Lori Gjenashaj leaned her car seat back, turned the radio up loud, and waited for the cops to arrive on March 25, 2018.
Moments earlier, the mother of two had led police on a wild car chase through the streets of Staten Island. When the police arrived, she was carrying a starter pistol and now says she initially planned to beg the officers to shoot her.
It happened anyway: police fired a bullet into her chest as she got out of the car.
The nearly fatal interaction was the culmination of a weekend downfall triggered by a feud with a former friend, copious amounts of drugs, and a long history of mental illness tied to childhood trauma, according to her friends and legal defense team.
“For a moment I just wanted to die, and then I started thinking about my kids,” she told THE CITY in an interview in October.
Now, nearly four years later, Gjenashaj, 42, a former nurse, faces a battle in court set to start Jan. 19. She’s looking at up to 15 years in prison for a series of alleged offenses, including menacing a friend’s kid with a starter pistol after the police chase.
The Staten Island district attorney offered a two-year plea deal shortly after the charges were initially filed, according to Gjenashaj’s legal team.
But her supporters contend even a short period behind bars for someone with complex medical health needs could be a death sentence. Gjenashaj’s medical chart reads like a combined list of almost unimaginable ailments: lupus, flesh-eating bacteria from a traditionally low-risk surgery and a fused spine caused by a car accident.
Her backers also note she has remained clean, and in therapy, since the confrontation with police. The trial has been delayed by the pandemic and a series of legal procedures.
Her supporters say the case touches on broader points of how the NYPD handles calls like hers involving someone undergoing a mental breakdown. The administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio struggled to push forward a program to pair EMT teams with social workers to handle 911 calls citywide involving people having a breakdown, without dispatching cops.
Criminal justice advocates also contend that people with mental illness are better served in programs with counseling outside of prison.
“I’ve been practicing law for 38 years and I’ve never had a case like this where the DA’s office is so dead set on prosecuting someone who has suffered so much throughout their life,” said Joseph Licitra, supervising attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Staten Island Trial Office, which is representing Gjenashaj. “In no world will sending Lori to prison serve any benefit to public safety.”
At least one former city jails chief agrees.
“The point of prison is either punishment and to get some general deterrence. Neither one of those fits this particular case,” said Michael Jacobson, the Department of Correction commissioner during the Giuliani administration.
“Prison should be used incredibly parsimoniously,” he added. “What would two years in prison accomplish other than ruining her life? You have to be able to answer that.”
Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, via a spokesperson, declined to discuss the pending case.
“Approximately 40% of all Staten Island dispositions involve defendant enrollment in a wide array of diversion programming, which DA McMahon established over nearly six years,” said his communication director, Ryan Lavis.
“These programs exist because we recognize that addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior is often a better path forward than incarceration,” he added.
A Downward Spiral
Gjenashaj’s supporters point out that more than 120 people have been dying in state prisons each year, according to an October report by the Center for Justice at Columbia University. The state prison system has also struggled to fill more than 300 openings for medical staff, THE CITY reported in April 2020.
Her legal team wants the case moved from criminal court to mental health court where judges have a better understanding of such cases.
But not everyone wants to see her remain home.
Jennifer Harrison, founder of Victims Rights NY PAC, said she has “full faith” in the district attorney’s decision and sentencing suggestions.
“I also hope that whatever the outcome, Lori Gjenashaj is not rereleased into the community without receiving the treatment and assistance she requires to no longer be a threat to herself, her family or the community,” she added.
Gjenashaj’s downward spiral was triggered by a mental breakdown after her husband, Jimmy Gjenashaj, took away almost all her pain medication, according to her defense team.
“I was trying to help,” Jimmy told THE CITY, noting his wife began to struggle with addiction after suffering from serious complications from surgery in February 2015.
The cold-turkey approach was a massive shock to his wife’s body and mental health, her doctors said. Before her husband intervened, she was taking a dangerous mix of oxycodone, fentanyl and Xanax.
The police chase and pending criminal charges was the culmination of years of struggle for Gjenashaj and her family, her supporters say.
“Lori Gjenashaj is a woman who overcame unthinkable adversity almost entirely on her own,” said her Legal Aid social worker, Sara Raftery. “She built a life and a family and had a successful career.”
But since 2012 “she has been brought to her knees by a combination of trauma, physical health disasters, and mental illness,” Raftery added in a letter to the judge handling her case.
In 2012, the family’s three-bedroom duplex in Midland Beach was seriously damaged in Hurricane Sandy.
They moved back in after about six months, but two years later, a fire broke out in a neighbor’s attached house. Firefighters broke the ceiling in their home and poured water inside as they tried to put out the blaze.
The family was once again forced to leave for months.
“It was more damage than Sandy because the top floor was affected,” Jimmy Gjenashaj said. “It’s still not fixed completely.”
After Sandy came the flesh-eating bacteria.
In 2015, Lori went for the abdominal surgery known as a tummy tuck, a relatively low- risk operation. But she noticed shortly afterward that her wound site was inflamed. Six days later, she was admitted to Staten Island University Hospital with a 102.7 fever.
All told, she spent over a month in the hospital fighting a rare flesh eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis. She underwent 12 surgeries and was sent home with special medical dressing over her belly that required complex treatment.
“I have a scar from behind each hip bone” all the way to the center of her stomach, she told THE CITY. “I have a fake belly button. I had a big pouch that sucked the bacteria into a big canister.”
At home she was forced to sleep in the living room so she could reach the bathroom and refrigerator while connected to the tubing device. Just walking and breathing was painful, she recalled.
“I had stitches all over,” she said, noting her stomach muscles were damaged and needed a separate operation in 2016.
“I was in so much pain after that surgery,” she said. “My stomach wouldn’t expand.”
