Staging a heartfelt show of gratitude

Shooting victim uses national stage to thank city police officer

By carolyn o

By carolyn o’connell
Staff Writer

CAROLYN O’CONNELL  Long Branch Police Officer Sam Tomaine and Sujeil Villanueva share some laughs about their appearance on the Maury Povich show this week.CAROLYN O’CONNELL Long Branch Police Officer Sam Tomaine and Sujeil Villanueva share some laughs about their appearance on the Maury Povich show this week.

LONG BRANCH — Telling her miraculous story to the nation was not enough. Now it was time to honor the police officer who gave her the will to live.

More than two years ago, on Oct. 18, 2000, Sujeil Villanueva’s life changed forever. On that fateful day, Villanueva, then 25, was shot once in the head and a second bullet lodged in her abdomen, which was the cause of the death of her unborn child.

Her attacker, Kendra Stein, of Long Branch, was convicted of aggravated manslaughter and possession of an illegal firearm and was sentenced in December 2001 to seven years in prison.

Just two weeks ago, Villanueva received a call from the producers of the Maury Povich show. They asked her if she would be willing to tell her story on a show whose theme was to emphasize that hope is still possible in the face of tragedy.

After agreeing to travel to New York for the interview, Villanueva was asked what she wanted to express during her interview with Maury Povich.

"The first person to pop into my head was Sam Tomaine," said Villanueva. "I wanted him to know the positive and caring feeling he gave to me that day."

Tomaine, 47, a Long Branch police officer, was the first officer to arrive at the scene to aid Villanueva, and he remained at her side until she was taken into surgery.

Tomaine did agree to be on the show; however, what he did not know was that his co-workers and superior officers, along with Villanueva, were setting him up for a surprise on the show.

Villanueva, when making the arrangements with Tomaine, told him that producers contacted her from the show to appear on an amazing recoveries segment and wanted to hear her story from all sides, including the criminal aspect of her case.

With the wheels of the plot set in motion, the producers called Tomaine the night before the show was to be taped and told him to wear proper attire because he may be in the audience.

Off to the stores he went — along with fellow officer Howard Townsend, assigned to make sure the surprise would come off without a hitch — to buy sweaters.

"To get the right type of clothing for the show," said Tomaine, "I must have spent somewhere around $126 on sweaters."

As Tomaine recalls it, the limousine arrived at 11:10 a.m., and he and Townsend were escorted to New York to prepare for the show.

While sitting in "the green room," which Tomaine said is actually blue, he and Townsend waited for instructions.

Noticing that other guests were getting makeovers, Tomaine anticipated that he might, too, and said he was hoping the show might address his lack of locks.

"I thought maybe they would spray that black stuff on my head, to get a little extra hair for the camera," he said.

No such luck. Instead, a stagehand outfitted him with a microphone. Tomaine, being the intuitive and perceptive officer that he is, said he noticed that only he was getting a microphone and not Townsend. Turning to Townsend, Tomaine said, "Why am I the only one getting this? What do you know that I don’t know?"

It was probably nerves, but Tomaine was not about to admit it, despite the fact that he was now pacing the green room thinking of what to say.

As he tracked the floor, Tomaine could hear the Ricki Lake show, which was being taped next door. Tomaine could hear the guests on the Lake show fighting, and he picked up intermittent words about DNA testing and ex-girlfriends.

"Are you sure we are at the right show? This doesn’t sound good," Tomaine said to Townsend.

Recalling the moment, Tomaine laughed and said, "I heard DNA testing, and I was thinking they were going to ask me about DNA testing or something I don’t know about. I was feeling a little uncomfortable with that."

Outfitted in his new green sweater, Tomaine walked through the doors to the staging area, escorted by Povich, who had one arm over Tomaine’s shoulder.

Tomaine recalls that as they walked out together onto the stage, Povich said to him, "I know that you know that I like the Long Branch police. And I know that you know that I like Max’s hot dogs. What I know that you don’t know is that this is a surprise."

Now standing in the bright lights of the stage with a camera recording his every movement, Tomaine spotted Townsend wearing his new red sweater, sitting in the corner with a big smile on his face.

"If he (Townsend) wasn’t wearing a mic," said Tomaine jokingly, "I would have killed him."

When Tomaine finally made it to the stage, joining Villanueva and her mother, Villanueva had already told her story to Povich.

Villanueva described the night she was shot and how she remained lucid.

"I did see the beautiful light after being shot, and it was time to go. I remember relaxing in my car, and I asked God for a sign if I was to go to him. But something held me back. I saw the faces of my three children, and then I heard the sirens. I turned and I saw Sam’s face."

In his care, still seated in her car parked on lower Broadway, Villanueva said she tried to give Tomaine signs to let him know she was still alive.

"Sam gave me inspirational reassurance, telling me to live and hold on," she said. "I responded by squeezing his hand."

"I could barely feel the squeeze," Tomaine said. "Because of all the blood, I did not recognize the person that I was helping was Sujeil, a city employee, until we arrived in trauma."

Tomaine remembers riding with her to the trauma center at Jersey Shore Medical Center, where Villanueva underwent several tests before going into surgery.

While Villanueva was taken from a CAT scan to take an optic nerve test, Tomaine noted that he spotted Mayor Adam Schneider in the hallway of the hospital. He then told Villanueva, "You are a real hot shot; the mayor is here for you."

The staff of the hospital had asked Tomaine to scrub up and attire himself with sterile clothing so he could wait in the surgical room for the chain of evidence.

But because it was midnight at that point, Townsend was called in to relieve Tomaine for the next shift, and he collected the two bullets retrieved from Villanueva.

Knowing that Tomaine remained to support her and her family, Villanueva had written a letter to him, which was being shown on a screen on stage. In a prerecorded segment, Villanueva had read the letter that Tomaine was now hearing for the first time.

The letter honored Tomaine, thanking him for his support, his compassion and his determination to will Villanueva to live.

"I could see the audience’s faces while the letter was heard," said Villanueva. "Their faces were filled with joy because now they knew there are great people like Sam out there."

Villanueva then gave Tomaine a guardian angel pin, which he said he would wear on his police uniform.

Tomaine said he was nervous with the spotlight on him, but that being in the company of Povich helped to relax him.

"Maury has a real way of making you feel at home and a way of bringing things out of you," he said.

Despite relaxing in front of the camera, Tomaine said, "My mind went blank. I decided to shoot off the cuff."

What Tomaine wanted to say about the incident and the way the police handled a victim while an active shooter was still at large was that "it was a case of good old-fashioned police work," using the city’s marked patrol, its detectives and the crime unit.

That night with Villanueva, Tomaine said, "has impacted me to reinvent police work, giving me a greater desire to get deeper into my job."

Tomaine told the audience, "Every cop has compassion deep down. It’s not just about the cops catching the bad guys. There are more roles to it than that.

"Be grateful and fight for what you want, and never give up," are lessons Tomaine said he learned from the events that unfolded more than two years ago.

Villanueva’s miracle and Tomaine’s compassion also left an impact on Povich, who said, "Sujeil was one of the most courageous guests we have ever had on the show. Her sheer determination to survive, matched with her incredible strength of character, is nothing short of miraculous. Police Officer Sam’s amazing compassion for Sujeil was truly exceptional. He is a credit to his whole profession."