A TRIBUTE TO TOM O’CONNELL
By Bill Pulos – December 19, 2013
Everyone once in a while, a personality or character comes along that really stands out from the crowd, someone whose story must be told. In the annals of ALS history, there have been many bigger-than-life characters graduated from the rugby club. We normally don’t read about them and their careers in the ALS alumni magazine.
Rather, in the ALS mag, we usually get the histories about lawyers cutting their teeth somewhere only to move on to corporate wealth, judgeships or powerful political office. It seems most stories are related to giving money or getting money to the law school. Rarely do we ever read about any ALS grad that embraced a line of life-threatening, public service work and made it his mission to put away bad guys; by drawing the line and going after some of the most dangerous domestic and international criminals in the United States. Probably because few people willingly make themselves and their family open targets for organized crime and killers, in return for a working lawyer’s paycheck, a modest pension and a pat on the back upon retirement. Tom is one of those few.
This is the story of Thomas M. O’Connell, an Assistant United States Attorney in Las Vegas and San Jose for at least the last 20 years. He’s had a remarkable career full of heroic exploits, with conviction after conviction of some of America’s worst criminals.
I met Tom the first week of my first year at ALS in the fall of 1977; of course it was a rugby meeting in one of the seminar rooms. He, Chuck Cernansky (the Polish Falcon) and Don Armstrong (the man’s man) were big personalities in the room that day; they helped give me the confidence I’d fit in with their crew, albeit with a “little” hazing. I’m attaching the 1977 team photo,
I have the glass of Kool-Aid on pic right and Tom is next to me photo left. Cernansky has the beard on the far left being teased by Homer Keyes. 35 years later, Tom’s ALS profile provided the basis for the fictional character “Tacks” in the parody “My Time with Jersey (2013).”
With our teammates Pat “The Young Swede” Maloney, Reid “The Big Cat” Whiting, Chris “Chip” Quinn [with whose siblings Tom attended grade school on Long Island], Kevin [(“McD – McDog – McDobie”) McDonald — Tom’s ALS roommate and ALS Legal Research Instructor], Frank “Tess” Tessitore, Peter Skivington and the guys that came after, they all became terrific life-long friends for which I’m very grateful. I’ve attached a photo at Cernansky’s 1985 wedding with Don Armstrong, Reid Whiting, Pat Maloney and Chris Quinn.
Tom graduated ALS sometime in January of 1980 and moved on. Shortly after, he became a member of the Suffolk County (NY) Police Department, complete with a high speed pursuit and shooting. Tom had over 100 arrests, earning him 5 commendations in 2 years. If he had stayed being a policeman on Long Island, he’d be enjoying a yearly pension north of $ 100,000.00. His AUSA retirement falls far short of that. From the P.D. he moved to the Suffolk County D.A.’s office and worked as an ADA for five years. Then, Tom gravitated to Las Vegas, joined the U.S. Attorney’s office and the rest is history.
Around Y2K, Tom started a joint program with the ATF, Las Vegas Metro and the Clark County (Nevada) D.A.’s office, targeting violent recidivist criminals with federal crimes. For that effort, Tom was awarded the U.S. Dept. of Justice Director’s Award in 2001. The recipient of the “Director’s Award” is chosen by the Director of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys in D.C. The EOUSA oversees all 97 U.S. Attorney’s offices.
In one of Tom’s last cases, “Operation Garlic Press,” Tom and a team of ATF agents, Deputy DAs and local police conducted a storefront sting operation targeting Northern California gang members. It resulted in one of the largest takedowns in California history, wherein 500 law enforcement officers arrested 118 defendants. Of 46 charged in federal court, 45 were convicted and sentenced to over 4,000 months (one remains a fugitive). For these outstanding achievements, Tom and the prosecution team were nominated by Melinda Haag, the United States Attorney in the Northern District of California, for California Lawyer of the Year, and for a Director’s Award.
On December 12th, 2013, in her annual State of the Office address in San Francisco a few weeks after Tom retired, USA NDCA Melinda Haag quoted Tom’s parting email message to his colleagues:
“I can look back with pride on 30 years of putting good cases together with my agents and cops, hammering the crooks who deserved it, and occasionally showing mercy to those who were decent enough people but had made stupid mistakes. It was gratifying to work with so many fine people, as a cop and ADA in New York, as an AUSA in Las Vegas and especially here in NDCA. Hopefully I set an example for my sons: in the end, the value of one’s life work is not measured in dollars, but rather in the commitment to an honorable cause.”
I could continue expounding on Tom’s career, but he wouldn’t want that. He’s always downplayed his achievements and he’s never been about the accolades.
Nevertheless, I’m sharing the letter dated November 20, 2013 sent from the U.S. Department of Justice by the Director of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms commemorating Tom’s retirement – attached – I’d like to see this letter on the front page of the als alumni mag. It says it all.
After reading this you’ll quickly realize Tom O’Connell has few, if any peers among ALS grads. If the military honors for bravery and valor were awarded for courageous prosecutions, Tom would have received many. I hope Tom’s outstanding career gets the ALS recognition it deserves and I’m unabashedly proud to tell his story. As we count our numerous blessings this season, I humbly suggest including Tom O’Connell and his law enforcement career as one of them. It really is unbelievable.
I know all of us on this list join me in wishing Tom all the best going forward and from all of us, “Thanks Tom for a fine job, well done.” We’d all want him as a next door neighbor.
Best of the Christmas and holiday season to all.
Your old buddy,