Doctors struggled to figure out why she was in so much agony. In 2017, a gynecologist discovered that some tissue was growing into the muscle of her uterus.
She needed a hysterectomy and was prescribed opiates to deal with the pain. Her mental state declined. She suffered from depression and frequently talked about suicide — and became addicted to the pain medication, according to friends and family.
Her husband says he installed cameras in the house to make sure she was OK and sometimes would race home from work to check up on her.
She stopped working as a nurse at Staten Island University Medical Center
At work, she once started a drug abuse group to educate community members about the risks of addiction to pain medication. “I was a big advocate for teens and prescription drug abuse,” she recalled. “I could have never imagined what was coming next.”
Fistfight at School Play
The slow downward spiral ended in the near fatal police shooting.
The dispute that triggered that encounter was a seemingly run-of-the-mill argument with a parent in her kid’s class over a group science project the day before. According to Gjenashaj, the other parent wanted to do the project for the children.
The next day it all escalated into a fistfight at a school play at the Academy of St. Dorothy, according to all accounts.
Gjenashaj got into a physical altercation with the mom — who she says initially pushed her. “We got broken apart by some of the fathers who were there,” she recalled, noting she was asked by a school official to leave the performance.
She was phoned about 30 minutes later by police, who told her she left the scene of a crime and ordered her to report to the local precinct.
“Before I went to the police, I took a handful of Valium, about 30 or 40 pills,” she remembered. “They put me in a holding cell and processed some paperwork.”
She was charged with criminal obstruction of breathing for allegedly choking the other mother at the play, and given a desk appearance ticket.
Once released, she went straight to the hospital for treatment on her neck, which was injured in a car accident a few years earlier.
“I was really messed up in the emergency room,” she said. “I was high as a kite. I left with an IV in my arm.”
At home, she fell asleep but was woken by police who came for a wellness check — likely because of the way she fled the hospital.
In the morning, her husband went to meet the principal at the school to make sure the children would not be thrown out over the fight.
She was awakened by an investigator from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.
“Somebody had called and said I punched my daughter in the face,” she said. “This little girl is the air that I breathe. Just the accusation made me sick.”
The ACS representative asked to examine her two children, both young teens at the time, and ordered them both to lift up their shirts.
“At that point I sort of blacked out,” she said. “I was sexually molested as a child and I swore I would protect my children and they’d never have a life like mine.”
From that point on, Gjenashaj struggles to remember much beyond the basics: She grabbed the starter pistol and raced to the house of the parent she fought with at school, convinced that the woman made a child abuse complaint against her.
She got in her car and began driving, all the while wrestling her husband, who was trying to stop her. A police officer saw the dispute and tried to pull them over.
“For some reason I didn’t pull over,” she said. “As I was driving there were more cops.”
The police pushed her off the road with their vehicle, she said, and approached the car with guns drawn.
“I do remember my husband being pulled from the car,” she said. “As soon as they did that, there was a small opening, so I took off.”
The police chased her up Hylan Boulevard as she drove erratically. She drove to the school parent’s house near Clove Road and banged on the door with the back of the starter pistol.
“I just wanted her to feel violated as I just did and my children just did,” she said. She picked up a paving stone and tossed it at the door, knocking it open.
When she walked inside, the mother’s 13-year-old son was standing in the house.
“I know this kid since he was just coming out of diapers,” she said. She ordered him to call his mom and walked out of the house, paced back and forth for a little while, and drove off.
She parked up the block and reflected on what had just happened.
“I sat in the car and I could hear the police sirens and the helicopter and just waited until they found me,” she remembered.
They ordered her out of the car parked on Highland Ave. near Howard Ave. in Grymes Hill. Police say she was making wild gestures and pointed the gun at them. She says she put the gun on the floor of the car and came out of the SUV with her hands in the air — after initially contemplating committing suicide by cop.
Body camera footage from the officers who shot her is not available because the cameras were left at the precinct.
But one officer who arrived at the scene shortly after captured body camera footage of one of the cops who shot at her, joking about how he would be jammed up at work.
“I guess I’m losing my gun for a while,” said an unidentified officer at the scene. The cops who shot her, Lt. Matthew Harrison and Police Officer Giancarlo Maratea, were later honored for how they handled the incident.
‘Face Down Bleeding in the Street’
Gjenashaj has filed a civil suit against the city and the officers involved.. The suit, filed in Manhattan federal court, alleges the cops failed to follow the NYPD’s policy when handling so-called “emotionally disturbed person” emergency calls.
Cops handling those calls are directed by the patrol guide to use protective shields and other non-lethal devices like tasers. They are also required to seek help from a medical expert if necessary and the person’s family.
Gjenashaj’s husband, who was brought to a nearby precinct, says he repeatedly told officers it was merely a starter pistol and begged officers to use caution with his wife.
She was shot once through the chest even though “she posed no threat” to the two officers, the lawsuit alleges.
Afterwards, according to the lawsuit, she was “handcuffed, subdued and forcibly held face down bleeding in the street where she complained of pain from pressure on her back being exacerbated by a NYPD officer’s foot on her back.”
She was brought to Richmond University Medical Center, where she stayed for a week before being transferred to Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens. She stayed in that hospital for 25 days, according to the lawsuit.
Out on bail since April 2018, she has begun to regularly see a therapist and pain management doctor. Her life has become stable, although she is unable to see her daughter without supervision, her friends and family said. The ACS probe revealed no evidence of abuse, according to her lawyers.
But the criminal trial looms and her loved ones fear an outcome that could lead to prison.
Any plea agreement would likely bar her from working as a nurse again.“It’s been three and a half years now,” she said. “I have been rehabilitated within the community. Sending me to jail is going to have no positive outcome.”
Her husband added, “I know she’s a good person. She’s never gotten in trouble prior. She won’t get in trouble after.”