This originally appeared as a two-part story centering around police officers injured and allegedly injured during the shootout with Boston Marathon bombers in Watertown on April 19, 2013. It was published in multiple newspapers around Massachusetts including the Brockton Enterprise, the Quincy Patriot Ledger, and the Watertown Tab.
On April 10, 2014, Dennis O. Simmonds, a 28-year-old officer with the Boston Police Department, was at the police academy in Hyde Park for a training appointment. He had just finished lunch and went to the gym to work out, according to media reports.
By all appearances, life was good for Simmonds. He grew up wanting to be a cop, and had been on the force for six years. He was a member of the BPD’s elite Youth Violence Strike Force and, as his superiors later recalled,was a “model officer.” One year prior, almost to the day, he was among a small group of first responders who rushed into Watertown during the infamous gunfight that brought Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s week of terror to a violent halt.
Simmonds wasn’t mentioned in any initial media accounts of the Watertown shootout, but he received numerous awards for his actions, including the Boston Police Foundation’s Hero’s Award, and the Schroeder Brothers Memorial Medal of Honor, the highest award bestowed by the Boston Police Department.
He was also tapped to receive a Top Cop Award, to be presented by President Barack Obama on behalf of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO). The ceremony was scheduled for May in Washington D.C., and according to reports, Simmonds was looking forward to it.
However, shortly after he began lifting weights in Hyde Park, Simmonds collapsed. He was rushed to a hospital, and died a short time later. Members of the Simmonds family declined to have an autopsy performed, but his death certificate states that the officer suffered a brain aneurism.
It was only after his death that the BPD made a stunning disclosure: Simmonds had suffered a head injury in Watertown after one of the Tsarnaevs hurled an explosive at him.
“He was thrown from his feet, knocked to the ground, and they kept fighting to protect each other,” BPD Superintendent in Chief William Gross told a reporter at the time (Gross was initially open to possibly doing an interview with BINJ, but after multiple follow-up attempts, he stopped responding to inquiries). The chief continued in his television interview: “It″s unfortunate. We definitely believe that could have contributed and may have contributed to this untimely death.”
From that point on, Simmonds landed squarely in the narrative around the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
In April 2014, in a speech at the Hynes Convention Center during a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the Marathon bombing and subsequent community recovery, Vice President Joe Biden linked the officer’s death to injuries sustained in Watertown.
″[He] put his life on the line last year in a shootout to hunt down the killers,” Biden said of Simmonds. “He suffered a severe head injury, and ultimately he has succumbed.”
Simmonds had wanted to be a cop ever since he was little, his younger sister Nicole recalls.
“I can remember [Simmonds] being in … a car seat, I can remember any type of lights flashing by, whether it was a police car or a fire truck, he didn’t know the difference, he would say ‘Pa-pa-polla-policeman!’” Nicole said in an interview for this story.
Simmonds wanted to become a police officer right out of high school, Nicole added. But his parents insisted he go to college first, and he went on to earn a degree in criminal justice from Lasell College in Newton. He subsequently enrolled in the police academy and joined the force in Boston. Though his dream of becoming a cop had come true, he didn’t stop there, and he was eventually assigned to the gang unit.Simmonds hoped to positively impact the lives of young people and to make the city a better place, according to his family.
“He wanted to go big or go home,” Nicole said. “He didn’t want to just be a cop, he wanted to be an honorable cop … He was on a mission. He just moved up the ranks quite quickly.
“The night he passed away, we actually went back to his home—myself and my family—and he had his notebook out,” Nicole said. “He was studying for the sergeant’s exam.”
Along with studying for the exam, Simmonds’ mother Roxanne told other media outlets that her son was dealing with physical effects resulting from the shootout.
“He had pretty severe headaches, ringing in his ears, just a really difficult time sleeping at night,” Simmonds’ mother told WHDH-TV News.
Nicole confirmed her mother’s statements.
“It was quite often enough for us to stay on top of him as a family to make sure that he was being seen, and that if anything got really, really bad, to make sure that he was treated appropriately,” Nicole said.
Nicole said she didn’t know if the problems for Simmonds came from one of the IEDs thrown by the Tsarnaev brothers or the pressure cooker bomb.
“An explosive was thrown right directly in my brother’s vicinity that took him right off of his feet,” Nicole said. “He was directly escorted out of Watertown and just went directly to the hospital.”
If the story about Simmonds wasn’t surprising enough, this past August, the BPD made another stunning disclosure: Eight Boston cops reported that they were injured in the shootout.
Of the eight, only Officer Rick Moriarty was named in media accounts as being injured at the scene. According to the Boston Globe, the 22-year department veteran strained a ligament in his hand while performing CPR on MBTA Officer Richard Donohue, who suffered life-threatening injuries after he was shot in the leg.
