A veteran Nassau detective who died of cancer that may have been caused by his service at Ground Zero has been posthumously promoted and will be remembered with a line-of-duty death funeral service this weekend, police officials said Thursday.
Det. Erick Contreras, 53, was known for his wide smile, street smarts and having an arsenal of confidential informants who could help make cases, his colleagues said.
His mother once had hoped as he grew up as one of 10 siblings in his family’s Uniondale household that his sharp mind would propel him towards a career in medicine, family said Thursday.
But early in life, Contreras set his heart on joining law enforcement.
He then followed in the footsteps of a cousin and mentor who now is a retired Nassau detective by joining the Nassau County Police Department in 1994 after first spending six years as a county correction officer, according to his brother, Christopher Contreras, a sergeant at Nassau's jail.
In 2002, Erick Contreras earned a detective's rank on the police force and garnered assignments that included dignitary protection and undercover narcotics work before joining the police force's Nassau district attorney squad to help prosecutors with their cases.
Even after his lymphoma diagnosis in July, Contreras kept working and pursuing his vocation.
But on Jan. 15, Contreras lost his battle with cancer while hospitalized, his family said. It was less than a month after he first shared with them on Christmas that he was ill.
On Saturday morning, the detective’s family will join with his sworn brothers and sisters in blue as the police force where he worked for more than 26 years recognizes him with a line-of-duty death funeral at First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury.
The style of funeral is an acknowledgement that Contreras’ service at Ground Zero after 9/11 may have contributed to the underlying cause of his death, department officials said.
Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder has promoted him posthumously to the rank of detective first-grade.
"The least we can do is recognize him as one of our best," Ryder said Thursday.
Anne Donnelly, deputy chief of the district attorney's Rackets and Enterprise Crime Bureau, recalled Contreras on Thursday as an investigator who would go the extra mile on a case.
"But what really stays with you ... is his heart was as big as he was," she added of the 6-foot-3 detective.
Rick Whelan, the Rackets bureau chief, remembered how colleagues nicknamed the detective "Big E," a man he said also was known as a devoted sports fan who could recall all kinds of related statistics.
"We used to talk about the '69 Mets ... and I think he was 2 when the '69 Mets played," he added.
Contreras graduated from Uniondale High School and started course work at Adelphi University, but paused his schooling to enter civil service before later completing his undergraduate degree in 2013 at SUNY Empire State College, according to his family.
Besides sports, Contreras' passions included animals, wildlife conservation and world travel, said his sister, Sharon Contreras, 50, of Greensboro, North Carolina.
She said her brother had struggled with breathing problems since working at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11, but had no way of knowing for sure if his service there caused his cancer.
"I can tell you this: Erick selflessly and courageously responded and had he known this would happen as a result he would have still responded to Ground Zero," she added.
John Wighaus, president of the Nassau County Police Detectives' Association, said Thursday that he and Contreras were friends who had worked together as narcotics detectives.
"Erick responded to the World Trade Center site in the rescue and recovery effort knowing full well the dangers ... Nearly 20 years after those attacks, we lost Erick and we continue to lose heroes like Erick," he added.