Betty Maccagnan, Jets GM’s wife, takes a stand against domestic violence
The tears trickled down Betty Maccagnan’s cheeks as she contemplated what could have been.
Behind her red-rimmed, glassy blue eyes lies the trauma of having witnessed a close friend fall victim to domestic violence. The buried memories are unearthed without warning. The confusion. The “pop! pop!” of gunshots. The standoff with hostage negotiators. And the finality of an eight-hour ordeal summed up in two unthinkable words:
Betty, the wife of Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan, wiped her face and tried to steady her voice. But the anger, the heartache, the regret — all of it — still was too fresh, too powerful, to contain even six years later.
“There was a lot that went wrong that day. A lot,” she said, her voice cracking again. “And this is just one way that I can turn this around a little bit. Get it right . . .
“I’m sorry,” she apologized before clearing her throat. “It was a while back, but it’s still very raw . . . It took a long time to kind of forgive myself.”
Sitting on an eggshell leather couch in the Jets’ facility less than two weeks ago, Betty opened up to Newsday in an hour-long interview about one of her darkest days: May 8, 2010. That’s the day their friend and neighbor, Janet McAfee, 50, was gunned down by her husband directly across the street from the Maccagnans’ Houston home.
Years before the 2014 Ray Rice video provided ugly, unfiltered images of domestic abuse, Betty was awakened to how unhealthy relationships can escalate to violence. But it wasn’t until this past March, when she sat in on a One Love Foundation presentation at the NFL’s annual league meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, that she found an avenue to effect change.
One Love was created in honor of Yeardley Love, the University of Virginia star women’s lacrosse player whose murder at the hands of her ex-boyfriend weeks before graduation garnered international attention. Love was killed five days before Janet McAfee was fatally shot by her spouse on the day he was supposed to sign their divorce papers.
“It’s hard to process both of those were preventable,” said Betty, who hosted a One Love workshop for 140 students and educators at the Jets’ facility on Oct. 25. “That’s what I struggle with.”
Mike Maccagnan was the Houston Texans’ assistant director of college scouting at the time of their friend’s death. “You never really think you’re going to lose somebody,” he said Thursday evening in a separate interview in a second-floor conference room at the Jets’ facility. “ . . . And when that person is literally no longer there, on this planet, the finality of it, the [fragility] of life hits home.”
EMPOWERING YOUNG PEOPLE
Love, 22, was found in her bed in the early-morning hours of May 3, 2010. The medical examiner reportedly ruled that her death was the result of blunt-force injury to the head. According to police, her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely, confessed to kicking in her bedroom door and slamming her head repeatedly against a wall. He later was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Their on-again, off-again relationship was volatile, but Love’s friends and family members didn’t recognize the warning signs or realize just how dangerous Huguely was.
One Love’s mission is to create awareness of relationship violence and to empower students to recognize the warning signs before it’s too late. “Yeardley Love was killed and her death was totally avoidable,” said CEO Katie Hood, whose close friend was Love’s cousin. “So our No. 1 goal is to save lives. And to help people make better decisions.”
Through its partnership with the NFL, One Love has teamed with football teams to spread its message. In December 2014, the Ravens made a $400,000 donation (Love was from the Baltimore area). The Jaguars are another major investor. The Seattle Seahawks and the Seahawks Women’s Association recently made a commitment. The Giants — who were shamed into releasing kicker Josh Brown on Oct. 25, days after his admission of domestic abuse became public — also have supported the foundation, Hood said.
She added that One Love currently is in the process of doing follow-ups with schools that attended the Jets-hosted event and is “continuing to talk with the Jets about ways they can help expand the movement” in their community.
Through original content geared toward different age ranges, the foundation is determined to remove the shame and stigma felt by the abused party. “You would have been amazed at the number of people who started telling me their own stories,” Hood said. “People I had known for 20 years who had never whispered a word to me before.”
Relationship abuse is a dark and prevalent issue, but the foundation is “all about positivity,” added Hood, who stressed that young women of ages 16 to 24 are “at three times greater risk for being in an abusive relationship that any other group, and they don’t really realize that.”
One of its educational tools is a 90-minute workshop featuring “Escalation,” a 38-minute film that depicts a fictional college-campus relationship that deteriorates because of the boyfriend’s verbal and physical abuse.
