Richard DeCoatsworth: How a Hero Cop Fell
Richard DeCoatsworth anticipated another great day. The 21-year-old rookie cop was six months into a new job he loved, and the sun shone bright that morning in 2007, through a cloudless September sky. He left his partner off at the courthouse and drove his patrol car west on Market Street toward the wilds of his district, where street vendors and drug dealers work in the open air.
Around 51st Street, he passed a battered blue Buick going the opposite direction. Everyone inside seemed to stiffen. DeCoatsworth had seen experienced police make arrests — for drugs, illegal guns, stolen cars — by acting on such subtle cues. He pulled a U-turn. The driver accelerated and turned out of sight. DeCoatsworth hunted for maybe a minute till he saw the car, parked on Farson Street.
Ideally, he’d call for backup before anything happened. But when he pulled alongside the Buick, blocking it in, three school-age kids emerged and started walking away. DeCoatsworth hopped out of his car and ordered them back, while glancing at the driver. As the kids returned, he felt secure enough to turn toward the police radio mounted on his right shoulder. A sudden blast struck him like a sledgehammer to the face.
Reeling, he scrambled sideways and over the hood of a parked car. He drew his gun and peeked back across the street. The Buick’s driver, shotgun waving wildly in his right hand, ran north. By now, the left side of DeCoatsworth’s face felt like it was on fire. Blood pumped from his wounds and down his throat, forcing him to drink. He touched his jaw, assessing the damage. He found craters in his skin, but there was enough structure that he felt whole. He realized he could run.
DeCoatsworth remembers little about the following minute. The gunman turned every so often to look over his shoulder, appearing shocked that the cop he shot was closing on him. Each time the man looked back, DeCoatsworth slowed and fired his gun, scared that if he didn’t, he might get shot again. He and the shooter ate up three city blocks, feet pounding pavement, till the gunman rounded a corner and disappeared from sight.
DeCoatsworth slowed, dizziness taking him. He radioed in his location, lumbered to the stoop of a nearby house, and sat down. Blood soaked the front of his uniform, chest to pant legs.
He looked up. The sky was as blue as he’d ever seen. He felt the deep irony of dying on such a beautiful day. When backup arrived, he waved his fellow officer after the shooter. He didn’t want the man who killed him to escape.
In the coming days, the city in which Richard DeCoatsworth was born would celebrate the rookie cop and his gritty chase. He would be hailed as a hero. But just six years later, he’d be sitting in jail, accused of rape. Over time, that hero label would do what the gunman alone couldn’t, putting a target on his back and affording him a level of deference he couldn’t withstand. The result is a story about the burden of heroism, about how the love and carelessness of a city accelerated a young man’s fall.
AFTER DECOATSWORTH WAS SHOT, it seemed that wherever he looked, a hand reached out to shake his. Veteran police, uniforms bedecked in command brass, posed for photos and expressed admiration for the hero. Fellow cops praised the rookie in the media, calling him a “ball of fire.” Citizens recognized him in the street — likely from his wounds — asked how he was healing, and thanked him for his service.
Like some caped crusader, DeCoatsworth had come along just when we needed him most. The city’s murder rate reached epidemic levels that year, with more than one victim per day. In a two-month span, six police officers were shot, including Charles Cassidy, who died from his wound. In this context, the DeCoatsworth story provided inspiration. His mad dash, lauded as “heroic” by the department, led to the capture of gunman Antonio Coulter. And for a while, the name “Richard DeCoatsworth” appeared in every story on city violence — an almost ritualistic gesture, like touching a rosary bead as a bulwark against the dark.
He spent eight days in the hospital, undergoing extensive surgery to his left lip, teeth and jawbone. In the ensuing months he underwent seven more operations, requiring a long recuperation. Love from the police and the public poured in, lifting his spirits. Said one supporter, “You could be mayor someday.”
