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Officer notified family of deaths with sensitivity, grace

Officer Robbie Arkovich notified the families of the men killed Sunday.

Officer Robbie Arkovich notified the families of the men killed Sunday.

St. Petersburg police Officer Robbie Arkovich climbed the white steps of the beach rental. He volunteered for this. He always does. He saw it done wrong once.

He's learned how to do it right.

Tell the family quickly. That's the best way, the humane way. Don't make them wait for the news. Don't make it worse.

He looked up and saw Amy Voelker looking back at him through the window. Her hand covered her mouth.

She opened the door. He only expected one grieving woman. Instead, there were four, with children. All had been crying. All had the same scared look. All had been expecting him.

"I think you know why I'm here," Arkovich said.

"Are they all gone?" asked Sandie McConnell.

The officer nodded his head.

"They kind of fell apart," Arkovich said.

That's how the McConnell family learned early Sunday morning that four of their loved ones — Elroy McConnell, 51, and his three sons Elroy III, 28; Nathan, 24; and Kelly, 19 — were all killed by a driver who police said ran a red light drunk and high.

Arkovich has done this two dozen times in 15 years on the job. Officers learn to steel themselves, to remove themselves from the dead and the grieving while they do their jobs.

But not this time.

"This was the most heart-wrenching thing I've ever done," Arkovich said.

• • •

Arkovich, 44, had just arrested a drunken driver when he heard officers responding to the crash on his radio about 12:30 a.m.

He's been on the DUI enforcement unit for 11 years. Ordinarily he would have headed to the scene. But his prisoner had to go to jail. Two hours later, he arrived at the crash site at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 22nd Avenue N.

The McConnell men were pronounced dead before firefighters could even pry them out of what was left of the father's Ford Fusion. Standard procedure is to tow the car to a garage and remove the bodies away from the public.

But the Fusion couldn't be moved yet. It had to stay where it was found, caught between the Chevy Impala that police said rammed it at an estimated 80 mph and the metal beam that crushed the driver's side.

Traffic homicide investigators needed to document the crash scene, the first steps in what will be a complicated investigation.

Part of that investigation will be to determine the impairment level of the Impala's driver, 20-year-old Demetrius Jordan.

After spending three days at Bayfront Medical Center, Jordan was taken to jail Tuesday night. He faces four counts of DUI manslaughter and other charges. Bail has been set at $220,250.

Police said Jordan admitted to drinking and smoking pot, though his blood test results won't be known for weeks.

• • •

As investigators worked at the scene Sunday morning, the family was already calling the police.

My husband and his three sons are missing, Amy Voelker told a St. Petersburg police dispatcher.

It was about 4 a.m. The McConnell women had woken up in the Redington Beach home they rented that weekend and couldn't find the men. Father and sons had gone out for a movie.

A dispatcher saw that the Ford Fusion in the crash was registered to Voelker — and her husband Elroy McConnell.

Though the family had seen the television news and knew four people had died in a bad crash that night, police wanted to tell them in person that their loved ones were dead.

"It's not something we want to do over the phone," Arkovich said. "It's impersonal. It's not very sensitive."

• • •

The Fusion was towed to a police garage about 4:30 a.m.

There were more than a dozen people in the garage: officers, firefighters, medical examiners. People used to death and tragedy. But this time was different.

"You can look around the room and see it hitting everyone's faces," Arkovich said. "Police officers learn to disassociate themselves from what's going on at the scene or else we'll go crazy. But when we're removing the bodies from the car, that's when it hits everybody.

"These are three brothers and a father. How much closer can you get? Everybody's kind of looking at each other. Everybody still had a job to do. But it took on a different tone."

• • •

Two of the men were officially identified. Arkovich got in his cruiser and headed for Redington Beach. He wanted to be near the family when the last two identities were confirmed.

"This is why it takes so long to do it, and why I felt so bad for the family," he said. "We had a good idea of who's in the car. But we can't tell them about someone's death until we're absolutely sure."

Arkovich pulled up to the rental at 6:45 a.m. A watch commander called with the last two confirmations. A victim's advocate arrived at the same time. Together, they climbed the steps.

Amy Voelker, wife of father Elroy McConnell and mother of the youngest victim, 19-year-old Kelly, opened the door. Her son's girlfriend, Celine Parietti, was with the family.

"Are they all gone?" asked Sandie McConnell, the wife of Elroy III, and mother of their newborn, 4-month-old Elroy IV.

The officer and advocate spent three hours consoling the family, helping notify other relatives, answering their questions.

It's a strong family, Arkovich said. He watched Amy Voelker reach out and hug Anaiis McConnell, the wife of Nathan and mother of their 2-year-old, Kayla.

"At least we all love each other," Voelker told her.

• • •

The family has called the officer several times. They asked him about retrieving personal effects, if they should view the bodies.

"I always tell people no," Arkovich said. "Remember your loved ones with your last happy memory."

Arkovich, who is married with no children, has been getting other calls from fellow officers. They ask him how he's doing.

"I feel like I leave a piece of myself every time I make a death notification," he said. "This was by far the worst.

"But as much as I hate doing it, I never regret doing it."

Officer notified family of deaths with sensitivity, grace 08/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 2:14pm]
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