A Fort Worth firefighter accused of punching a 78-year-old Arlington man in the face last week at a TCU game told police that he reflexively put his palm on the older man’s mouth after the man directed a “violent rage” against him.
“Obvious[ly] it was just a reflex,” Shea O’Neill, 42, told TCU police Sgt. Kelly Ham in a statement made just before his arrest Tuesday evening.
“It was more of a ‘stop, leave us alone’ type thing.”
The Arlington man said O’Neill unexpectedly hit him, knocking him to his hands and feet, bloodying his nose and chipping or cracking several teeth.
O’Neill faces a felony charge of injury to the elderly. He is free on $100,000 bail and has been placed on detached duty with pay from the Fire Department while an internal investigation continues.
He referred questions to his attorney, Jim Shaw, who provided the Star-Telegram with a copy of O’Neill’s statement to TCU police.
In the statement, O’Neill said he took his 7-year-old twin sons and their 8-year-old friend, a boy, to Amon G. Carter Stadium on April 10 for the free TCU football game ending spring practice.
O’Neill told Ham that he confronted the man and his wife, 71, about the way they treated one of his sons. He saw the wife “swat her arm” toward his son and later “violently” jerk the boy by his jersey. He said the husband pointed his finger at and screamed at the boys.
The couple, who spoke to the Star-Telegram earlier this week, denied O’Neill’s account on Friday. The Star-Telegram agreed not to identify them because they are afraid of retaliation.
“It doesn’t surprise us,” the man said. “He’s got to try to cover himself. It takes more than a palm of a hand to break seven teeth.”
Also Friday, a Fort Worth attorney said she filed a complaint against O’Neill with the Fire Department last summer after he shouted and cursed her over a parking spot, she said. Her complaint was investigated but led to no formal discipline.
In his statement about the April 10 confrontation, O’Neill denied that his sons or their friend blocked anyone’s view of the field. After the woman’s “swat,” “the boys immediately all moved down. I had the boys move back down so that I can see them, but [they were] not blocking anyone’s view,” he told police.
“The woman then reaches out, grabs a handful of his jersey and violently jerks him back,” O’Neill said. “She turned him around to face her. As I see this, the man then turns towards the boys and is pointing his finger and screaming at the boys.
“That’s when I stepped into the side of her chair and said, ‘OK, that’s enough. If anyone is going to yell at them, I will.”
O’Neill said he was trying to get the children away from the couple when the man “stands up out of his seat and leans back with the finger and the fist and says, ‘I will yell at whoever I want.’”
“This was said with a violent rage,” O’Neill told police.
O’Neill said he and the man cursed at each other.
“I then out of reflex, I don‘t know how to describe the motion but I would call it a bent elbow using the palm of my hand to his mouth,” O’Neill told police.
As he tried to move the boys away and deal with witnesses who confronted him, the man was “still cussing at us and then he starts to act hurt,” O’Neill said.
When a Fort Worth police officer approached, O’Neill was told to remain there with the boys until a backup officer arrived. When they were later allowed to move elsewhere to speak to police, a witness’ boyfriend threatened him for cursing at the witness, he told Ham.
When he and the children were allowed to leave, a TCU officer said police would contact him.
“The kids were terrified throughout the whole night and kept asking, ‘Is that man going to come after us? Is that him in the next car? Does he know where we live?’ ” O’Neill told Ham.
O’Neill reacted to what happened with his children, attorney Shaw said Friday night. These days, no one should touch another person’s children, he said.
Shaw also questioned why the incident was newsworthy.
“This kind of thing happens in clubs and on the street every night,” Shaw said. “This guy just wants money.”
The couple’s response
The Arlington woman, who said she was a retired schoolteacher, said earlier that she nicely tried to get the children — which she and her husband described as two boys and a young girl — off the railing because they were blocking the couple’s view and she was afraid they were going to get hurt.
She insisted that she never laid a hand on a child with exception of tapping the “little girl” with a rolled-up poster to get the child’s attention.
The man said he began telling the children to get off the railing after his wife’s nicer attempts failed for more than a half hour, and the parents never interceded.
“I escalated the voice, yes. You could even say I hollered. I don’t know,” the man said. “That’s when he hollered at me.”
He said he was seated and was turning to look over his shoulder at O’Neill when the firefighter unexpectedly punched him squarely in the face.
“If he said I pretended I was hurt, that’s got to be the lie of the century,” the man said Friday.
A previous complaint
O’Neill’s city personnel file contains no notices of previous formal discipline. But he has been the focus of at least two internal affairs investigations.
One followed his arrest in 2013 on a murder charge in Arkansas for the fatal stabbing of a 23-year-old man near Hot Springs. The investigation was closed after investigators dismissed the charge upon determining O’Neill was the target of a robbery attempt and had acted in self-defense.
In June 2014, attorney Nancy Bonilla filed a formal complaint with the Fire Department about a confrontation with O’Neill in a parking lot shared by her gym and an insurance company where O’Neill works. She told the Star-Telegram that O’Neill was apparently upset because she had parked in front of his business, though there were no signs restricting parking in the common parking lot, she said.
“He was extremely angry,” Bonilla wrote in her complaint, a copy of which she gave to the Star-Telegram. “He was clenching his fists, baring his teeth even, and approaching me in a very aggressive and threatening manner. I was immediately afraid of this man. I was afraid for my physical safety. I thought he might attack me.”
Bonilla, whose husband has been a Fort Worth firefighter for 30 years, said O’Neill was wearing a Fire Department logo shirt and had Fire Department decals on his truck.
When he refused to move his truck to let her leave, Bonilla said in her complaint, she told him she would call Fire Chief Rudy Jackson about his behavior. He responded by cursing and telling her that neither she nor Jackson could do anything to him.
“I am extremely concerned that Mr. O’Neill will hurt someone if he is allowed to continue interacting with people this way,” she said in closing her complaint.
‘He’s a bully’
On Friday, fire Lt. Gregg Russell said that Bonilla’s complaint was fully investigated but that he could not discuss details because the investigation did not lead to formal discipline.
In an email exchange Russell had with Bonilla, which she shared with the Star-Telegram, Russell said the decision on discipline would be up to the fire chief.
“When we have cases where there are no good witnesses (eye-witnesses, video or audio) to an event and it essentially comes down to ‘he said-she said’ — it makes things difficult for the chief,” Russell wrote. “For example, we have had cases like this get overturned by the civil service commission due to lack of compelling and incriminating evidence, so I’m sure the chief is very careful when he considers the ramifications of situations like this.”
Bonilla, 47, said she was upset that the chief failed to discipline O’Neill. She said she doesn’t go to the gym as often and when she does, she parks on the opposite side of the building.
“I don’t think it’s right for me having to watch where I go because I’m afraid of running into him,” Bonilla said Friday. “He’s a bully. He’s not confronting someone that could possibly defend themselves.”
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655