What It's Like to Get Shot in the Head
"It was a noise that I'll never forget."
Snow covers the grounds of the Oheka Castle on the day of the assassination attempt, Monday, February 24, 2014, in Huntington, New York. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)
Surveillance video of the employee parking lot at Gary Melius's castle home shows the real estate developer striding to the door of his car. Ten seconds later, a shadowy figure climbs out of a bronze Jeep Grand Cherokee parked just feet away, sulks over to the driver's side window, and shoots him in the skull.
The 71-year-old survived the February 2014 attempt on his life, but the identity of his would-be-assassin, as well as that of whoever ordered the hit, remain one of New York's greatest mysteries. Like the case of the Long Island Serial Killer, the Melius shooting is now in the hands of the FBI, which has received new access to unsolved crimes in the region following the conviction of former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke for violating a man's civil rights and conspiring to cover it up. (Understandably for a dirty cop, Burke is said to have looked upon federal authorities with considerable skepticism.)
Melius's public reputation as an independently-minded "political powerbroker" who donated aggressively to both Republican and Democratic candidates at the local level has piqued public interest in the shooting, as has the iconic stature of his home, Oheka Castle. Part of the island's fabled Gold Coast, scenes from Citizen Kane were shot at the sprawling mansion and hotel, and its fairytale-like appearance is said to be one of the inspirations for The Great Gatsby.
A former plumber who grew up humbly in Jackson Heights, Queens, Melius's hard-nosed youth, which included dalliances with theft and street violence, was briefly documented in a 1993 Village Voice feature by Russ Baker, "Rogue Police Union." The man claims that in the two years since he was shot, his greatest enemy has been the region's most-prominent tabloid, Newsday. The newspaper has run several unflattering stories about Melius's relationships and politics, including an investigative feature co-authored by veteran reporter Sandra Peddie called "The Insiders," which alleged that he received financial rewards in exchange for his connections. (Melius calls the story "lies.")
The survivor spoke to VICE from his office at Oheka Castle, where he now displays a military helmet with his name on it, as well as a silver bullet—gifts from friends marking the botched hit that almost took his life.
VICE: You have something you'd like to say before we begin?
Gary Melius: If there's anything I want to get out about this story, it's that what Newsday has done to me was worse than getting shot.
Well, let's start there. Why do you say that?
Because they've run close to 160 articles that I've been mentioned in and 16 front-page stories. If I had committed treason or raped an entire village, I wouldn't get this much coverage.
But not everyone has survived what you've survived. Has the media attention exceeded what you'd anticipate the public interest to be?
It's not the media. It's Newsday.
Well, it's been over two years since the shooting. Do you remember anything from it?
I remember everything but I never saw the guy shoot me. Nothing. I was sitting in the car and then all of a sudden I was like, "What happened to me?"
Did you lose consciousness?
Did you feel pain?
Oh yeah. A lot of pain.
I'm limited in my capacity to understand what kind of pain we're talking about here. I've never even broken a bone! What is it like to get shot in the head?
Sharp. And loud. My head kept ringing.
There was a ringing in your ears?
No, there was a ringing inside of my head. It was a noise that I'll never forget. Never heard it before, and never heard it since. It was like being in a can, I guess. Just so loud.
How long did it take you to realize that someone had tried to assassinate you?On the way to the hospital I saw the bullet hole in the window of my car. I didn't even know what had happened. My head was bleeding and I had a towel around it, and I just said to my daughter, 'Get me to the hospital.'
You got up out of your seat on your own power after the shot?
Yes. I knew something was wrong but I didn't know what it was. Did I bang my head? I knew I had to get inside the house. I couldn't see much. If you see on the video, I was stumbling. I saw somebody's shadow and I said to it, "Hey stupid, give me a hand!" but it was the guy who shot me. [Laughs.] I didn't know who it was that I was talking to then.
Do you remember the car ride to the hospital?
I remember going in and out, dozing off. I remember saying to myself, "I'm probably going to die now." And it wasn't scary at all. I guess I just accepted what had happened and felt like I'm going to go to sleep. Like anesthesia.
People talk about a light at the end of the tunnel.
Nah. Nothing. I believed that I could die. Not emotionally, just that this could be it.
Any comfort in that moment? I know from some of your other interviews that you consider yourself a spiritual person.
The only thing I thought about was that I worried that I would leave my family in bad financial shape. [Laughs bitterly.] It's a complicated mess I've made of my life.
The day of the incident you were leaving to go have lunch with [former US Senator] Al D'Amato, correct?
Has the FBI connected anything with your political contributions to this attempt on your life?
Well, the FBI is just starting on this. But a suspect I would have—suspect—is Jay Jacobs, the Democratic Party Chairman of Nassau County.
Because when I was still laid up in the hospital, he was saying bad things about me, talking about a "political fight to the death." It seems like strange wording when I'm lying in my hospital bed and can't even get up.
You know him?
Oh yeah. I know him.
When you supported a candidate in the past, why did you choose that person?
I liked them. I'm a big believer that our country is a mess and we're all tribal. We don't look at a candidate. We just vote along a party line. We could have Hitler running on a line and the people in the party would still vote for them.
Have your views on violence shifted at all since being shot?
Not really. I don't own a gun.
Michael Edison Hayden grew up on Long Island. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Los Angeles Times, and National Geographic, among other publications.
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