A GARRYOWEN man is to receive national recognition for bravery in the United States after arresting a boy who stabbed a 16-year-old girl to death last year.
James (Séamus) Kiely, who works as a police officer at the Jonathan Law High School, in Milford, Connecticut, will be given a National Award of Valor in Florida next month, after preventing a “chaotic” incident at the school when a young Maren Sanchez was stabbed to death on April 25, 2014.
James, who is a former CBS Sexton Street pupil and a former employee of the Limerick Leader, said he is “honoured and proud” to be receiving the award.
In a letter to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), who selected Mr Kiely for the award, the school said the 50-year-old “acted quickly and appropriately in the face of danger to protect the school”.
The hero from Limerick said it was one of the toughest experiences of his 20-year career as a law enforcer in the States.
The incident, which made headlines worldwide, took place on the morning of the high school prom. The suspect waited for Maren Sanchez to enter the school, and then “assaulted her and killed her”, said James. The school’s resource officer subsequently arrested him.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I have ever gone through, to be honest.
“I knew the girl, I knew them both. I actually said ‘Good morning’ to both of them when they arrived at school in the morning. I knew both, so there was kind of mixed emotions, and the day itself was kind of a blur.
“The weeks that followed is the big thing; trying to support the staff and the kids at the school, and giving them the help they needed to get through the whole thing,” he told the Limerick Leader.
The police officer said that the atmosphere in the school was difficult after the incident.
“It’s tense. Extremely tense. She was a very, very popular girl. She was very well known throughout the school and it affected a lot of people. She was an only child, so her family went through a lot with this as well. It was an emotional rollercoaster for the first couple of months.”
Though James has been called to “numerous” murder scenes, he admitted that Maren’s death was the toughest case.
“The other times I would have been through something similar to this, they would have been me showing up to a scene where I would have no attachment to anybody. This was a girl that I knew. I would have pictures hanging in my office of her with me. She was somebody that I saw every day, Every time she would get off the school bus, I would say ‘Good morning’ to her. She wasn’t the nameless face of a call. This was somebody that I knew, when I walked to the stairwell that morning and found her there, I was looking down on somebody that I knew,” he explained.
He added that the memory “will never go away”, and that he still gets goosebumps when he is reminded of that day in April 2014.
“There are moment when something happens or when something is said. Things happen. You walk by and somebody mentions her name, and you would get a feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s been a year now, and every time I think of her, the hair on the back of the neck stands up and you get goosebumps.”
And even though it is “humbling” to get this national award, he wishes that Maren Sanchez was still around, who would have graduated this Monday evening.
“The letter they sent me, I read it myself, and it’s surreal and I think, ‘Did I really do that?’ It’s humbling. But it’s a bitter-sweet feeling, as well. I’m honoured and proud to be getting the award, but the reason why I’m getting the award is difficult. You don’t want to be getting an award for something like this. I would rather have Maren. I would rather see her walking the streets than getting an award.”
His brother Pat Kiely is a station officer for the Limerick Fire Services, who is also a former employee of the Limerick Leader. He said that James is “very much a Limerickman” and that has always “dedicated” and “true to himself”.
“Pride was the first thing that I felt. I was proud of what he had done. I know he’s very dedicated to the job and he loves being a police officer. He always talks about it whenever he phones. Working in emergency services myself, I know the things that we have to do that we don’t like to talk about. And I know this incident in particular, he felt a lot about it because we all want to try and save somebody.
“He is absolutely a hero. I know he wouldn’t probably think he is, but I think the way he dealt with it, the way he handled people is what makes him a hero very much so,” his proud brother explained.
Pat said that their mother and father, who are both deceased, would be proud of their son’s achievement, as he travelled to America to pursue a trade in plumbing, and has now been given a national bravery award.
“If my Mum was still alive, she would be singing his praise all over the city, and my Dad would be incredibly proud of him as well. The two would be beaming around the place, telling everybody about their son,” Pat said.
James, who has a 14-year-old son Morgan with wife Susan, who is from Lenihan Avenue, Prospect, travelled to the States in 1986 when there was no work for him.
“When I was 21 when I left Ireland, and I thought, ‘Okay, let’s give it a shot.’ I had $200 in my pocket, jumped on a plane and said, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ When I came over first, I continued on the plumbing course, and I was a plumber for the first two years,” he said.
Though James has been in the States for close to 30 years, he is still very much a proud Limerickman, and comes home to see his family whenever possible.
“We were just at home last Christmas and we will back this Christmas, and in between, we try get in for summer vacation, or whatever in between. But the next time I am home, I will stick the award in the suitcase and bring it home with me.
“I do miss Limerick. We say it all the time, that if we could come home and walk out of here, walk into the same lifestyles, same kind of income and jobs, we would move home tomorrow,” he told the Leader.
The police officer said he respects the gardaí in Limerick for the hard work that they do.
“I have got a cousin who a garda in Limerick, and whenever we talk we say that we deal with the same kind of stuff. I carry 35 pounds of equipment on my belt on a daily basis, and those guys over there are maybe carrying a nightstick and a flashlight.
“I give the gardaí so much credit for doing their job with the limited the resources that they have, in comparison to what we have out here. I talk to my cousin whenever I go home and I am amazed at how they are able to do their job, to be honest with you.”
James accepts the prestigious on the podium on July 7, in Florida at a special luncheon.
NASRO wrote to him, saying they look forward to “recognising you in front of your colleagues from all over the country” for his “courageous actions and bravery”.
His home city salutes him too.