.
They just needed to get to a place where they could celebrate his life, every day, without focusing on its end.