Donald P. Shea was a NYPD uniformed officer with two years on the job when he helped capture notorious bank robber Willie Sutton, on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for stealing $2 million from more than 100 banks and escaping prison more than once.
A Baldwin resident, Shea loved to tell the story of how in 1952 he and his partner captured Sutton after his 30-year crime spree. Shea died June 17 of pancreatic cancer at Meadowbrook Care Center in Freeport. He was 90.
Shea was born Oct. 26, 1925, in Brooklyn to Cornelius Shea and Emma Pineau. His father came from Ireland in the early 20th century and his mother was a Canadian from Prince Edward Island. The couple married and settled in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Donald Shea was the fifth of nine siblings.
He attended St. Michael’s Catholic school in Brooklyn. After high school, Shea joined the Navy during World War II where he became a gunner’s mate in a patrol boat in the Pacific. After his time in the Navy, Shea returned to New York and joined the New York City Police Department in 1950.
He and his future wife, Trudy McGreevy, met through a mutual friend at a dance. They married in 1954 and moved from Bay Ridge to Baldwin in 1963. They had four children.
Trudy Shea died in 1997.
Donald Shea was the lone survivor of a three-man team that brought an end to Sutton’s 30-year crime wave.
Shea made the arrest in 1952 at age 26 while working as a uniformed officer in Brooklyn with partner Officer Joseph McClellan. Arnold Schuster, the 24-year-old son of a tailor, recognized Sutton from FBI wanted posters and approached the officers in their patrol car to tell them he had spotted the polite bank bandit on the subway and followed him.
In a March 30, 2013, Newsday interview at his home, Shea recounted the story.
He said he and McClellan found Sutton fixing his car, but the photo in his notebook was too frayed to confirm Sutton’s identity so Shea went to the nearest precinct and returned with a detective. Sutton showed them false identification when questioned and kept working on the car.
“He was a very calm fellow for a felon,” Shea said then.
Shea said Sutton didn’t even resist going back to the precinct but once the officers mentioned fingerprinting, Shea said he heard Sutton say: “OK, you got me. I’m Willie Sutton.”
Shea was promoted to the highest rank of detective — first grade — and became part of New York’s crime-fighting history.
“I was stunned to be involved in such a big case,” Shea said during the interview.
His daughter, Mary Lou Thursland of Hauppauge, said her father enjoyed telling the story of how he helped capture Sutton but added that the event did not define him.
“He was very proud of it, he loved to tell the story but he wasn’t gloating about it or anything,” she said. “He always made it a funny experience.”
Thursland described her father as a “very loving man” who had never taken a sick day during the 33 years he was on the force. Shea was forced to retire from the NYPD in 1983 because of a detached retina.
Shea also is survived by sons, Donald of Freeport and Peter of Victorville, California; another daughter, Ann Marie Skellington of Valley Stream; brother, William Shea of Mesa, Arizona; sister Margaret “Peggy” Romano of upstate Brewster; and eight grandchildren.
A wake was held at Hungerford and Clark Funeral Home and a Mass was said at Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Freeport. Shea was cremated.