What surprised him was the hate. Some cops turned, unsmiling, and drifted away. Others openly challenged him — “Do you think maybe you should have waited for your partner?” — as if going solo made him deserving of his wounds. He’d later describe one cop as “slithering,” taking a winding path through a crowd to reach him.
“Must be nice to be you,” the cop said.
A lot of police shared the same sentiment. This one nodded toward the crowd. “Wait a couple of years,” he said. “See how much they love you then.”
The camaraderie among police officers, the thin blue line, doesn’t eliminate infighting. “There is a lot of jealousy among police,” says former police commissioner Sylvester Johnson, who was still in command when DeCoatsworth was shot. “Police keep track of who is getting the best assignments, the awards. A lot of envy comes from that.”
DeCoatsworth was dealing with the challenges of being “a hero,” a phenomenon receiving new attention. Researchers have noticed that heroes and the wider culture have a conflicted relationship. For starters, anyone labeled a hero immediately deflects the title, usually offeringsome variation of “Anybody would do what I did.” In numerous interviews at the time, DeCoatsworth insisted any cop would have run, face shredded, after a gunman.
“It’s a defense mechanism, an act of social preservation,” says Matt Langdon, founder of the Hero Construction Company, a nonprofit designed to “promote heroism in today’s world.” “You cannot possibly say ‘Yes, I am a hero,’ or even, ‘Yes, I committed a heroic act,’ because you’d sound arrogant.”
Another problem is that our language conflates different kinds of heroism. Figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. deliberate over long, dangerous courses of action and accept risk. People who commit a single impulsive act, like running into a burning building or chasing the man who shot them, never reflect at all. We have no word to differentiate between these kinds of heroism, but everyday heroes sense the difference: A sudden alarming event occurred, and they reacted so spontaneously that the decision felt almost involuntary, like a reflex. As a result, impulsive heroes look out on a community of people who define them by an act they can’t own, creating a feeling of disassociation.
DeCoatsworth faced another complication: He was a rookie cop, part of a paramilitary organization in which mortal risk is expected. In his line of work, says Langdon, the true heroes are dead, having paid that ultimate price. “Some of his colleagues would undoubtedly hold him to this standard,” he says, “and feel he wasn’t worthy of being called a hero.”
In the fall of 2007, the celebration of DeCoatsworth stood in contrast to the mourning for Charles Cassidy. That October, Cassidy walked into a Dunkin’ Donuts, unaware a robbery was under way. A gunman shot Cassidy in the head as he entered. The 25-year veteran and father of three cast a long shadow. As DeCoatsworth walked among fellow cops, he imagined what might be going through their minds: Who is this kid? Why did he survive?
Physically, DeCoatsworth made slow, steady progress. When his rebuilt jaw healed, he relearned how to chew. He received prescription Percocet for pain. But the face is the part of our body most closely associated with our sense of self. His had changed forever. He knew he would never prefer the new visage that stared back at him from the mirror. He took solace in the way those scars and his job fit. But whenever some jealous cop would say how nice it must be to be a hero, the rookie felt his pain mount. “Really?” he’d think. “Must be nice to be you.”
HE REMEMBERS THE OFFICE on Delaware Avenue, tucked into a featureless building. The psychologist asked him, roughly nine months after his shooting, a question: “Do you feel fit to return to duty?”
“Yes,” DeCoatsworth replied.
The police department agreed, and new commissioner Charles Ramsey allowed DeCoatsworth to participate in a long-standing departmental custom: As an officer wounded in the line of duty, he got to choose his next assignment. Most cops in his position pick something quiet or close to home. DeCoatsworth selected Highway Patrol — the most active, aggressive and prestigious squad in the city. Cops usually are assigned there after a decade or more of work, if ever. DeCoatsworth was just 22, with only six months of street experience.
“I didn’t understand the politics,” he says, “and I’m not sure I would have cared if I did. I stay up nights now, going through these kinds of things. But at the time, I was so ambitious. It just seemed like the next logical step for me.”
