They say the good die young and, as far as the local community was concerned, they didn't come any better than MPO Vinnie DarConte of the Sully District Police Station.
Sadly, though, DarConte, 47, died early Saturday morning, May 26, after suffering head injuries a week earlier in a motorcycle crash.
"WE ARE devastated by his death," said Capt. Susan Culin, the station commander. "We had hoped he was going to recover from his accident; unfortunately, that wasn't to be."
DarConte was heading to work, Saturday, May 19, around 6:30 a.m., on Route 29 north. But as he approached the Manassas National Battlefield Park, two deer crossed in front of him, and he struck one and lost control of his motorcycle. A witness called 911 and DarConte was Medivaced to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
"I don't think he ever regained consciousness," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), who worked in the same building with DarConte and knew him well. "Late Friday afternoon [May 25], Capt. Culin sent a message saying his organs were starting to fail, and he died Saturday around 12:30 a.m."
Fairfax County Police Chief Dave Rohrer issued a statement to the Police Department at 1:16 a.m., announcing DarConte's death and saying he'd been surrounded by family and friends. Rohrer extended his deepest sympathy to DarConte's wife of 19 years, Donna, and son Matthew, 12, at their home in Fauquier County.
Describing DarConte as "a highly respected, longtime member of our police family," Rohrer said the department was saddened by his loss and offers its continued support "to the family and friends who loved him." Police also noted that "anyone who knew Vinnie knew his first love and top priority were his wife and son," with whom he was involved in Scouting for many years.
Born in New York City, DarConte came from a family with a long and distinguished record of service in both police and fire departments. In fact, said Frey, both his parents, Frank and Leona DarConte, now of Florida, were both police officers in New York City.
DarConte was a 17-year veteran of the Fairfax County Police Department and had been at the Sully District Station since it opened, May 3, 2003. "Vinnie had eight more years 'til retirement," said Frey. "He told me I had to stay eight more years, too, because politicians were 'too hard to train' and he wasn't going to 'break in another one.'"
ON MAY 19, said Frey, DarConte was going to coordinate police security for the Angelman's Syndrome Foundation walk-a-thon in the Westfields Corporate Center. "It's similar to Downs Syndrome, but they're missing genetic material in the 15th chromosome," he said.
"I saw him Friday and said, 'I'll see you tomorrow at the Angelman's thing,'" said Frey. "He asked if I was bringing [my dog] Marley, and I said yeah, and he said, 'Better give him a bath.' Vinnie was direct; he had a wonderful sense of humor."
But when Frey got to the event, other officers there told him DarConte had had an accident on the way in. "At that time, they thought he'd be fine," said Frey, who later attended a ballfield dedication. "As I was leaving that, [police spokeswoman] Mary Ann Jennings called and said he was critical, so I went to the hospital."
Both Culin and Lt. Cindy McAlister, the assistant station commander, were there; and, said Frey, "We were hopeful. Vinnie was a strong guy, and it never crosses your mind that he won't be back."
Frey said the next week was a "roller coaster ride," because of the varying pressure on DarConte's brain. "Even as late as Thursday, the pressure was down significantly, but it didn't stay down too long," he said. "I feel kinda numb. It doesn't seem possible that he's gone."
As with the tragic deaths of MPO Mike Garbarino and Det. Vicky Armel in May 2006, the station's flag is at half-mast and the people within the building are deep in mourning. "This came so close to the one-year anniversary, and the station this week was very quiet," said Frey.
"There were so many parallels with Mike's death — the ups and downs and the waiting — and then to lose Vinnie, like Mike, a week later," he continued. He said the Sully police personnel are "strong men and women who know how fragile life is. But it still hurts."
Frey said DarConte loved his motorcycle and was a "careful and cautious" rider. "But when something happens on a motorcycle, there's no margin of error," he said. "There's nothing between you and the ground, so even his helmet didn't stop the severity of the trauma ... Seems like it's always the good ones — and Vinnie really was a good guy."
CULIN CALLED DarConte an "integral part of the station because he wore so many different hats. In addition to being the Crime Prevention Officer [CPO], he was our Traffic Liaison Officer and dealt with all our computer issues within the station."
As a CPO along with PFC Mary Hulse, he oversaw Neighborhood Watch programs and worked with various community groups and Scout troops. And often, DarConte gave safety talks and tours of the police station, to different children's groups.
