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'The Mac' was cop tale king

December 26, 1998

Flat on his back at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Daily News columnist Mike McAlary was telling cop stories until the end.

For the past decade or so, "the Mac" had carried on a love-hate affair with the New York City police department, cutting closer to the bone in his reporting than any journalist in town.

He had a novelist's eye, and touch, the ability to take a banal detail and turn it into something of consequence. Except for Jimmy Breslin, to whom McAlary owes an unrecognized debt, no one approaches him.

As a reporter for Newsday in the mid-1980s, he conducted a last fateful interview of the young and tortured Brian O'Regan of Brooklyn's scandalized 77th precinct. A few days later, O'Regan was discovered in a Long Island motel room where he'd ended his life. Nearby was a copy of Newsday open to McAlary's interview.

A few years later at the Daily News, the Mac discovered Sgt. Joe Trimboli, whose warnings about the drug-dealing cop Michael Dowd were ignored by the state special corruption prosecutor Joe Hynes. The Mac's stories helped pressure Mayor David Dinkins to announce the formation of the Mollen Commission on police corruption.

Then, in 1993 the Mac suffered a late-night, near-fatal car accident in Manhattan. Legend has it that the first person he saw when he came out of a coma was police commissioner Ray Kelly at his bedside.

Although written off, the Mac recovered. His popularity was such that on his first day back at work, covering a mob trial in Brooklyn, strangers approached him to wish him well. The owner of a diner across from the courthouse refused to let him pay for lunch.

Then, two years ago, he quoted First Deputy Commissioner John Timoney, calling police commissioner Howard Safir a "lightweight" after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani selected Safir - not Timoney - as successor to William Bratton. Although the remark cost Timoney his job and nearly part of his pension, Timoney never deserted McAlary.

Printable versionIt was around this time the Mac's cancer struck. Though weakened, he refused to yield an inch. In the summer of 1997, he pulled himself from chemotherapy to report on the 70th precinct torture of Abner Louima, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize this year. When he and his wife Alice entered the Daily News city room to accept congratulations, she started to cry. So did others. They knew what lay ahead.

Though his cancer worsened, he somehow completed his first novel, "Sore Loser." Its inspector-hero more than resembles Timoney.

Now police commissioner of Philadelphia, Timoney was at the Mac's bedside as he underwent surgery two weeks ago. All last week, others came up, knowing it may be their last visit with him.

When this reporter entered his hospital room last week, his parents were at his side. They roused him awake and the Mac began to praise this column to them. He had been the first person to offer congratulations when it appeared four years ago.

Then he started talking about his novel and the real cops and cop events it was based on. Flat on his back, McAlary still did it better than anyone.

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Email Leonard Levitt at llevitt@nypdconfidential.com

© 1998 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.