On his first night on Highway Patrol, DeCoatsworth and his partner arrested a murder suspect. News stories crowed that the ball of fire was back and still burning. Six months later, in 2009, he reached the pinnacle of his success: an invitation to sit next to Michelle Obama and Jill Biden at the State of the Union address.
He remembers the night in fragments: The First Lady was gracious. The President spoke to him afterward, posed for a picture, and made him feel like he, Richard DeCoatsworth, was his sole point of focus. Secret Service agents sidled over, anxious to meet the kid who got shot and kept fighting.
Philly welcomed him back with the same old mix of love and hate. Most cops greeted him warmly, asking to hear the details. But other cops sought ways to challenge him or offered the same backhanded compliment: Must be nice to be you. He needed a mentor, but none appeared. Today, he thinks that could have been his fault. “There might have been people who reached out to me,” he says, “but I didn’t recognize it at the time.”
Being labeled a hero, he admits, changed him. “I suddenly fell into this category of people with giant balls,” he says. “I felt like I had something to live up to, and I wasn’t sure if I could. Maybe the next time I wouldn’t be so brave. So I just thought, ‘I can never back down from anything, ever.’ I wasn’t the initiator of any problems, but when people confronted me, I never backed down. And that went for everyone I met — people in the street and co-workers, too.”
When I meet DeCoatsworth in January, he’s alternately warm and wary, unfailingly polite and studiously hardened. He walks into the office of his attorney, L. George Parry, in a big double-breasted winter coat, carrying doughnuts and coffee for the staff. He looks like a bear fresh from hibernation, rounding into fighting shape. The scars from his shooting are still there, some as thick as shoelaces, in a tangle that covers his left jaw. When he settles in at the conference table, he openly sizes me up, just like a cop.
Over the months we spend talking, he shifts between frank admissions of his own failures and stout defenses of his behavior. At 29, reeling from a decade of unrelenting drama, he’s still sorting through it all. There was nothing in his youth to suggest the celebrity or infamy he’d eventually achieve. He grew up in a divorced household, splitting time between parents in Northern Liberties and neighborhoods along the Schuylkill. His mother worked in human resources at Temple University, his father in janitorial services. He played second base in city leagues, working just hard enough to pull down C’s at Benjamin Franklin High.
After graduating, DeCoatsworth moved in with his dad, who’d relocated to Boca Raton, Florida. He put in one semester at Lynn University to please his father before moving back to Philly and entering the police academy. “I wanted to grow up,” he says. “I wanted to show my dad I could start a career.”
The shooting didn’t dissuade him. But when he returned to active duty, he carried dual burdens — the mantle of hero, and a pain no one could see. Though he still had a Percocet prescription, DeCoatsworth insists he was never high on the job. He tried to take the pills responsibly, waiting until pain forced his hand. Edwin Salsitz, director for office-based opioid therapy at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, can’t speak directly about DeCoatsworth. However, he says taking painkillers “as needed” increases any patient’s chance of developing an addiction.
“When you wait until you feel the need,” he says, “you experience these dramatic swings. There’s pain, anxiety, depression. You associate those unpleasant feelings with your injury. But you’re feeling withdrawal.”
An addiction had sneaked up on DeCoatsworth, causing him to feel beyond the need for help. His career faltered shortly after his appearance at the State of the Union, with the tenor changing publicly in October 2010, when Ivy League professor and media pundit Marc Lamont Hill alleged in a lawsuit that DeCoatsworth had subjected him to an illegal, racist traffic stop. Hill’s account reads like a case study in police-citizen tension: He describes himself as anxious and silently praying. DeCoatsworth and his partner both said Hill’s nervousness put them on alert.
“We see this all the time,” says Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission. “The preconceptions each side brings to the encounter lead to this inevitable reality.”