"He gave a tour and a safety talk to my daughter's Brownie troop, so I got to see him working with the kids, firsthand," said Culin. "He joked and talked with them and got down on their level. He even used Jimbo the Clown to demonstrate how to correctly wear a bike helmet."
For Hulse, the loss is particularly tragic because she and DarConte worked so closely together. Grief-stricken, she said, "Vinnie was a terrific friend, partner and officer. We were partners for almost four years and we became like a brother and sister."
"He loved his job in crime prevention and was terrific to work with," she continued. "I will miss him very much, as will all the officers at Sully. The community has lost a fine officer."
John Werderman, police liaison to the Sully Station Citizens Advisory Committee, said it's been "a tough week for all those who knew Vinnie as we all prayed and hoped for his recovery. It was quite heart wrenching to get that phone call just after 1 a.m., Saturday morning, notifying me of his passing. My heart goes out to his wife and son."
DarConte supervised Werderman's volunteer work at the station, was his advisor for the Citizens' Advisory Committee and was one of his partners in the station's child safety-seat program. He was also Werderman's friend.
"I met Vinnie just after the Sully Station opened four years ago," said Werderman. "Like many from New York, Vinnie had a tough exterior shell but, once you got to know him, you found a truly big heart." He said DarConte believed in what he did and, as a CPO, appreciated all those who wanted to make the community better and a safer place in which to live.
"Vinnie was especially great with children," said Werderman. "I recall a field trip that my son's class took to the station. And Vinnie, in his own special way, entertained and taught important safety lessons to a group of 15, vivacious preschoolers."
SHORTLY AFTERWARD came the May 8, 2006 shooting of Armel and Garbarino and, said Werderman, "A number of parents in that preschool class called me to make sure Officer DarConte was safe and all right. He had that way about him, always leaving a lasting impression on the people he met."
Now with DarConte's death, said Werderman, once again the station is going through another difficult time. "Vinnie was a local hero and a great officer who served the community well," he said. "He will truly be missed by the many he was sworn to serve and protect."
"In so many ways, Vinnie was the face of the department," added Frey. "He and Mary interacted so much with the community."
And no one knew that better than Leslie and Dan Jenuleson, Sully Station II Neighborhood Watch coordinators. "We talked to him probably every week," said Leslie. "Being a Crime Prevention Officer, he worked with the community on a regular basis."
"Mary and Vinnie formed a team and were our partners in our community activities," said Dan. "They gave our Board of Trustees legal advice about creating a [neighborhood] parking policy, and they regularly came out and did the enforcement themselves. They also coordinated the National Night Out event."
"Vinnie was such an awesome person and a great role model for the community," said Leslie. "His death was very, very sad and so tragic."
Her husband described DarConte as a generous person who often came to their Sully Station II events on weekends. "People knew Vinnie by name," said Dan. "They'd see him around in the neighborhood. It helps kids not be afraid of the police and lets the neighbors see them as friends and participants in the community."
So DarConte participated in Sully II's Chili Bingo Night in February, judging chili and calling bingo numbers, and was also invited to neighborhood cookouts. At some point, DarConte shaved his head and, said Leslie, "We called him Kojak because of that and because he was always sucking on a lollipop [like the former TV character]."
She said he was always smiling, upbeat and telling funny stories and was an enjoyable person to be around. "Both he and Mary were so supporting to the community," said Leslie. So she and Dan were both "sad to see a good friend like Vinnie" meet such an untimely end.
Sully II's Bill Perry knew DarConte through the Citizens Advisory Committee and described him as "sociable, community-oriented and always extremely supportive. To me, this was a tragedy, out of the blue. I'm sure he was a very good driver. How many times do you hear about two deer crossing in front of a motorcycle?"
NEIGHBOR PAT HUNT called DarConte's death "so wrong." Said Hunt: "We're really blessed in Sully II with a good police force, and he was one of our unsung heroes."
Agreeing, Capt. Culin said DarConte was "just an all-around, good guy, and he really blossomed when he got here to Sully. He did a fantastic job and will be sorely missed by the officers that work here and that worked with him previously [at the McLean and Reston District Stations]."
Funeral Services were held Thursday morning, May 31, at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Warrenton, followed by burial in the Bright View Cemetery, also in Warrenton. Contributions in DarConte's name may be made to the Law Enforcement Relief Fund, 5625 Revercomb Court, Fairfax, VA 22030.