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The Palm Beach Post

June 11, 1996

Author: SCOTT SHIFREL,  Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

[]To the public, Daniel O’Connell was a respected member of the community, an Ocean Ridge town commissioner and a successful businessman.   But in private, he was an obsessed man battling depression and a frightening temper that once led a judge to order him to seek counseling.   His private life became painfully public last month when the divorce to his third wife, 45-year-old Debby O’Connell, became final. Primed with prescription drugs and alcohol, he went to their seaside home and fired three shots at her, police say.

O’Connell, 66, was charged with attempted first-degree murder. He resigned from his commission seat and was sent to a psychiatric ward at Bethesda Memorial Hospital, where doctors put him under a suicide watch. Now out on $20,000 bond, O’Connell has left former neighbors and constituents in this secluded town baffled.   “He was riding on top of the world a year ago,” said Gene Moore, mayor of Boynton Beach at the same time O’Connell was mayor of Ocean Ridge.

Friends said O’Connell had a passion for life, learning to fly when he was well into his 50s, always willing to buy a round of drinks and putting his family before everything. He had been local head of the Associated General Contractors, owned a $500,000 ocean-front home and had a beautiful wife and two attractive children.   Then it all came apart.

Last month, a judge ordered him to keep out of the town he once governed; bankruptcy papers filed in federal court show he owes $8.7 million in debt and back taxes; and, next month, the house he built is scheduled to be auctioned in a foreclosure sale.  “He was a well-respected member of the community,” said Ocean Ridge Town Manager Bill Mathis. “But well-respected men can do stupid acts too.”   He shared little of his past.   Few in Ocean Ridge knew Daniel Jerome O’Connell when he moved to Ocean Ridge in September 1977 after marrying Deborah Elaine Stone of Georgia. She was nearly 20 years younger than he. It was her second  marriage, his third.  The only trace of his past was a New England accent. Few in town know that he left a divorced wife and four children in Massachusetts, or that she sued for $6,000 in child support.

Ocean Ridge is an ideal place to start a new life. It is a Florida throwback, a barrier island town where the comfortably wealthy can find haven amid 3 miles of pine and mangrove-lined streets. Not every one of its 1,600 permanent residents is rich. But the median household income, at nearly $50,000, is well above the national average.  And the O’Connells were well above that.

O’Connell, who along with his wife declined to comment for this story, worked his way from a journeyman construction worker to owning his own business. He got jobs building stores for Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and Target, and did much of the construction work in this area for the Catholic Church.   Debby O’Connell began selling real estate and soon had her own office just blocks from their home, eventually heading the South Palm Beach County Board of Realtors.   They bought an acre at the very southeastern end of town and built an L-shaped, two-story, 3,660-square-foot home with a view of the Atlantic Ocean through Australian pines.

In 1988, he was elected to the town commission and was elected mayor in 1990 and again in 1993. Many saw him as a quiet, rational council member. He wouldn’t pontificate on issues, Mathis said, but he spoke quickly and directly when he had something to say.   And he had a way of getting others to see his point of view, especially with anything to do with construction.   Everything seemed to be going great.   Then in April 1993, Dan O’Connell confronted his wife and one of her male business associates outside a Broward County hotel, according to a divorce suit she filed two days later.   “He struck the business associate and chased the wife,” the suit said. “She fled into her automobile. The husband then took his automobile and deliberately struck her automobile so many times that the wife lost count.”

Dan O’Connell’s attorney doubts the story.  “Anything anyone puts in a pleading in a divorce case should be taken with a grain of salt,” Boynton Beach attorney Thomas Woolley said.   But a judge ordered O’Connell to keep away from his wife and her associates. He asked the judge to recommend counseling.   “I have been totally involved in my business and have not properly tended to my wife’s emotional and other needs,” he wrote. “I … have been cold at times and not very attentive.”

In October, the judge approved Debby O’Connell’s motion to keep her husband from carrying firearms. But by then, they had agreed to try again, said her attorney, Joel Weissman.  “He tried everything he could to save this marriage, including spending everything he could,” Woolley said. “He was spending money that should have been going to his business and spending time away from his business.”   It didn’t work; in June 1995 she filed again. They separated, but he kept spending lavishly on her, almost ignoring his business and making few bids, Woolley said.  Yet, Ocean Ridge neighbors thought they were working things out, especially after seeing them dance together at the town’s 1995 Christmas party. O’Connell thought the marriage still had a chance, Wooley said. But Debby O’Connell kept the divorce moving forward.

On Jan. 6, Dan O’Connell, living in Boynton Beach at the time, drove to the house and threatened his wife with something in his waistband she thought was a gun, police said.  And by April, things had gotten worse.

Debt, divorce final straws

First, a judge set a final foreclosure hearing on their house. Then O’Connell was sued twice for more than $300,000. Chapter 7 Bankruptcy papers filed later say O’Connell’s business owes $8.7 million to 58 creditors ranging from the tax collector to his attorney to the Catholic Church.   For O’Connell, the worst came last – when the divorce was made final April 30. At a commission workshop that day on a new bridge, O’Connell discussed construction and post-construction costs and other mundane matters.

Few people knew that he had been taking Prozac for depression. He spent the next evening, May 1, at the Sun Wah Restaurant in Boynton Beach drinking vodka, a police report said.   That night, he drove the 2 miles to his home and confronted his ex-wife, taking out the 9mm handgun he had tucked into his waist band.   “I’m going to kill you” he said, according to the police report. He then chased her and shot at her as she ran. Both his 17-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son ran after them.

He then pointed the gun at his daughter, she told police, and said “If you don’t get out of the way I am going to kill you.”   Woolley says O’Connell didn’t want to hurt them.   “There’s a major difference between shooting up the house and scaring somebody and shooting at someone to cause bodily harm,” he said.   Eventually, Dan and Debby O’Connell began struggling with the gun. It came loose, and a neighbor picked it up.

Dan O’Connell was arrested and spent a month in a locked psychiatric unit at Bethesda Memorial Hospital. Two weeks ago, O’Connell’s doctor took him off the suicide watch.   “At this point, Mr. O’Connell is capable of accepting responsibility for his behavior,” Dr. Jose Almeida wrote.   Last week, O’Connell was released on $20,000 bond. He has been charged with attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault and shooting into an occupied dwelling.

Two days after he was released, O’Connell filed for personal bankruptcy on top of the bankruptcy filed for his business. Among the items listed as exempt from creditors were the Ocean Ridge house and six firearms.  As he awaits his trial, O’Connell lives with an electronic ankle brace.   Yet, even as his replacement was named last week, his former constituents were wondering about the man once considered such a level-headed commissioner.   “None of this divorce stuff affected how he worked on the commission,” Woolley said. “Probably it was the only thing that kept him sane.”

Record Number:  PBP06110676