DJ: Typical South Philly Italian family. I’m one of seven and I have a twin sister. My twin is straight, but two of my brothers are gay.
PGN: That must have been a fun household.
DJ: Well, we all came out later in life. We had a challenging childhood. My mother raised us on her own, though my brother Joe, who’s gay, was like a father figure. He’d try to make things fun. He’d pack all of us kids into the car and take us to the beach or an amusement park.
PGN: What were some of the challenges?
DJ: We never knew where the next meal was going to come from. In fact, we all — every one of us — quit school by ninth or 10th grade to get jobs to help the family. And now we’re all professionals: My brother and sister and I went back and got master’s degrees and everyone in the family has been successful.
PGN: What gave you all the drive to be successful?
DJ: Probably my mother’s strict hand and the fact that the seven of us were so close. We all motivated and supported each other. Even now, if there’s a problem, we all sit down and decide what needs to be done.
PGN: What was your first job?
DJ: Some people might remember there was a photo booth in the parking lot at Eighth and Chestnut. [Laughs.] It was just me in a newsstand-sized box but I used to tell people, “Yeah, I manage the entire staff at a photo store.” I was about 16 at the time.
PGN: I do remember that! I think I was just coming out and was always terrified when developing pictures of me and my friends, as if someone would turn us into the queer police.
DJ: Oh yeah, it was a great job! When someone would come in and ask, “Do you develop any kind of pictures?” I’d know they were going to be juicy. I’d always mark an X on the back of the envelope so I’d remember to look at them! Then I went to work at Roy Rogers, where I met and married the manager and had a son.
PGN: How did you go from that to police work?
DJ: After I had my son, I started working with my twin at Strawbridge’s in the computer department. I was still married and never even thought about women until we got a new recruit at Strawbridge’s. She walked in the door, 5-foot-2 wearing all black, and I fell totally in love with her, which was a total surprise to me. I’d never felt anything for a woman before. It’s hard to believe but true. At first nothing happened: We were just good friends; she was engaged at the time. But then she got a chance to go overseas for six months. I was devastated and I knew that what I was feeling was beyond normal friendship. I suddenly knew what I was missing in my life. I left my husband and moved to the Northeast with my kid. Everyone thought I was nuts, but we spoke every day while she was in Europe. When she came back, we got together. Long story short, living in the Northeast, I met a group of women who I hung out with and a couple of them decided to take the police test. They asked me if I was interested so I tested too. I passed everything but the eye test. I had 20/20 vision with contacts, but back in 1988, they went by your uncorrected eyesight. Fortunately, one of the lieutenants asked if I wanted to become a fingerprint technician. I had no idea what they did, but I got the job and it gave me a foot in the door of the police department, even though it was a civilian job. Back then, if someone got arrested, I would have to manually compare the fingerprints to about 200 prints in our system to see if you had a record. This was before AFIS [Automated Fingerprint Identification System]. It was very tedious, but I got to train with the FBI for about six months. In 1990, the Disabilities Act allowed me to have another shot at becoming an officer and this time I got in. That led to me getting into the Crime Scene Unit.
PGN: What were some of your duties as a crime scene technician?
DJ: Well, I was on patrol for three years before I applied for the Crime Scene Unit. Now I work mostly with homicides. It’s about 90 percent of what we do and the other 10 percent is major-case work. I was involved with the Center City rapist case, the Lex Street murders where 10 people were shot in 2000, the Sabina O’Donnell case, that was mine. She’s the young woman who was beaten, raped and killed in Northern Liberties. We go out on any high-profile homicide or police shooting. We process the whole scene, we photograph it, we collect all the evidence: Basically what you see them do on CSI, but with a lot less technology.
PGN: As a beat cop, what incident stands out for you?
DJ: A not-so-pleasant one was from when I first came out of the academy. We got a call for a disturbance at Jefferson Hospital. Another female officer and I responded and, when we got there, there was this old guy with a cast on. They told that the guy didn’t have an appointment and wouldn’t leave. We both thought, this is an easy one, and started to escort the guy out. He was in his late 70s and couldn’t have been more than 100 pounds. I politely asked him to leave and he started ranting and raving, so I put my hand on his arm to guide him out. As soon as I touched him, he flung his sling off and whacked me with his cast. In all my years, he was one of the strongest men I’ve ever come across. I flew across the room and it was on! We ended up practically having to hog-tie him to get him out. On the way to the wagon, he bit my partner and the end of the story was when we talked to the doctor and asked what was up with the guy: He said, “Oh, he’s crazy. He tried to saw his own arm off.” We were like, “You could have told us that at the start!” I learned to always expect the unexpected. [Laughs.] Never take a little old man for granted!
PGN: What are the good points of your job?
