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Southold woman honored for bringing 911 caller to safety during fatal event

01/21/2016 8:30 AM |

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It happened almost a year ago, but for Tanya Newman the call might as well have come last night.

It was around 10 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, when the Riverhead public safety dispatcher took a call from a 14-year-old girl in Wading River whose mother had just been shot by her live-in boyfriend. It wasn’t until later that Ms. Newman and the teen, Brandy Lawrence, would learn that both the girl’s mother, Tanya, and her sister, Danielle, had been killed and that the gunman later turned the gun on himself.

In the moments after the call was placed, it was Ms. Newman’s job to navigate young Brandy to safety.

“There are certain things [about the call] I don’t remember as well as other parts, but there are certain things I will never get out of my head,” the Southold resident recalled.

For keeping her composure during that call and for successfully ushering Brandy away from danger, the Riverhead Police Benevolent Association honored Ms. Newman with a special award Saturday evening.

The other dispatchers working that evening — John Seus and Debbie Buyukdeniz — knew immediately that it was not your average call.

“My mother’s just been shot” were the first words to come out of Brandy’s mouth, Ms. Newman recalled. “We all know each other so well — so [the other dispatchers] knew in my tone it was something bad.”

Police arrived on the scene 10 minutes later, though they wouldn’t realize for hours exactly what horrors had occurred inside the house.

For weeks, Ms. Lawrence, 43, had been in the process of breaking up with her boyfriend, Thomas Calhoun, police said at the time. An argument erupted that Sunday night and Mr. Calhoun shot her and her 17-year-old daughter Danielle, who police said was likely going to the aid of her mother when she was killed.

Brandy managed to escape the home and call 911.

A police officer walks down Hulse Avenue between 12th and 14th streets shortly after police cleared a house where three bodies were found in Wading River. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

A police officer walks down Hulse Avenue between 12th and 14th streets shortly after police cleared the scene of the murder-suicide in Wading River last February. (Credit: Grant Parpan, file)

“I promised her I would get her help,” Ms. Newman said. “I told her to keep talking to me, to hide somewhere — get behind a car or something. I swore I was not going to disconnect until she was with one of our officers.”

While she usually tries to form some kind of bond with people on the other line, “for some reason — thank goodness — I didn’t tell Brandy my name.”

Since Ms. Newman and Ms. Lawrence had the same first name, the dispatcher was reluctant to reveal it to the 14-year-old. She feared that doing so might prompt Brandy to go inside to help her mother.

Ms. Newman has been a dispatcher for 17 years. Her father, the late Joseph Gordon, was a Southold police officer and she still lives in Southold with her husband and two children.

She studied criminal justice in college and, after taking several civil service courses, ended up working in Riverhead, where she’s been ever since.

“She’s an excellent dispatcher who not only knows what she’s doing in there — she handles herself professionally and she’s a pleasure to work with,” said Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller.

Ms. Newman still thinks about that night last winter and cries from time to time, though she has never listened to the tape again or met Brandy.

“It’s one of those calls that is traumatic not only for Brandy and her family, but for us on the other side, to keep our composure and try to best help everybody,” she said.

And while Ms. Newman was recognized for handling the Lawrence call nearly a year ago, even day-to-day calls can take their toll.

“It’s a very stressful job,” she said. “And any call can go from zero to 10 in a second.”

Photo caption: Southold resident and Riverhead dispatcher Tanya Newman was honored by the Riverhead PBA for saving the life of a 911 caller.

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