The city paid Hill go-away money — just 15 grand. In hindsight, DeCoatsworth — half Puerto Rican, half Irish, with a Jamaican great-grandfather — may have been sandbagged. In Hill’s writing on the subject in the Philadelphia Daily News, he never mentioned that the other officer was black.
Hill’s complaint sparked a reevaluation of DeCoatsworth, however. The narrative shifted, and the media engaged in an age-old pastime — taking the hero we’d built up and knocking him down. Was Philly’s model cop really a bad cop?
The press sifted through his citizen complaints. Individually, none raised alarm. But a pattern seemed to have developed: Of the 11 case files DeCoatsworth ultimately had in his Internal Affairs folder, each marking an incident that required investigation, 10 occurred in the roughly two-year period after he returned to work. Had something changed? The most startling evidence was a pair of shootings that suggested the hero was struggling.
THE QUESTIONS ABOUT what happened still offend him. DeCoatsworth was in danger. He drew his weapon and fired with cause. What else could he have done?
In the first shooting, in 2009, he wanted to clear a corner, something cops do in drug-trafficking areas all the time. As DeCoatsworth would later tell investigators, the crowd at Lindley and Warnock started to move, and Anthony Temple, a mentally ill man, grabbed for DeCoatsworth’s gun. He shot Temple during the struggle.
In his attorney’s office, DeCoatsworth stands up to demonstrate this moment for me. He moves slowly, incrementally, as if frame by frame, so I can see the shooting unfold. I stand in for Temple, and we’re facing each other, wrestling, when DeCoatsworth pulls his trigger finger. He says Temple then wandered away, wounded.
But Internal Affairs, which investigates every police shooting, came to a different conclusion about the encounter. They found that DeCoatsworth shoved Temple away hard enough to turn him around. Only then — with DeCoatsworth in control of his weapon and his assailant some distance away, with his back turned — did the young cop open fire. (Temple allegedly grabbed at another officer’s gun when backup arrived and was shot to death.)
The written transcript of the IA investigator’s interview with DeCoatsworth contains one particularly telling exchange: “What would you say if I told you the male had an entrance wound to the right buttock?” the investigator asks.
“I can’t say,” DeCoatsworth responds. “From what I remember, we were facing each other the whole time.”
Five months later, DeCoatsworth shot a man in similarly contested circumstances, while on patrol with a partner in North Philadelphia. The pursuit of a suspected gunman ended when a different man, John James, allegedly accelerated towards DeCoatsworth on a motorcycle. Again, DeCoatsworth reenacts this critical moment with me. He unholsters his imaginary weapon, slow-motion dodging to the side and firing just as the cycle approaches. DeCoatsworth says no forensic evidence was presented in court to dispute his version of events. He encourages me to look for some.
Several days later, I call attorney Jamie Funt, who shows me a PowerPoint presentation he used at James’s trial, some of which DeCoatsworth didn’t witness. The photographs reveal a small round scar, consistent with an entry wound, in the back of the motorcyclist’s leg. A bigger, more ragged scar, indicating an exit wound, marks the front. By that account, DeCoatsworth shot a second man who had ceased to be a threat to his life.
Even after hearing about Funt’s presentation, DeCoatsworth sticks by his account. But the discrepancy between the forensic evidence and his confident retelling raises a specter — the possibility that DeCoatsworth himself was haunted.
Sandra Bloom, a psychiatrist in Drexel’s School of Public Health, won’t comment on DeCoatsworth specifically but says having memories that conflict with the evidence is consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. “We see that a lot,” she says. “In clinical settings, patients often remember traumatic events differently than how we might even know, from other evidence, they occurred.”
Sufferers of PTSD are subject to hyper-vigilance and can sometimes be triggered into explosive behavior by stimuli that remind them of their original trauma. DeCoatsworth rejects any suggestion that he had PTSD and has never been diagnosed with the condition. A month after his shooting, he says, he had no flashbacks, no nightmares. But his lack of awareness might be expected. “People who are self-medicating,” says Bloom, “particularly people on opiates, often display the behavior associated with PTSD without feeling the symptoms. That’s because opiates create this conscious feeling of well-being, but the altered brain function is still there.” The Percocet may have rendered DeCoatsworth the last to know.