If the media missed the injuries sustained by Simmonds and these other officers, they weren’t alone.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency’s 130-page After Action Report for the Response to the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings didn’t list a single member of the BPD as being injured in the incident. Neither did a report issued by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan investigating the shooting of Tamerlan Tsarnaev (and likely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) on Laurel Street and the shooting of Donohue.
A spokesperson for Ryan’s office declined to comment specifically about the omission of any injured officers but said Ryan’s report only includes injuries that occurred at the scene. The document reads, “As a result of the firefight on Laurel Street through and past the intersection of Dexter Avenue [in Watertown], there were up to three people shot: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, MBTA Police Officer Richard Donohue, and possibly Dzhokar Tsarnaev.”
More than a year had passed since the death of Simmonds when Ryan’s office released its report last June. Despite the BPD’s public acknowledgement of injuries sustained by the officer, and even though Ryan’s office interviewed every Boston police officer who was on scene during the shootout—plus had access to accounts filed by those who were present for the shootout—there is no mention of Simmonds in the DA’s findings about injuries from that morning.
“The investigatory report released by this Office states that one individual was killed, one individual was injured, and a third individual was most likely injured at the shooting scene,” Assistant Attorney General Kerry Anne Kilcoyne said in response to a FOIA request. “None of these individuals were Officer Dennis Simmonds.”
Kilcoyne added that Ryan’s office “does not have any records [that] explain what occurred with individuals after they left the shooting scene.”
A month before the report was released, the AG’s office went even further—a spokesperson told the Globe that Ryan was unaware of any injuries Simmonds sustained during the shootout. And in a brief interview for this story last year, Ryan said her office didn’t have access to Simmonds’ medical records.
Front row seats
While it’s been difficult to confirm Simmonds’ injuries through official reports, this reporter was able to find his exact location during the shootout through a video shot by Watertown resident Mike Julakis, who lives on the corner of Dexter Avenue and Laurel Street. The Julakis clip depicts several officers standing behind a cruiser as shots ring out in the background. They identify themselves as Boston cops and are behind a large white house a significant distance away from the explosions.
After watching the video, Nicole said she could ”hear him [her brother, Dennis Simmonds] clearly.” While the video was filmed toward the end of the shootout and does reveal where Simmonds and presumably his partners were during the shootout, it ends before the pressure cooker bomb explodes and the younger Tsarnaev flees the scene.
Along with Julakis, Laurel Street resident Andrew Kitzenberg also had a front row seat to the shootout—his third floor window. He took several photos as events unfolded, and later he posted the images on his company’s blog. Referencing his pictures and experience, Kitzenberg estimated the police were 50 to 60 yards away from the Tsarnaev brothers.
In the aftermath of the shootout, Kitzenberg told reporters that when one of the Tsarnaevs threw the pressure cooker bomb, it detonated about 15 to 20 yards away from police.
“It wasn’t very close to them,” Kitzenberg said.
In May 2015, the Simmonds family was awarded a $150,000 line of duty death benefit by the State Retirement Board, leading some media outlets to report that he had been officially named the fifth victim of the Marathon bombings. Upon inspection, however, that conclusion hardly stands up to close scrutiny.
As part of the retirement process, a single-member physician panel reviewed the medical records of Officer Simmonds. While the panel found “his injuries were persistent after the episode involving the gun battle between police and the Boston Marathon bombers,” it also ruled that his “death was the natural and proximate result of injuries sustained during the course of his employment.”
In other words: not just in the shootout.
According to the report, Simmonds had been in multiple car accidents during his six years on the force, the first of which occurred on July 15, 2010. As a result of that wreck, Simmonds was treated at the emergency room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he was given medication and released. Several months later, according to the retirement board’s report, Simmonds required “urgent surgery” stemming from the July crash.
The nature of the surgery is redacted, though Nicole said she believes the report is referencing eye surgery her brother underwent and said that her brother had never suffered a head injury prior to the shootout.
“I can’t remember exactly, but maybe glass got in it or something like that,” Nicole said.
Doctors also noted that Simmonds developed another medical complication in May 2011, but the specific description and severity was stricken from the public record. The report does include information on an episode from August 2012, in which an unknown object penetrated the back passenger window vent of Simmonds’ police cruiser. But due to redactions, it is unclear how badly he was injured.
In addition to those accidents, the report addresses injuries Simmonds sustained during the shootout. Nothing in the unredacted section suggests that explosives were thrown at the officer or that he suffered a head injury. Instead, the report states without further explanation that Simmonds “dove to the ground and was in a cramped position for a long time.”
The BPD also provided the retirement panel with a note dated May 2, 2013, citing the report that states Simmonds “was crouched for a long period of time.”
The panel’s reportdoes not indicate that the note acknowledged explosives were thrown at Simmonds, nor is there any mention of a head injury. Instead the report reads, “Once the scene was cleared, [Simmonds] went to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. He asked the ambulance driver to slow down on his way to the hospital because the bumps and speed were aggravating …”
What the bumps and speed were aggravating is redacted from the report.