“Yeardley’s mom said, ‘I want to do for relationship violence what M.A.D.D. [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] did for drunk drivers,’” Betty said, adding that “this isn’t just a ‘girl problem.’ ’’
“ . . . It’s not about blaming anybody. It’s about empowering the people around you to act, to see, to do something before it gets out of hand.”
One Love — which is based in Westchester County — has brought its workshop to more than 70,000 campus students across the country in just over a year and a half. But as the demand has grown, so have financial costs. Hood estimated that roughly $500,000 will be needed for two years’ worth of national programming.
“What we’re doing is going into communities, getting them excited, and then we’re going away,” she said. “We’ve realized that in order to grow and really build a movement, we’ve got to be there.”
Betty, who personally called local high schools and colleges to invite students to attend the Jets-hosted workshop, is determined to get “a big presence” of One Love in the New Jersey area.
The hope is that by targeting young people, there will be fewer tragedies like Love’s and Janet McAfee’s.
“I’m not an expert,” Betty said. “I know nothing about this, other than my own experience. But I feel like if I had been a part of this organization or exposed to this organization, I would have acted differently. I know I would have acted differently.”
“A DAY OF ERRORS”
The eclectic bungalow-style house always stood out on their quiet Houston street. With its ornate door and Balinese gates, it was a reflection of McAfee’s love of travel and her larger-than-life personality.
Now it sits empty and abandoned, serving only as a reminder of hellish memories the Maccagnans will never shake.
“Every day you see the house, you think of it,” said Mike Maccagnan, who last laid eyes on the property during a brief stopover at his home after scouting the Rice-Baylor football game on Sept. 16.
The Maccagnans recalled running into the estranged couple hours before Janet McAfee’s death. “I knew at the time something didn’t feel right,” Betty said. “And that’s one thing One Love always says: Listen to your gut.”
Other signs went ignored, too.
That evening, while Betty was running late to a party just a few houses down, the McAfees’ security system went off. “It would trip all the time,” said Betty, who was listed as Janet’s call person.
So she let the call go to voicemail. It wasn’t until much later that she listened to the entire message. The panic alarm in the home had been activated.
According to court records, a Houston police officer and a community patrol officer responded separately to the panic alarm, but Kenneth McAfee told them everything was fine and that it was a false alarm.
“I started dialing her number,” said Betty, who pressed the community patrolmen to go back to the house. “I probably dialed it 20 times and she wasn’t picking up. And I said, ‘You’ve got to go back to that door. I need to see Janet.’ ”
Janet McAfee had been spotted inside the home and had briefly communicated with one of the officers, but, police said, Kenneth McAfee slammed the door and barricaded himself inside the residence.
It wasn’t long before Betty heard gunshots.
Their street eventually was closed off and the entire block was enveloped by darkness when the streetlights were cut off, Betty said. Crisis intervention and hostage negotiation teams responded to the scene. “The S.W.A.T. team came into our house,” Betty said. “They wanted to shoot from the bedroom window.”
Using a “magnification scope,” officers could see Janet McAfee’s body on the bed, court records said. The medical examiner later determined that she had been shot four times and “physical evidence in the house indicated that she had been shot somewhere outside the bedroom . . . and had been dragged through the kitchen and into the hallway.”
“The night ended with me having to tell a mother that her daughter had been murdered the day before Mother’s Day,” Betty said.
Kenneth McAfee was carried out on a gurney after, court records said, he shot himself in the face. And years later, Mike Maccagnan still can visualize Janet McAfee being wheeled out “in a body bag.”
Tears streamed down the Jets executive’s face as he recalled sitting with Janet McAfee’s mother on his front steps as Betty, Janet’s father and Janet’s brothers cleaned up the crime scene and stripped the bloody sheets off the bed.
“I haven’t really talked about it in a while,” Mike Maccagnan said, wiping his eyes. “ . . . You go back in your head and you think, could you have done something different to possibly save her?”
Both Maccagnans testified at Kenneth’s McAfee’s trial. He was sentenced to 99 years in 2013 and fined $10,000, court records show.
“So when people ask me why I’m passionate . . . ,” Betty said, her voice trembling. “What I said to those students was, I was trying to give them permission. Permission to act. Permission to get into somebody’s business. I didn’t explain my day. Not in this detail. This is probably only my third time, other than that day, that I’ve actually put it out there.
“Because you know what? You don’t talk about it. I don’t talk about it. But that’s how it works. That’s what happens. And it’s really that bad. I lost four years of my life to that.”