He spent a few weeks on desk duty, but after hearings for each shooting, the department cleared him to return to the streets. The city ultimately paid James, the motorcyclist, a $1.5 million settlement, and DeCoatsworth was transferred from Highway Patrol to the Marine Unit, a peaceful assignment with little chance for violence. Before a month had passed at his new post, DeCoatsworth got into a fistfight with one of his co-workers. That was the end. Following one of the most widely talked-about “secret” meetings in departmental history, the former hero cop emerged a retiree, receiving disability retirement for his original injury.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey later blamed himself for bringing DeCoatsworth back too soon, especially to such an active squad. “We didn’t do enough to help this kid,” he told the Daily News.
At the time, the admission seemed admirable, but Ramsey probably went too easy on himself. The Philadelphia Police Department had an officer in its midst, one who’d inspired the city, recalling shootings in a manner inconsistent with the way the science suggests they occurred. Yet no one got him the help he needed, or dismissed him, after one shooting or even two. Department brass only acted with any finality after he got into a fight with another cop.
“These are the threads of what I think should be anybody’s concern with respect to officer-involved shootings,” says Kelvyn Anderson, from the Police Advisory Commission. “We have to begin unraveling the fact that police officers are human beings, and how we treat and care for them in the aftermath of a shooting also speaks to how we care for the public they are supposed to be guarding.”
Commissioner Ramsey declined requests for an interview through a spokesperson, who said in an email that the department’s experience with DeCoatsworth triggered no changes in policies on trauma counseling or the monitoring of painkiller use.
THE CLASSIC HERO’S JOURNEY, described by thinkers like Joseph Campbell and retold in countless films, from Star Wars to The Hunger Games, starts when the protagonist, a seemingly ordinary person at the time, receives a “call to adventure.” The hero then crosses a threshold, exiting the known world for a new land and a series of trials. In this context, Richard DeCoatsworth received his call when he was hired by the Philadelphia Police Department. He ventured to the other side of the thin blue line. And by 27, he’d faced more dramatic trials — a gunshot wound to the face, an ongoing addiction, job loss — than most people endure in a lifetime. He also watched with growing shame as the media lengthened his name to “Richard DeCoatsworth, the former hero cop who once sat next to Michelle Obama. … ”
“I felt like I’d let everyone down,” he says. “Every story about me, my name was being used to embarrass the president of the United States. Like somehow he made a mistake. I hated myself.”
People still recognized him in the street — only now they kept their distance. When he looked in the mirror, his life and the dense web of scars that interrupted his face no longer fit. “I felt like I lost my identity,” he says. “When I was a cop, getting shot made sense. Now I felt like I got shot for nothing.”
Some days, DeCoatsworth worked in his dad’s janitorial-supply business. Most days, he avoided other people altogether. He also reached an important realization: The Percocet he’d taken for six years — more than 2,000 days — had taken him. “I’d had a prescription,” he says. “But when things kept going so badly for me, I thought, ‘What am I doing still taking these pills?’”
He tried quitting cold turkey, but withdrawal pain eclipsed his will. He’d chased after a gunman as blood ran in sheets from his face. Now a little bottle beat him to the floor, the pills inside offering him his only respite from shame and judgment.
DeCoatsworth speaks sparingly about what happened next. His attorney expressed concern that the D.A. might use his words to press new charges. DeCoatsworth opted to let the vast amounts of paperwork from his case do the talking.
He made news again in February 2012 for allegedly threatening a neighbor, though no charges were filed. A year later, in May 2013, police responded to a domestic disturbance involving his on-again, off-again girlfriend. And around this time, DeCoatsworth met Taisha Viera, a woman who advertised online as an escort.