While BPD officials discussed the death of Simmonds with other media outlets, they initially denied press requests for his incident report shortly after the officer’s death, citing the ongoing investigation into the Marathon bombing and shootout.
Another written request was made during the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; when the BPD did not initially respond, this reporter made a request in person, only to be told by a public relations officer that Simmonds was not required to file a report because the incident occurred outside of BPD jurisdiction.
Spokespeople from other police departments such as Watertown and Cambridge (and the MBTA Transit Police) all say they required officers to file incident reports after the shootout. Cambridge Police Director of Communications and Media Relations Jeremy Warnick even said it is standard operating practice for officers at his department to file reports after any incident in which they are involved.
Boston police did eventually discover Simmonds’ incident report—after this reporter located a copy elsewhere and emailed it to the department. The BPD was able to locate the report after it looked up the complaint number listed on said document.
Asked why Simmonds was required to file a report after all, a spokesperson said that BPD officers are required to file reports if they’re injured. The department then released a redacted report, citing information relating to Simmonds’ injuries—despite WCVB having already acquired and aired an unredacted copy. The BPD said it was unaware of how WCVB obtained the report.
Meanwhile, the unredacted copy of Simmonds’ report, which states that it was filed about two weeks after the actual incident, says that Simmonds arrived on the scene at 11:40 pm on April 18, about an hour before the shootout occurred. The report states that Simmonds injured his hand, back, and ankle during the shootout, suffered from blurriness in his vision, and was transported to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he was prescribed Motrin and Ativan and instructed to follow up with his primary care doctor.
Simmonds was also relieved of duty, according to the report.
Patrick Rose, president of the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association, said he saw Simmonds at the scene and drove him to the Arsenal Mall parking lot, which was transformed into a police staging area. From there, Rose said Simmonds was transported by ambulance to St. Elizabeth’s. Several other officers were transported there as well, Rose said.
A St. Elizabeth’s spokesperson confirmed that 15 police officers were treated at the emergency room that morning but would not say how many of them were from the Boston Police Department or explain what they were treated for.
Following the shootout, Watertown police Sgt. John MacLellan told the Watertown Tab that he and the six other Watertown police officers who participated in the shootout were told to go to St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton to speak with a BPD trauma counselor.
While Rose and Kovalich were able to corroborate parts of the BPD narrative, it has been harder to confirm through official documentation.
In response to a FOIA request, Boston EMS provided a list of all medical transports relating to the April 19 shootout. The document shows that Boston EMS transported one male to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at 1:09 am. There were two other transports later that day, one to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and another to Tufts Medical Center. Not a single Boston EMS ambulance reported going to St. Elizabeth’s from Watertown.
The Watertown Fire Department also said, in response to a FOIA request, that it had no records of a medical transport to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital by Watertown EMS.
Though it has been difficult to confirm what exactly happened to Simmonds, or his partners, in the early morning hours of April 19 and how those events may have contributed to his death, the officer’s family has carried on his legacy.
After his death, Simmonds’ family and Lasell College also set up a scholarship fund in memory of Dennis.
“The fund has been set up for upperclassmen students at Lasell College that are in good standing to graduate with a degree in criminal justice and are going to pursue a career in law enforcement,” Nicole said. “Our goal is to ultimately support students who will be a reflection of DJ [Simmonds] in the community.”
Simmonds’ family has also given money, through the Dennis Simmonds Memorial Fund, to Inner City Weightlifting, a nonprofit organization that works with youth at the highest risk for violence. Some of the youth Inner City Weightlifting works with are “labeled high impact gang members,” Jon Feinman, executive director and founder of Inner City Weightlifting, said.
According to the Boston Globe, Simmonds would steer kids towards Inner City Weightlifting, and out of trouble.
“The family has just been incredible in terms of their support,” Feinman said. “I think that given his role and support of our program, I think that speaks loudly as to who he was as a person, and to not get jaded by some of the negative decisions that our students make, but to always have hope for the future and hope for something better.”
Though he didn’t know Simmonds personally, Feinman said that he thinks Simmonds was drawn to the organization not just because he served on the BPD gang unit, but also because he “really wanted to see these young people choose other paths, and not to just write them off as bad people, but to recognize that these are young people going through some difficult times.”
Simmonds’ name was added to both the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington DC and to the Boston Police Department’s own memorial wall.
Nicole also said this past April, five athletes ran in the Boston Marathon in memory of her brother, while the Simmonds family has adopted the hashtag #simmondsstrong to update followers on social media about future fundraising events for their scholarship fund.
Nicole said that while she will grieve for the rest of her life, she will also continue honoring her brother’s legacy.
“I can’t let that hero down,” she said. “That’s the weight on my shoulders.”