NEW YORK — When her boyfriend punched her in the face, she called police. When he hit her in the head with a chair, she called again. Officers would arrive, and despite her obvious injuries — a cut lip, a swollen eye — they would turn and leave when her boyfriend, who was a prison guard at Rikers Island, would flash his own badge.
He hit her more, until Katrina Cooke Brownlee, 22 and pregnant, finally moved out of their home in Medford on Long Island with her two young children, hiding out in a hotel nearby. It was January 1993. Several days passed before she realized she needed more clothes for her daughters, and she returned to the house. Her boyfriend, Alex Irvin, was waiting — with a gun.
“This is the day you die, bitch,” he said, and he fired — straight at her belly. He fired again, and again, and again and again. He emptied the revolver’s five-round cylinder, then reloaded and emptied it again.
Three extraordinary outcomes followed that bloody day.
One: Katrina lived. Doctors removed all the bullets they could without causing more damage, leaving six inside her. She left the hospital months later in a wheelchair. Her unborn child did not survive.
Two: She learned to walk again. And run. Her left side hurt when it rained — the remaining bullets.
Three: Brownlee, who had only ever been let down and ignored by men with badges, even as she stood as living evidence of the beatings and violence one of them had delivered, approached an institution she deeply distrusted and stepped inside.
“The Police Department had failed me,” Brownlee, now 51, said in a recent interview. “I wanted to be a good cop.”
In 2001 she entered the police academy. What followed was a 20-year career of promotions to busy, dangerous areas of policing, from the streets of Brooklyn to undercover work in narcotics and prostitution stings. She ended up on the elite executive protection detail, as a bodyguard to the mayor of New York.
The entire time, through all those postings, Brownlee did her best to keep her shooting a secret. She feared what her fellow officers or her bosses would make of her traumatic injuries and her motivations for joining their ranks.
“People judging,” Brownlee said. “‘Maybe you’re crazy. Let me strip you of your gun. Maybe you’re a head case.’ ”
So she hid her scars beneath her police uniform, at first, then under her disguises for the undercover work, and finally, with the business suit of the mayor’s security detail. “I wanted to tell people, so many times,” she said, but she held her story close, buried like those remaining bullets.
She retired in July as a first-grade detective. Only when she decided to put away those uniforms for good did her story finally spill forth.
Left for Dead
Brownlee’s young life had already been a series of bad relationships when she met Irvin in the late 1980s. She had a daughter when she was just 14 with another teenager. She met Irvin five years later, and he and Brownlee had a baby girl together in 1990.
They lived together at his mother’s empty house in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn before moving to a house in Medford on Long Island in 1991. She recalls him as a kind partner at first. That changed.
“Five years of raping, torturing, locking me in closets,” she said this summer in a series of interviews after she left the force. “Where was I going to go? When you’re abused and you’re battered, it’s normal.” She had no family to turn to in New York and no other options.
In July 1992, Brownlee was pregnant again. “He said, ‘I’m not having this baby,’ ” she said. “He smacked me.”
Then she fled, returning only for a bag of clothes for the children, first carrying her sleeping 3-year-old to a nearby room. Irvin appeared behind her, and when she turned to face him, he fired. She would learn months later what happened as she lay dying.
A cousin of Irvin’s arrived, unannounced, and walked into a scene of bloodshed. “The house looked like the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ ” a prosecutor later said. The cousin picked her up, carried her to his car and drove her to a hospital in Patchogue, leaving her in a wheelchair out front, where staff members found her and rushed her inside.
Later that day, police arrived at Irvin’s home. There was blood all over; no badge was going to make this go away. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder. The prosecutor on the case, Keri Herzog, was a young assistant district attorney in Suffolk County. She visited the hospital to check on the victim.
“She was covered in tubes,” Herzog still remembers. “We weren’t sure she was going to make it.” She brought the foreman of the grand jury that was in session to the hospital, along with a detective and a stenographer, to take a formal bedside statement in case she did not survive.
Brownlee has no memories of this questioning. Her first recollection is from 33 days after the shooting, when she awoke from a coma. She asked her doctor a question, dreading the answer.