DeCoatsworth had grown so tired of people judging him that he sought time in the company of someone who wouldn’t judge him at all. Court records and interviews with Viera’s neighbors suggest she and DeCoatsworth quickly escalated beyond business. DeCoatsworth hung out in her house for long stretches of time, presumably while customers came and went. But on May 17th, Viera and another woman, Samantha Velazquez, accused him of rape. Within hours, police sent a SWAT team to the former cop’s Port Richmond house, arresting him and confiscating several guns. The prosecution later argued that DeCoatsworth had been ready to make his “last stand,” ignoring the obvious question: Why didn’t he?
Here is where the story of Richard DeCoatsworth becomes a tale — a kind of civic theater piece in which nuanced facts are replaced by broader fictions. His bail is a case in point: Suspected felons, if considered flight risks or dangerous, are commonly held without bail. DeCoatsworth was held for $60 million, a figure so cartoonish it can only be explained as a political stunt requested by District Attorney Seth Williams.
DeCoatsworth would spend 16 months in prison, awaiting trial on more than 30 criminal counts he adamantly denied, including rape and human trafficking. Prosecutors argued that he forced Velazquez and Viera to prostitute themselves at a Days Inn. From there, he allegedly drove the girls to Viera’s house, where he forced them to snort heroin and raped them at gunpoint.
As law enforcement continued their investigation — examining cell-phone records, witness statements, text messages — DeCoatsworth sat behind bars.
SOMETIME IN FEBRUARY 2014, in a conference room for attorneys and inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Richard DeCoatsworth met with Chuck Peruto Jr., the storied Philadelphia attorney.
He had, after nine months in jail, made unsteady peace with his predicament. He says he got along well with cellmates and spent a lot of time reading the Bible. But he was a former cop in prison, which meant he kept his back to the wall and his head on a swivel.
The time also wore on his family. Out of sheer anxiousness for something to happen, Mark DeCoatsworth had urged his son to fire the lawyer he’d retained, Parry, and hire Peruto. His father was helping with his legal bills, and DeCoatsworth felt obligated to take the advice. Now Peruto was here, grinning and fingering his cuff links. “Who’s the best?” he asked.
DeCoatsworth knew Peruto well enough to understand this question had one answer: “You are,” he said dutifully. “What’s going on?”
“I’m, eh, I’m getting you out of here,” Peruto said, pacing his words for dramatic effect. “You’re, uh, you’re getting out.”
“How’s that?” DeCoatsworth asked.
Peruto had negotiated a plea in which the most serious charges, including rape, would be dropped. DeCoatsworth’s potential sentence would be reduced from 20-to-40-years to time served. DeCoatsworth felt uncomfortable with the deal, but a few days later, he took it. As he was ushered back to jail to await sentencing, the prison van driver turned on the radio. His story led the news: Richard DeCoatsworth, the former hero cop, admits to being a criminal.
In that moment, he decided to withdraw his plea. The charges against him were reinstated, and he rehired Parry to craft his defense. The media portrayed DeCoatsworth’s behavior as erratic, wondering if he was “crazy” and labeling him a “drama king.” But jail time had forced DeCoatsworth to kick the pain pills, and he knew that if he pleaded to anything in court, it would be interpreted as an admission to everything.
Five months later, Jim Stinsman — the third prosecutor to handle the case — withdrew all the charges related to Velazquez and Viera. The statement released by the D.A.’s office cited a “massive reinvestigation” and concern over a lack of evidence. Discovery materials in the case suggest prosecutors had two problems — little evidence against DeCoatsworth, and additional information that contradicted their premise.
Rather than forcing the women into prostitution, text records suggested that Viera sought to negotiate a fee split with DeCoatsworth, presumably to serve as her driver and muscle. She even seemed to invite his participation. “U want to make … money this weekend,” she asks at one point. “I’m talking about a thousand in.”
