A decorated Suffolk police officer waved and gave thumbs up to cheering officers and staff Sunday as he left Stony Brook University Hospital four days after getting shot in the neck and hip while chasing a suspected gang member in Huntington Station.
Officer Mark Collins, 35, a 12-year veteran, made his way through a procession of more than 100 officers and other supporters in a wheelchair pushed by Dr. James Vosswinkel.
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Collins wore a bandage on the right side of his neck -- the result of a bullet passing through him late Wednesday night after he was shot chasing a Mastic Beach man on foot through Huntington Station.
Before he got to the car that would take him home Sunday, Collins returned a salute from a row of the department's top brass. He then stood on his own, waved and climbed into the car that drove him to the home he shares with his wife, Nicole, in North Bellmore, where he serves as a fire commissioner.
"We're lucky and relieved," said Suffolk Police Chief of Department James Burke outside the hospital. "If not for the grace of God, we'd be gathering to honor a fallen officer."
Considering that a bullet hit Collins in the neck, his recovery was miraculous, Vosswinkel said.
"The neck injury was within an inch of hitting a vital structure," said Vosswinkel, the chief of trauma surgery at the hospital. "We're fortunate these injuries did not take his life."
Vosswinkel said doctors are optimistic Collins will make a full recovery, but "he'll need extensive outpatient treatment and rehabilitation."
Suffolk Police Commissioner Edward Webber and County Executive Steve Bellone were among those who greeted Collins, as was Nicholas Guerrero, the Suffolk officer injured in a hit and run in September. Guerrero and Collins had worked together at the Second Precinct.
The man police said shot Collins, Sheldon Leftenant, 22, pleaded not guilty Thursday to attempted aggravated murder and resisting arrest, prosecutors said.
Collins arrived home just after 1 p.m. A Nassau police car remained in front of the house and another was parked down the block. Several off-duty Suffolk officers were on the scene.
Patricia Moran and her 8-year-old granddaughter stopped by Collins' house about an hour after his homecoming to drop off a get well card, "because he's our protector, he's our hero."
Moran's 80-year-old mother became ill with a kidney infection last year and had to call 911 in the middle of the night. Collins, in his role with the North Bellmore Fire Department, was the first responder on the scene to help Moran's mother during the emergency. In the months that followed, Collins continued to check on her to make sure she was recovering.
"My mother found out he's coming home today," Moran said. "She's been coming up the driveway every ten minutes to see if he was home yet, just so she could wave to him and wish him well."On Wednesday, Collins was in an unmarked car with two colleagues from the gang unit when they stopped a vehicle near East Jericho Turnpike and Mercer Court that was speeding and "swerving in and out of traffic," District Attorney Thomas Spota said after Leftenant's arraignment.
Collins and other officers recognized Leftenant and two others in the car as gang members, Spota said.
Leftenant jumped out and ran. Collins and Officer Damian Torres gave pursuit on Mercer Court. As Collins tried to arrest him, Leftenant fired four times at the officer, hitting him twice, prosecutors said.
The shooting set off an intense search before a police dog led officers to a shed in a backyard on East 25th Street, a block from Mercer Court. Officers arrested Leftenant there at about 1 a.m. Thursday, police said. A 38-caliber handgun, believed to be the one used in the shooting, was found in a nearby yard, Spota said.
"St. Michael was definitely with him that night," said Noel DiGerolamo, the president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, referring to the patron saint of law enforcement. "This is a stark reminder of the dangers law enforcement officers face every day they wear the uniform."
A 2008 traffic stop in Huntington Station with another officer ended with a "drugs and weapons arrest" and led to Collins being named Second Precinct officer of the year. The department also awarded Collins a gold medal for bravery in 2008 for helping save a man's life during a house fire, police said.
Vosswinkel described Collins demeanor as selfless.
"He tried to downplay his injury. He says he's fine. He doesn't want to complain and keeps saying how grateful he is," Vosswinkel said. "He's got a terrific attitude."