DJ: In the Crime Scene Unit, you see the ugliest of the ugly: kids killed, young people dead, women assaulted. We see it all, day in and day out. But you look past that and focus on the fact that your job is to find out who did it and bring them to justice. As hokey as it sounds, it’s what motivates us. For instance, the Sabina O’Donnell case. I’ve been in the CSU for 15 years and that case probably affected me more than any other. I would come home every day after court and cry my eyes out. She was a beautiful young woman, into art and photography, had lots of friends, a close family — and someone killed her for a bike. He followed her home and raped her, beat her unmercifully and strangled her with her own bra. We just finished the trial and he was given life in prison plus 80 years. I put so much work into that case — we all did — and I became very close to her family. It was wonderful to be able to help them by getting the person who did such terrible things to their daughter.
PGN: As a member of the public, what can we do to help the police?
DJ: The main thing is if you see something, let us know. We understand that you may be scared, but we need your help. Even if it’s something small, you never know, it could be something that leads us to something big.
PGN: So let’s talk about your business.
DJ: It came about in 1999 with my ex-girlfriend. I’d just come home from a particularly nasty site. A police officer had killed himself by blowing his head off with a shotgun. There was blood splatter all over and she said, “That’s terrible, how did you clean it all up?” I looked at her like she was crazy and said, “What? The officers don’t do cleaning.” She said, “Are you kidding? You just lost somebody you love, and you’ve got to get on your hands and knees and clean them up?” I did some research and found that, at that time, there really wasn’t anyone you could call. It was usually left to a kind neighbor or friend to clean up. So I went to a conference of the American Bio Recovery Association, which regulates this field, and met the president, who also happened to be gay, and we became friends. It took me about a year to train and get incorporated, etc. His company was in New York and in 2011, when Sept. 11 happened, we joined forces and we cleaned up the anthrax in the C building and did a lot of the cleanup in the surrounding buildings. It was crazy because you didn’t know what could be in the ruins — fluid, gasses, bodies, whatever. We were there for about six months. It was a great experience for us.
PGN: What’s the majority of your business?
DJ: We do a lot of suicides, a lot of biohazard, both private and corporate. We just signed the contracts to do the restoration for the furniture store next to the warehouse in Kensington where the firemen were killed. Nowadays we get a lot of calls for hoarding. It’s unbelievable. Fortunately my son and our team do most of the hands-on work now; I do mostly paperwork.
PGN: What was the worst hoarding case?
DJ: It wasn’t exactly hoarding, but there was a guy in Florida who got pissed at the owners of his apartment so he went to the SPCA and got 20 cats and left them in the apartment. We actually had to take down the walls: The cats were using the drop ceilings as a litter box and it was leaking down to the first floor. It was crazy.
PGN: I read you said that buckshot makes the biggest mess.
DJ: Yes, it’s the power of the gun. A shotgun shell has about 200 pellets in it and most people tend to put the gun in their mouths, so when you fire, you have the velocity of the pellets blowing everything apart. Think about a watermelon smashing on the ground. We had one job where we were cleaning and someone looked up and said, “Wait a minute, we missed a spot.” And there on the ceiling fan were pieces of the guy’s skull. You wouldn’t want a family member discovering that.
PGN: I noticed that you have a morbid sense of humor. I read about the guy caught in a shredder and you were joking, “Come on man, pull yourself together.”
DJ: Yeah, you have to have a sense of humor to get through it. That was a bizarre case. It was a huge paper shredder, 20-feet by 20-feet. When the machine got stuck, they’d turn it off and jump on it. One night, he was jumping on it and slipped and hit his head and knocked himself out. One of his coworkers came along, saw that the machine wasn’t on and flipped the switch, not knowing the guy was in it. When our crew got there, everyone was looking at the shredder and saying, “I’m not going in there.” The blades were 20 feet long. I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” I put one of my guys near the on/off switch and said, “You stand right here and if anyone comes near the on button, shoot them!”
PGN: Oh my God! OK, let’s switch to some safer questions. You seem to be pretty fearless; do you have any phobias?
DJ: I’m a little afraid of water. I never learned to swim when I was a kid. About 10 years ago, I took some swim lessons, so I’m better now. But they put me in a kiddie class to learn.
DJ: I love the Phillies and I coach a woman’s flag football team. Most of us are cops and I coach a softball team as well. My girlfriend Penny lives in Cape May, so I spend as much time at the beach as I can.
PGN: I forgot to ask how the family handled your coming out.
DJ: My mom was fine with it. If I ever visited without my girlfriend, she would immediately say, “What happened, did you have a fight? Where is she?” She was totally cool.
PGN: Who came out first?
DJ: Me, I was the guinea pig. Then my brothers came out after me. My older brother was married and, like me, didn’t realize he was gay until he met a man he fell for.
PGN: What crime would you like to have investigated?
DJ: Probably the JFK assassination. That was a case that changed so much in the world. There were so many theories, from the trajectory to how many people were involved. It would be fascinating. I think if it happened now, it would have a more conclusive ending — especially these days when everybody has a cell phone to record what happened!
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