Viera, who was the first of the women to speak with authorities, appeared to set up the “date” with clients at the Days Inn. Velazquez told police that DeCoatsworth threatened them on the way to the hotel. However, the other woman who was there, Jackie Perez, told police DeCoatsworth didn’t threaten them at all.
Building a believable timeline also proved problematic. The first date the accusers gave proved unworkable when text and phone records indicated that DeCoatsworth couldn’t have been present. The prosecution scrambled for another date, then finally settled on a third one.
There is more — a pattern of inconsistencies a defense attorney would exploit. Experts have estimated that 92 to 98 percent of rape and sexual assault accusations are true, rendering the decision to withdraw charges painful. But in this case, a wide range of evidence suggests that, in front of a jury, the flaws in his accusers’ stories would have seriously undermined their credibility.
The case against DeCoatsworth continued to weaken. In May 2013, just two weeks after the former hero cop’s arrest, police picked up a man named Manuel Maldonado on a complaint by Viera and her mother. The women told police that Maldonado, a convicted drug dealer, appeared at their door with a gun. Viera quoted him to police: “If you testify against Richie, I’m gonna kill ya’s.” Assistant District Attorney Ashley Lynam, then in charge of the case, marched into court: “When the FBI went through Mr. Maldonado’s cell phone,” she stated, “he absolutely knows who Mr. DeCoatsworth is.”
But no evidence surfaced to prove DeCoatsworth and Maldonado had ever met, let alone conspired to intimidate witnesses. In his police statement, Maldonado denied any involvement and described the accusation as retaliatory for an incident in which he struck Viera’s mother.
At some point, prosecutors must have realized they had no case or were outright duped, because in a city where witness intimidation is epidemic, they offered Maldonado a sweet deal: They’d withdraw the most serious charges if he pleaded to lesser ones. Maldonado dodged a potential 40-year sentence and walked with time served. “I didn’t even know Richard DeCoatsworth,” Maldonado tells me in a phone interview. “I took the plea because I’d already spent a year in jail and I wanted out.”
Velazquez didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview, and Perez couldn’t be located. Viera, reached by phone, asked for money; informed she wouldn’t be paid, she never gave her account. But if the allegations against DeCoatsworth were indeed false, the motive might be found in her words. The morning after the rapes allegedly occurred, she seemed jealous when she texted DeCoatsworth: “Go have fun with that bitch.” The reference to “that bitch” could be to one of the other women.
District Attorney Seth Williams responded to interview requests with a written statement focusing on the single charge against DeCoatsworth his office made stick — a separate instance of simple assault against the former cop’s girlfriend, resulting in a sentence of 18 months’ probation.
“My heart goes out to the friends and family of Mr. DeCoatsworth’s victim,” the statement reads. “Her abuser is now being supervised and treated. Our expectation and our hope is that she, and our City, is safer as a result.”
The DeCoatsworth case changed hands twice. The initial prosecutor, Joe McGlynn, no longer works for the district attorney; the second, Ashley Lynam, has since moved to another department. Jim Stinsman, the final lead attorney, had the case just long enough to review the evidence before withdrawing all charges.
The D.A.’s office, citing long-standing policies against discussing evidence outside public court proceedings, would only speak to me about the general process of investigating sexual assault. Extrapolating from that interview to the DeCoatsworth case, the prosecutors likely gathered all of the information listed here within a few months of DeCoatsworth’s arrest. Why did they hold him for an additional year? Politics may have played a role. They’d hit the ex-cop with 30-plus charges and asked for $60 million bail. The plea DeCoatsworth was offered, like the one Maldonado took, was likely the prosecution’s best shot at avoiding embarrassment.
Squeezing the same guy who’d run three blocks with a shattered jaw, however, was a miscalculation. The former cop had lost everything but his grit.
THIS POINT IN THE HERO’S journey is sometimes referred to as “the abyss.” The hero is consumed by a kind of death, either literal or purely symbolic. The story appears over, ending in defeat.
