Hochul to decide DEC officer’s final reward
By Gwendolyn Craig
It was just around Christmas in 2016 that Shari Raymond found out her husband had lung, bone and brain cancer. For a few months, Stephen Raymond looked like the strong, funny man Shari Raymond always knew. Doctors said he had about one year to live, she recalled.
On Monday, April 17, 2017, Stephen Raymond died. The retired New York environmental conservation officer, who had patrolled the Adirondacks region, was 67. At that time, Shari Raymond didn’t know the cancer that had killed her husband was linked to 15 years earlier at Ground Zero in New York City, where he was deployed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
His approximately 225 hours of service there was enough exposure, doctors and lawyers would later determine, to say Stephen Raymond’s death was work-related and “accidental.” He became the first documented environmental conservation officer in the state to have died from a 9/11-related illness.
By the time Shari Raymond had this information, her application for his accidental death benefit under the New York State and Local Retirement System was too late. Legislators stepped in to help.
A bill passed the state Senate and Assembly this year, deeming Shari Raymond’s application as timely. If Gov. Kathy Hochul signs the bill, Shari Raymond will be awarded $2.07 million based on the assumption that the benefit will be paid on March 1, 2023. Legislators expect more widows and 9/11 survivors could face similar hang-ups with deadlines and paperwork.
Thomas Caifa, captain of Region 4’s environmental conservation police, said he knows there are officers who served during the aftermath of 9/11 who have not gone through the application process for health and retirement benefits. He encourages retirees to look into it.
“I think most of us think we’re immortal,” Caifa said. “We don’t think about dying tomorrow, but if you do, it’s your wife or someone who will have to deal with it if you don’t.”
Assemblyman Matt Simpson, R-Horicon, said he hopes there’s a legislative fix in the future to ensure any others who come forward are properly recognized and supported. He doesn’t want anyone to fall through the cracks, he said.
“Any first responder, anybody who served at that time, is very deserving of this,” Simpson said.
Decades of service
Stephen Raymond had a long career in public service. He was a Navy signalman during the Vietnam era, then an Albany police officer and later a Fishkill Correctional Facility guard. In 1981, he became an environmental conservation officer in Ulster, Orange and Dutchess counties before shifting to Warren, Washington, Essex and Saratoga counties. The Raymonds eventually settled in Thurman.
On Sept. 13, 2001, the DEC deployed Stephen Raymond to the World Trade Center site along with other environmental conservation officers. He served two tours through Oct. 22, 2001. It’s unclear how many DEC officers went. Caifa, who was part of the last class of conservation officers to have assisted with the 9/11 cleanup, said many agencies sent people in rotating shifts.
“Everyone wanted to go,” Caifa said. “A lot of our guys went in, and no one thought about it for years and years, really.”
About five years ago Caifa, who is also the historian for the division, first began hearing about illnesses afflicting former colleagues, including Stephen Raymond.
Shari Raymond said her husband wouldn’t talk much about what he saw at Ground Zero. She knew he was sifting through debris to look for bodies. He did not wear a mask or breathing apparatus, she said.
In 2007, Stephen Raymond retired. Nearly a decade later, he was diagnosed with cancer. After a few months of chemotherapy lumps appeared on his chest. Shari Raymond’s eyes welled with tears as she recounted her husband’s death. The 63-year-old wore their wedding bands on a chain around her neck.
“You don’t know what you have to go through until you become a widow,” she said. “It was a nightmare. You’re not prepared for it.”
The state pays accidental death benefits to New York State and Local Retirement System members who die from natural and proximate results of an on-the-job accident not due to their willful negligence, according to the state comptroller’s office.
Ellen Guerdat, executive director of the Genesee Valley Concerns of Police Survivors, doesn’t like the term “accidental death.”
“It’s not always an accident,” Guerdat said. “Having planes fly into the building, getting shot, is not an accident.”
Guerdat’s organization is a chapter of a national nonprofit, providing resources for families and coworkers who have lost an officer in a line-of-duty death. New York has three chapters and Guerdat’s covers 23 counties. From 9/11 cancers, to heart attacks, to gun killings, Guerdat assists families with the complicated and trying aftermath of losing a uniformed loved one.
While they do not specifically cover the Adirondacks region, Guerdat provided Shari Raymond guidance and helped with writing to lawmakers. Guerdat hopes more chapters across the state will open to help grieving families and coworkers.
Under the state’s accidental death benefit is a presumption for 9/11 service members.
Stephen Raymond died not knowing his 9/11 service was the cause of his illness. Shari Raymond said it was her brother, Ulster County Undersheriff Eric Benjamin, who suggested she look into whether the connection to his 9/11 service.
The process meant proving that her husband was at Ground Zero. Caifa helped her by looking up old time cards and records stored in boxes. Nothing was filed digitally, Caifa said. Multiple doctors, including those associated with the federal 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, looked at Stephen Raymond’s medical records to determine if the cancer was linked, Shari Raymond said, and they found that they were.
By the time her application for the state benefit was filed in December 2019, it was eight months too late.
The two-year deadline for families to file was later increased to five years under a measure passed in May 2019. That bill took effect Jan. 1, 2020 and did not include a provision for deaths of members before that date. That meant Shari Raymond’s application was not eligible.
Though it would not accept her benefits application, the state did honor Stephen Raymond for his 9/11 service at a Police Officers’ Memorial Ceremony. His name was added to the memorial at Albany’s Empire State Plaza last year.
When Simpson first became an assemblyman at the beginning of 2021, Shari Raymond was one of his first constituent calls, he said. She also called state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury. The two lawmakers drafted a bill to get her the benefits. It passed in the Senate in 2021, but it did not pass the Assembly. Shari Raymond began a crusade, calling and mailing letters to Assembly members and the governor.
Her persistence worked. The bill passed unanimously in both houses this session and the Assembly became her greatest champion with nearly 60 sponsors on the bill from both parties across the state.
She hopes her efforts will help similar survivors “denied because they didn’t file on time.”
“It’s just, I want people to know that he was a human,” Shari Raymond said of her husband. “I’m a human. I’m not just a number, you know, and honestly, it’s not the money. It’s the idea that they said no and without hearing what was behind it.”
Shari Raymond, Guerdat and Caifa are already helping another widow of a fallen police officer navigate the legislative process for a similar circumstance.
“I will do this for the future widows I know are going to be there, and the ones who are struggling because they didn’t know,” Shari Raymond said. “I will do it for them.”