“He said, ‘The baby didn’t make it,’ ” she said. “‘It was a boy. He lived for two hours.’ ”
Her life as she had known it seemed over. “I was paralyzed from the waist down,” she said. A series of surgeries followed: “gall bladder, colon and vaginal repair, bladder surgeries,” she said. “Partial hysterectomy. Hip.”
Released from the hospital in a wheelchair, she went to the only place she knew: Irvin’s mother’s house, which was still empty. She was assigned a physical therapist, who vowed to get her out of the wheelchair. “If you give me a chance and give me everything you’ve got, you’re going to walk again,” he told her.
Trial preparation was underway. Then Irvin called her from jail.
“‘This is what you’re going to say,’” she said he told her. “‘You shot yourself 10 times.’”
As ludicrous as that sounded, Brownlee agreed. She feared Irvin would be released from custody at any time. “I have no one,” she recalled thinking. “He’s going to get out of jail.”
She felt powerless on every level. “The doctor told me I’ll never walk again, and I stayed in that mentality,” she said. “You’re in a wheelchair. You’re paralyzed,” she remembered thinking. “That’s the way it’s going to be.
“But,” she added, “that was not God’s plan for me.” She worked intensely with the physical therapist. In about 60 days, he and Brownlee had strengthened her legs and hips enough so that she was able to rise out of the chair and lean on a walker.
Soon after, the walker was replaced with a cane. Then, she set the cane aside.
Bathing at McDonald’s
It was late in 1993, and Irvin’s trial was approaching. Herzog, the prosecutor, contacted Brownlee to prepare the case. Brownlee had been helpful in the hospital, but that had changed. She refused to speak about the shooting.
Further, Brownlee sent a letter to the judge, claiming the shooting was an accident that she herself had provoked. Herzog was incredulous. “This was a guy who empties his revolver, reloaded, and emptied it again,” she said.
Herzog called her again and asked to meet. Brownlee refused.
“She said, ‘I’m not coming in, and I will disappear, and you’re never going to find me,’” Herzog recalled. “I could feel my blood pressure was rising, and I don’t know where the voice came from, but I actually let out a bellow and said, ‘Katrina, I will hunt you down like a dog!’ It was not my proudest moment. It was loud enough that colleagues down the hall came running to my office.”
Brownlee did not budge. But when Irvin’s mother threw her out of the house where she had been recovering, her perspective began to change.
She moved into a homeless shelter. “I would go to a McDonald’s and bathe,” she said. “Me and the kids.”
The hardship brought back her resolve. “Once I became homeless, what do I have to lose?” she said. “Go ahead and kill me. What do I care?”
In April 1994, the trial date arrived. Jury selection began, and Herzog, the prosecutor, was confident she could secure a conviction even without Brownlee’s cooperation. The injuries, as shown in the medical records, would speak for themselves.
But then, with the trial about to begin, the door to the courtroom opened, and Brownlee entered. She did not speak, but her measured stride, recently returned, was testimony in itself.
“Nobody was more surprised than me,” Herzog said.
Irvin saw her, too. Before opening statements began, he entered a guilty plea. He was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison. Over his time in prison, he was denied parole at least twice, with commissioners asking how he could have reloaded his pistol and kept shooting. “What the hell was going through your mind?” one asked.
‘I Need to Be a Cop’
With the trial behind her, it was time to start over. She continued her recovery, and then a surprise arrived in the mail. Years earlier, when she was still with Irvin and impressed by his career, she had taken the written test to become a traffic agent in New York City. She had forgotten all about it until, in 1997, she got a letter from the city inviting her to join the agency, which had since become part of the Police Department.
She started out writing parking tickets but soon realized she wanted more. “I was like, ‘I need to be a cop,’ ” she said. This would require a more thorough application process and physical examination.
A question on a form asked if she had ever had surgery. “Gunshot wound,” she wrote. She grew fearful as the day of her physical examination approached. A long scar ran up her belly, with smaller ones surrounding it. What if the doctor questioned her fitness for duty when he saw her injuries?
