They say everyone handles grief in their own way. Some withdraw, some seek revenge, some sink into denial. But if you are Rich Norcross, you channel that grief into a learning experience that you share with others to teach them to survive. You then work with student filmmakers at a local university to create a documentary, a film that upholds what drew you to law enforcement in the first place, “to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Before Rich Norcross was CSI’s Executive Vice President and before he was the Commander of the Intelligence Services Team of the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, he was Detective Richard Norcross of the Haddon Heights Police Department, in suburban Camden County, New Jersey.
Haddon Heights is a quiet Philadelphia bedroom community; nothing unusual happens there very often. Should be a pretty safe beat, right? Until April 20, 1995 when Rich became one of three officers gunned down by a suspected child molester, who kept an arsenal of weapons hidden in his bedroom on the second story of his parents’ 1231 Sylvan Avenue home.
While executing a search warrant at the property because they suspected weapons were there, the officers were ambushed by the suspect. The first officer shot was Detective Jack McLaughlin, an investigator with the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office Child Abuse Unit, and then Rich was shot, as he followed McLaughlin up the stairs when the suspect opened fire.
The third officer shot was Patrolman John Norcross, Rich’s younger brother, also with the Haddon Heights Police Department. The younger Norcross was not on duty at the time, but responded to the call of “officer down.” Rich survived with critical injuries from multiple gunshot wounds; his twenty-four year old brother and Detective McLaughlin died at the scene.
Since his recovery, Rich has felt a calling to use what he has endured to help others. To accomplish this, he leads workshops and seminars to law enforcement officers about how to react if they become part of officer involved shooting incidents and how to survive tragedy. “I need to take something positive from this horrific negative,” he says. He draws upon his own experiences to offer those in his audience the inspiration to face difficulties in life, be it surviving a near-fatal gunshot wound or any personal loss or injury. His presentations have been attended by thousands across the county.
Last year, his friend, Michael Kantner, Vice President of Public Safety at Rowan University, put him in touch with members of the college’s film department. Rich and Kantner met with Professor Ned Ekhardt at a Barnes and Noble over coffee and discussed producing a documentary on the Haddon Heights incident and how its aftermath still touches lives today. It was then presented to others in the film department, including Professor Diana Nicolae and student Executive Producer Mark VanZevenbergen, who embraced the idea and work commenced in September 2014.
VanZevenbergen’s film crew spent eight months on research. They located many neighbors who were nearby the Sylvan Avenue massacre and interviewed them about their experiences that day. They dug up audio from the calls reporting the incident to police headquarters while the Page 7 shootings were going on. They got footage from NBC News and interviewed Terry Ruggles, the reporter who was off to cover another story when the call about the Haddon Heights shooting came in and was redirected to cover that. They interviewed family members, including McLaughlin’s widow, Kim, and his two daughters, who were just little girls when they suddenly lost their dad; even twenty years later with children of their own, their grief still seems raw as they relate heart -wrenching stories of how they found out and how their lives changed forever that tragic day. They interview Rich Norcross and his wife, Karen, who tell about how Rich found out about his younger brother’s death, while fighting for his own life in a hospital bed a day later; he had not even known that John was at the scene. They interview the other officers assigned to the search that day, to officers that responded, and to McLaughlin’s colleagues at the Prosecutor’s Office. They recorded the memories of all of these different people affected by the incident and their accounts of how it all went down.
In April, after the research was completed, the crew began piecing it all together to create the documentary. On May 15, in honor of National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial Day, (2015) After Tragedy was released, telling a gripping story of the tragic day, from the many vantage points of those interviewed, interspersed with clips from Norcross’ lectures at police academies. The film opens on a sunny, spring day in quiet Haddon Heights, and then the calm is shattered by reports on a police radio about someone firing a gun at cops on Sylvan Avenue, and so the story begins to unfold. The drama of the reports of gunfire, the emergency response, the neighbors hiding for safety, the families’ grief, the somber funeral for the fallen and the survivors coming to terms with what happened, all reveal the story that touched so many innocent lives twenty years ago and today still has impact because Norcross will not let the story die, nor the memory of his brother and his comrade. “
"I want people to remember John Norcross and Jack McLaughlin’s sacrifice and I wanted to memorialize the courage of those that responded that day,” relates Norcross. Their memory will live on, as the film is already being used in several police academies in New Jersey and surrounding areas, including Philadelphia. (2015) After Tragedy has been sent to the National Concerns of Police Survivors, an organization that helps families of fallen officers, and to the National Police Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Rowan University has entered it in several film festivals, including most recently at the Atlantic City Cinefest/Downbeach Film Festival in October.
With this documentary film, Rich Norcross and the Rowan University Department of Radio, Television and Film have left an indelible mark in history of the events of April 20, 1995, the community of Haddon Heights, New Jersey and the courage of the officers and responders involved in this tragic incident. The film can be viewed at https:// cineluci.wordpress.com/portfolio/2015-after-tragedy/.