August 11, 1996
BYLINE: By Ed Lowe
For 25 years Michael Nugent has known that the badge the New York City Police Department presented him as that worn by his slain father was a fake. On Aug. 20, 1971, while on his way to the precinct to begin his midnight-to-8 shift, Kenneth Nugent stopped in a nearby candy store for cigarettes and unwittingly interrupted an armed robbery. Recognizing Nugent as a cop who worked around the corner, the counter clerk shouted that the store was being robbed. One of four robbers fired and wounded Nugent in the head; Nugent managed to draw his weapon, return the fire and kill one of the gunman, Rudolph Graham, 19, of Brooklyn. But Nugent, a husband and father of 7 children whose lives were forever altered in those few minutes, later died of his wounds, the ninth of 10 New York City police officers killed before the end of August that year.
The three surviving robbers escaped, though only for a short while. Not long after one of them, 19-year-old Cornelius Butler of Brooklyn, turned himself in at 1 a.m. on the morning of Nugent’s funeral, police arrested the other two, Lawrence Hayes, 19, and Joseph Whitfield, 20, both of Brooklyn. All were subsequently convicted, imprisoned and, eventually, released on parole. Butler and Hayes were convicted of second-degree murder. Whitfield, who was waiting in a car during the robbery, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was released from prison sooner.
The Nugent family accepted the shield No. 16022, framed and handsomely mounted over the late officer’s U.S. Marine Corps ribbons, but the stories in newspaper clippings kept by widow Barbara Nugent, always confirmed what oldest son Michael already knew:
In an unusual move, his father’s partner, Officer Hugh Curtin, had successfully petitioned the department to switch badges for the rest of what would become Curtin’s 24-year NYPD career. A former Marine like Kenneth Nugent, a veteran of the Korean War, and the father of eight, Curtin had joined the department in 1957 and in 1962 transferred to the 103rd Precinct in Jamaica, Queens, where he began working with Nugent of Amityville. Over nine years, the two became fraternal friends.
“When Kenny was killed,” Curtin said recently, “I asked permission of both the department and Kenny’s widow if I could give my own shield back and wear his instead.” It was the first request of its kind. “They both said yes,” Curtin said. “Usually, the department will retire the badge and give it to the widow, but they let me turn mine in and wear his.”
Michael Nugent was 17 years old at the time of his father’s murder and recently had announced a desire to attend Niagara University, this in the context of nationwide opposition to the Vietnam War and tremendous tension between Michael’s generation and his father’s. Another year would bring an end to U.S. involvement in the war, but at the time, Michael’s proud and patriotic, Irish-born father feared that his long-haired son – like him, very opinionated – sought not so much an undergraduate education from the Catholic Vincentian brothers as a convenient physical proximity to the Canadian border. He wanted Michael to enlist instead.
Michael denied that he had selected Niagara because he schemed to be a draft dodger, but he was not interested in the Marine Corps either. Father and son argued vehemently until late that Friday night in August before Ken Nugent left for work. The argument haunted Michael for years.
Michael, now 42 and the father of three sons, did not go to Niagara. After his father’s death he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, mainly because it was closer to home. He began buying and selling real estate in Amityville as soon as he was legally able, and 20 years ago he opened a business of his own, the Bay Village Inn. His mother, Barbara, earned a real estate broker’s license and started her own business.
The family managed well. Colleen, the youngest, who was 1 1/2 years old when her father died, now is an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. Tara, who was 5 years old, is a hospital representative in Stony Brook.
Glenn is a lawyer, Brian an electrician, Kevin a marine engineer, and Kathleen a nurse. After a fellow Marist graduate working in the prison system notified Michael the two convicted killers were coming up for parole, Barbara Nugent lobbied for and won a state policy change wherein families of victims routinely are notified of such hearings. She also spearheaded a campaign for the state to officially recognize police family survivors. The state now issues special “Survivors of the Shield” license plates, and hers is No. 1. Thanks to his indomitable sense of humor, Michael’s number is 54, after the television sitcom “Car 54 Where Are You?”
Curtin wore his late partner’s shield until he retired in 1981. He wanted to give the real badge to Michael, but because he had worn it, the shield never had been retired and so was still the property of the department. On his retirement, Curtin was supposed to turn in shield No. 16022 for reassignment to another police officer.
Well, of all the unlucky possibilities, just prior to his retirement Curtin lost the badge during a scuffle with suspects. Curtin had to suffer the loss of a week’s pay in penalities for losing department property. Other members of the 103rd Precinct felt so bad for Curtin’s misfortune they chipped in to help him endure the loss.
Last October, during a reception at the LaGrange Restaurant in West Islip following Tara’s wedding, Hugh Curtin mentioned to Barbara Nugent that 1996 would be a great time for Michael to receive the real badge in the worn, black leather case his father had carried. Barbara agreed, though they lamented together that, alas, the badge in fact had been reported stolen.
Miraculously, a man who lives near Curtin’s East Williston home telephoned Michael on his car phone very recently and said he had located the real shield and wanted Michael to have it. And now he has it. (No questions, please.)