When MIT Police Chief John DiFava heard that a very promising young officer named Sean Collier probably would get a call he had long been hoping for — an invitation to join the Somerville Police Department — the chief pushed him to stay.
Collier wasn’t just there for the salary. He had a knack for earning people’s trust, for building rapport with the community he policed. DiFava knew Collier’s departure would be a significant loss for MIT.
Then, near the end of his shift Thursday night, Collier, 26, was shot multiple times in a late-night confrontation with, law enforcement officials believe, the two young men responsible for the deadly Boston Marathon bombings. Collier was later declared dead at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Besides this being absolutely heart wrenching,” DiFava said Friday, “it’s also a tremendous loss of a huge talent.”
On Friday afternoon, American flags began to appear on a cordoned-off block of Curtis Street in Somerville as the news spread that Collier had been killed.
Through tears, a roommate — who trained with Collier at the police academy and declined to provide his name — said Collier was “awesome,” his only fault being that he was too brave.
“He was the guy who went to help,” the roommate said. “The best guy got shot down.’’
In a statement, Collier’s family expressed their grief.
“We are heartbroken by the loss of our wonderful and caring son and brother, Sean Collier,” the family wrote. “Our only solace is that Sean died bravely doing what he committed his life to — serving and protecting others. We are thankful for the outpouring of support and condolences offered by so many people.”
Collier, a Wilmington native, started working at MIT in January 2012, and on Thursday night, he was on his normal 3-to-11:15 p.m. assignment, DiFava said. According to a statement from the Middlesex district attorney’s office, at 10:20 p.m, gunshots were reported to police, and 10 minutes later Collier was found shot in his vehicle, outside MIT’s distinctive Stata Center.
As soon as news of his death began to trickle out, expressions of love and sorrow began pouring in for Collier, who had become a friend to many graduate students. A distraught student rode her bike to the MIT police station Friday morning to give her condolences, and on a blog set up to collect memories, members of the MIT community left heartfelt remembrances of his generosity and spirit, ranging from the help he gave in moving a 10-gallon fish tank sloshing with water, to driving an hour and a half out of his way to drop someone off.
Prior to joining the MIT force, Collier had worked at the Somerville Police Department as a civilian employee, where he was known for his skill with computers and his kindness.
Somerville police Lieutenant William Rymill, who had known Collier for five years, said that he often would come in on his time off to help out, or help officers set up their personal computers at home.
Rymill said that Collier had scored high on a civil service exam, and was likely to be called to join the Somerville Police Department in June.
“Anybody could relate to him. Sean could talk to anybody,” Rymill said. “The girls here in dispatch haven’t stopped crying.”
Collier played on a local kickball team called Kickhopopotamus and participated in a national tournament in Las Vegas. He also was an avid and tenacious outdoorsman, climbing Mount Washington during winter. For a “retro” hike, he whimsically dressed in plaid flannel and yodeled at the top of his lungs.
A trainer at the Boston Sports Club in Davis Square, Chrissy, said she first met Collier as a client. They quickly became friends outside the gym, too. They both liked country music and planned to attend a concert together this summer.
Chrissy, who did not give her last name, said that Collier protected everyone around him. When she was assaulted in the fall of 2011, she had to report to the Somerville police station to identify suspects in a lineup. When she arrived at the station, Collier greeted her at the front desk and then stayed with her throughout the process.
“He sat with me while I was waiting to go in for the lineup and drove me home after to make sure I was OK,” Chrissy said, saying his presence helped her get through that day and the days that followed.
Collier graduated from Salem State University in 2009 with honors and a degree in criminal justice. Kristen Kuehnle, the chairwoman of the school’s criminal justice department, remembered Collier from a course she teaches on Women in Criminal Justice. He was a student who always participated in class, asked questions, and wrote well.
“He was everything you would want in a police officer,” Kuehnle said.
In a statement, MIT president L. Rafael Reif mourned Collier.
“Our thoughts today are with his family, his friends, his colleagues on our police force, and, by all accounts, the many other members of our community who knew him,” Reif said.
DiFava said Collier was the same funny, charismatic, and committed individual in uniform as he was when in street clothes. He said that a particular problem MIT police face is that many students come from countries in which law enforcement officers are not trusted or respected. Collier, he said, was able to overcome such cultural barriers.
It is a sentiment echoed on the online forum commemorating Collier by a member of the MIT community who remembers passing Collier when he made trips to the 7-Eleven for snacks.
“I am brown and a foreigner so usually American police make me a little nervous, but I recall passing by you one time and deciding that I liked you, because you looked unusually nice and trustworthy, and I kind of wanted to offer you my sour candy but thought it would be too random,” a member of the MIT community wrote. “Now I wish I had done it anyway.”