Life wasn’t supposed to end this way for Sgt. Paul Accardo: alone in chaos.
He wrote a note telling anyone who found him to contact a fellow officer. He was precise, and thoughtful, to the end. Then he stuck a gun into his mouth and killed himself.
Accardo, 36, was one of two city cops who committed suicide last week as New Orleans descended into an abyss of death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. He was found in an unmarked patrol car Saturday in a downtown parking lot.
His funeral was planned for Wednesday.
Back when life was normal and structured, Accardo served as one of the police department’s chief spokesmen. He reported murders, hostage situations and rapes in measured words, his bespectacled face benign and familiar on the nightly news.
“Paul was a stellar guy. A perfectionist. Everything had to be just right,” recalled Sgt. Joe Narcisse, who went to police academy with Accardo and worked with him in the public affairs office.
Imposing order on disorder
Uniform crisply pressed, office in order, everything just right on his desk. That was Accardo.
“I’m the jokester in the office. I’d move stuff on his desk and he didn’t like that,” said Capt. Marlon Defillo, Accardo’s boss. “He was ready to call the crime lab to find out who messed with his desk.”
Maybe, Defillo reckoned, he killed himself because he lost hope that order would ever be restored in the city.
A public information officer, the captain said, turns the senseless — murder, rape, mayhem — into something orderly for the public. “It’s like dominoes scattered across a table and putting them in order.”
But in New Orleans for the past week, the chaos seemed endless.
Long hours, endless chaos
Like the rest of the department, Accardo worked long, difficult days — sometimes 20 hours. He waded through the mass of flesh and stench in the Louisiana Superdome. He saw the dead in the streets.
Defillo remembered how bad Accardo felt when he was unable to help women stranded on the interstate and pleading for water and food. One woman said her baby had not had water in three days.
He even wanted to stop and help the animals lost amid the ruin of New Orleans, Defillo said.
Unable to stop the madness and hurt, Accardo sank into depression.
Narcisse remembered being on the telephone with him, complaining about the flooding when his old academy buddy cut him off mid-sentence: “Joe. Joe. I can’t talk to you right now.” He couldn’t handle it anymore, Narcisse said.
“It was like you were having an awful conversation with someone who died in your family,” he said.
Traumatized police force
Accardo — who also lost his home in the flood waters — looked like a zombie, like someone who hadn’t slept in year, Defillo said. But so did so many on the 1,600-member force.
Officials said Monday that between 400 to 500 officers were unaccounted for, many tending to their homes or looking for their families, and some dropping out. To lessen the stress, officers were being cycled off duty and given five-day vacations in Las Vegas and Atlanta, where they also would receive counseling.
Said Mayor Ray Nagin: “I’ve got some firefighters and police officers that have been pretty much traumatized.”
Police Superintendent Eddie Compass didn’t know how many had abandoned their jobs outright, but denied that it was a large number.
“No police department in the history of the world was asked to do what we (were) asked,” he said.
But Defillo said he never thought Accardo would kill himself.
“We kept telling him, 'There’s going to be a brighter day; suck it up,”’ Defillo said. “He couldn’t shake it.”
According to the obituary in the Advocate of Baton Rouge, Accardo left a wife, Anne; his mother, Catherine; a brother; a sister; and eight nieces and nephews.