In this context, DeCoatsworth is right on time — out of prison, yet trapped by his past. The rape charges were withdrawn, but many people will always presume him guilty. He’s also on probation for that simple assault, a charge he fought in court and lost. Judging from investigative files, he really did act as a hooker’s chauffeur, at least once. Prior to his arrest, he texted other prostitutes, offering his driving services to them, too. The police retirement benefits he receives covered basics, but not the drugs he’d come to need.
His fall was so stunning that his past has been mined for clues to suggest he was always a bad guy — that the hero role was a ruse. Even his shooting remains the subject of speculation. Did he stop the man who shot him, Antonio Coulter, because of a personal dispute? For years I had heard rumors that DeCoatsworth and Coulter were romantic rivals seeing the same girl. No one could produce any evidence.
So I wrote Coulter, in January, and he invited me to visit him at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, where he’s serving a 36-to-72-year sentence. A former reform-school quarterback, the 28-year-old still appeared lithe and youthful. He told me I wasn’t the first to seek his story. “A reporter from the Inquirer wrote me,” he said, “but I never wrote back. I was scared no one would believe me.” Between bites of a vending-machine hamburger, he talked. “We was selling weed,” he said.
Coulter claimed DeCoatsworth supplied him with pot he sold. He kicked the bulk of the proceeds back to the cop but started skimming money. DeCoatsworth pursued him, seeking repayment. The gunman provided me with a list of people he said could corroborate his story, including his mother. But the witnesses I reached didn’t support his version. His mother said she had “no idea” if the pair knew each other. In a follow-up phone interview, Coulter admitted he’d lied.
The origins of these stories seem easy enough to divine: The love-triangle rumor arose from station-house jealousy, and these days, Coulter feels on level enough footing with the fallen cop to attack him again, this time hoping for a reduced sentence.
Observers of DeCoatsworth’s story, even the guy who shot him, see him in a brand-new way. But DeCoatsworth remains bound to his old reflection. The theme surfaces when I interview his best friend, Justin Pierce, a Philly kid who works in Los Angeles as a personal trainer. “It’s amazing to me how little he’s changed,” says Smith. “I went to visit Richard in prison and he was the same guy. Very calm. Very easygoing.”
I ask DeCoatsworth why he put up a front for the man he called his best friend. He offers various answers to the question but eventually admits, “I still feel like I have to be that tough cop.”
He sounds, suddenly, like a mixed-up kid — still pushing an image of himself that no one believes in anymore. Little wonder he’s stunted. Most young men spend their 20s establishing their independence. He spent his formative years lost in a fog of dramatic events.
He has relocated, again, to Boca Raton, where he lives with his father. He has no idea what to do for a career, and the ambition that once drove him to the Philly P.D.’s most elite unit is either gone or lacks any viable outlet. Where would he like to be in, say, 10 years?
“Probably on a boat,” he responds. “Out on the ocean. Away from people.”
His instinct for escape is understandable, and speaks to the trouble in which he now finds himself. “I don’t want this to be the story,” he told me, “about the guy who was traumatized and fucked up on pills.”
DeCoatsworth’s admonition could drive us in different directions: The blame for his downfall starts with that gunshot and relies on his own poor choices, but others are responsible, too — from the district attorney who kept him in jail with weak evidence, to the police department that neglected to care for him, to the society that holds its heroes up to the light all the better to expose their flaws.
DeCoatsworth received the hero tag with a single impulsive act. But even the leaders who display courage across a lifetime, who save people and nations, are scrutinized for their most intimate and personal shortcomings. This wider view of DeCoatsworth’s story underscores the danger of hero worship — for the society that sets itself up to be disappointed, and for heroes themselves.
But for Richard DeCoatsworth, none of that matters. Because for him, from the moment his face first went wild with pain right up to now, nothing’s really changed.
He got shot.
And he needs help.
Originally published as “Good Cop, Bad Cop” in the May 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.