She showed up for her police physical, disrobed and lined up with a dozen other women.
“I was the last one,” she recalled. “He’s coming down the line. I know I’m going to get disqualified.” But then a woman stopped the doctor to ask a question, and then another. “Enough time passed, and he said, ‘Everybody get dressed and leave.’ I was the first one out that damn door.”
She graduated from the police academy and was appointed an officer in 2001. Two years later, she was transferred to the narcotics division — to work undercover, making drug purchases so that officers could follow up and arrest the dealers. As dangerous as it sounds, it was a dream job; her favorite television show was “New York Undercover,” about detectives with secret identities.
She created her own persona, a disguise that would act as a suit of armor in a world where women, broke and desperate, resorted to sex in exchange for drugs. “I went as a gay woman,” she said, and a working one, showing up at drug buys wearing a borrowed FedEx uniform.
Her dealers noticed the suspicious timing between her visits and their own arrests. “‘As soon as you left, the cops came,’” they’d point out. “I was like, ‘They got me too. That’s why you haven’t seen me.’ ”
Her bosses praised her work. “Brownlee is innovative when assigned a difficult task such as infiltrating drug dealers,” one performance evaluation read. “She is enthusiastic about making buys and doing cases, even when it means going up against some very dangerous individuals.”
The work consumed her. In fact, in 2003, when Irvin was released from prison after serving 10 years for her attempted murder, she gave it no real thought. That part of her life was over. He has since moved out of state and could not be reached for comment for this story.
After a couple of years, she was transferred again, to the vice squad. Her undercover look changed, too. “Now I’m sexy, and the long hair,” she said. Posing as a prostitute on Sutphin Boulevard, a notorious stretch in Queens where runaway teenage girls worked alongside grown women, approaching men’s cars and getting inside for $50 or $100, opened her eyes.
“There’s a lot of sick people out there,” she said. A boss gave her advice: “When you go out there and you’re not afraid,” he told her, “you’re doing something wrong.”
She saw something familiar in those young women working the streets. Many were victims as she had been. But she could not reveal herself to them; to do so would blow her cover. She felt frustrated.
Brownlee said, “99.9%, they’re all victims. Just talking to them, their stories — it’s like a sisterhood out there.” She met one young woman who carried in her purse a bizarre talisman: “a bag of dead roaches,” Brownlee recalled. “You go out there on these streets, and you get so traumatized, you befriend dead roaches. It’s crazy.”
The work was extremely stressful. After more than five years of being undercover, she was transferred to a quieter post in a community affairs office in police headquarters, and, now a police officer in plain sight, she saw an opportunity.
In 2012, she founded a program with the office called A Rose Is Still a Rose, which was eventually renamed and designated a nonprofit, Young Ladies of Our Future. The organization “aims to inspire, educate, mentor, and empower at-risk young ladies,” according to its website. At offices in Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn, young women would gather for weekly workshops — “from etiquette to bullying to gun violence to nutrition,” she said.
Finally, in 2013, Brownlee was selected to become a member of the executive security detail surrounding the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and his family.
“You didn’t see people like me on the mayor’s detail,” she said. “It was predominantly a Caucasian male detail. That was huge.”
She was the mayor’s advance officer. “I’m the person that goes ahead and makes sure everything’s secure and brings him in.”
The two had a bond, she said. “He follows me wherever I go. If I fall into a ditch, he’s going into a ditch. We liked each other. I traveled all over the world with this man for eight years.”
This year, de Blasio’s last as mayor, was Brownlee’s 20th year with the department, a milestone that many officers mark by handing in their retirement papers. Then 50 years old, she knew she was ready for a change and decided it was time to leave. She retired June 30. That same day, she shared her secret.
She sat down with de Blasio at a final meeting in his office, and it just came out. “I said, ‘I was shot 10 times.’ ” He looked at her in disbelief. She repeated herself and told him she was writing a memoir. The manuscript is titled, “And Then Came the Blues.”
“He said, ‘You’re incredible. You never showed any signs.’ ”
She told the mayor, “You’re not supposed to.”
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