During his 32 years as a Buffalo police officer, Michael J. McCarthy Jr. arrested hundreds of violent criminals, handled tense hostage situations as a leader of the Special Weapons & Tactics Team, and once had the hat shot off his head by a robbery suspect who later killed a fellow officer.
Then, he retired, and things really got hairy.
For most of the past 12 years, McCarthy worked in the shadowy overseas world of mercenary soldiers and private security consultants. Like thousands of other Americans -- many of them retired cops or military veterans -- he worked with the U.S. government, the United Nations and for private security companies in some of the most dangerous hot spots in the world.
He investigated unspeakably cruel war crimes in Bosnia, Liberia and East Timor. He trained rookie cops in Kosovo. In Iraq, he spent two years working outside the protected "Green Zone," investigating crimes with Iraqi police.
He was shot once and was shot at dozens of times. He survived two terrorist bombings at a hotel, including one that blew him out of his room, across a hallway and sent him crashing into some steel elevator doors.
"I've seen a lot of things. You could say I've seen too much," he said, becoming very emotional at times during a recent three-hour interview at his daughter's Orchard Park home. "I can tell you this -- I've seen some things that I wish I hadn't seen."
They were surprising words from a man who was long regarded by fellow officers as a Clint Eastwood figure, one of the most hard-nosed and unyielding officers on the city police force. In fact, some fellow officers felt the tall, muscular McCarthy was rougher and meaner than he needed to be.
"As a police officer, I always wanted people on the street to give me one of two things -- respect or fear. I didn't care which one it was," he said. "I was locking up some people that had done some pretty bad things to other people I guess you could say I have mellowed some since that time."
McCarthy, now 71, rarely spoke to the news media during his decades as a cop, and in recent years, he repeatedly turned down interview requests about his overseas adventures. But last week, suffering with inoperable cancer, he reached out to The Buffalo News and agreed to tell his story. He said it would take "a miracle" for him to recover to the point that he'll ever work again.
"I do believe in miracles, and I haven't given up hoping for one, but I don't know how long I'm going to be around," he said.
>Love of police work
Growing up in the Commodore Perry housing project in Buffalo's Old First Ward, McCarthy knew he wanted to join the U.S. Marines and to become a city cop. After graduating from the old Father Baker High School, he enlisted in the Marines in 1956. He was sent to Okinawa and Japan, where he and other Marines were assigned to search the woods and farmland for World War II artillery shells that had been fired by the U.S. Navy but had never exploded.
"We would find the shells, and others would detonate them, to make the areas safe for farming," McCarthy said. "It was dangerous A couple of my friends were blown up over there."
After working as a longshoreman for several years, he was hired by the Buffalo Police in 1963, following a tradition set by his late father, a feisty cop known as "Iron Mike."
McCarthy quickly fell in love with police work. He enjoyed the challenge of chasing criminals, especially those who had violently victimized law-abiding people. During his city police career, he won virtually every heroism award that the department had, and 85 service commendations. He was a leader of the SWAT team, and served in the Narcotics Squad and several specialized units that concentrated on the city's high-crime areas.
He had some close calls. In January 1968, McCarthy and his partner, John Dunford, traced a robbery suspect to a Military Road bar, and tried to question him. The suspect, Valdura Sanders, pulled a gun from his waistband and started shooting.
"I'll always remember the weird smile he had on his face as he turned around, pulled the gun and aimed at my head," McCarthy said. "The shot knocked my hat off my head I was very lucky."
Sanders ran outside, where he shot and killed another officer, Robert J. Arnold, before McCarthy shot and killed Sanders.
A close friend of the late Mayor James D. Griffin, McCarthy retired as a lieutenant in late 1994 to start his own private investigation firm, but after a few years of that, he became restless.
>Adventure and danger
In 1998, he heard about an opportunity to make $75,000 a year doing police work in Bosnia, working for a private security firm that was contracted by the U.S. State Department. His marriage was breaking up. He saw the overseas job as an adventure and a challenge, and decided to try it.
"We were investigating war atrocities in the fighting in Bosnia," McCarthy said. He said several of the war criminals he investigated were prosecuted at a U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.
In Bosnia, a country torn by bloody warfare, "One time, we took the top off a well, and the entire well was stacked with bodies -- including women and little children," he recalled. "That's what really got to me, the women and the kids."
McCarthy spent a year in Bosnia, followed by two years in Kosovo, where he trained officers for a new police force. After that, his next assignment was in the small country of East Timor in Southeast Asia, where he worked with a U.N. police unit that was investigating genocide and other major crimes.
He recalled "working 45 straight hours" to solve the case of a woman from Australia who had been gang-raped by six men.
"Another time, they sent me to this small island. We walked into this village and it looked like a pretty peaceful scene there -- a bunch of kids playing soccer," McCarthy said. "We looked closer, and these kids were playing soccer with a man's head."
But McCarthy said his most dangerous assignment was the two years he spent in Baghdad, starting in 2004, as a private contractor working with an Iraqi police major crimes unit. Police officers "were constantly getting killed," he said, and on several occasions, he came close to dying, too.
"There is a road leading out to the Baghdad airport, which has been called the most dangerous road in the world," McCarthy said. "That was the road leading to the office where I worked, near the airport, and I covered that road at least four times a day."
>Supports presence in Iraq
During his time in Baghdad, he stayed in a hotel that was bombed twice while he was in the building. "One morning, I woke up because someone was firing an AK-47, which really wasn't unusual at that time," he said. "I looked out the window, and there was this big ball of flame. The window blew up, and I went flying through the room and out the door, into a hallway. I crashed into some elevator doors, and messed up my shoulder and knee."
McCarthy said he strongly supports the United States' involvement in Iraq. "Ninety-five percent of the Iraqis love us and appreciate us over there," he said. "The people I talked to all believed the same thing -- that after the U.S. leaves Iraq, there is going to be a huge civil war, and a lot of people are going to be killed."
McCarthy's last overseas adventure was in the African nation of Liberia, where the government hired him to be a criminal investigator. He said he investigated incidents of extreme torture and brutality by gangs of thugs, including cannibalism. He returned to Buffalo last year after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.
McCarthy's stories could not be independently verified by The News, but local relatives of the ex-cop said he has been telling them about these incidents for years, sending them e-mails and photos.
"I have no doubt that these things happened to him, and many more things that he just won't talk about," said State Police Capt. Michael P. Nigrelli, a McCarthy nephew who is one of about 25 McCarthy relatives doing police work in Western New York.