Aberdeen Chief of Police Henry Trabert

Aberdeen Chief of Police Henry Trabert stands outside the Aberdeen police station, which is draped in black bunting because of the deaths of two of their police officers in the last several weeks. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / September 25, 2012)

Piled on Sheriff L. Jesse Bane's desk are stacks of unopened mail, and among the envelopes stuffed with condolences, is a black leather-bound Bible inscribed with gold lettering.

Harford County's top lawman has been wrestling with leading an agency of 290 sworn officers through tragedy unlike any it has endured in the last two centuries: the back-to-back deaths of active duty officers. Sgt. Ian A. Loughran died in the hours after he began to suffer a heart attack at the funeral of his mentee, Cpl. Charles Barton Licato.

About 13 miles from the sheriff's office in Bel Air, Aberdeen Police Chief Henry G. Trabert is leading his 40-person force through similar heartbreak. In the days after Officer Charles N. Armetta, fell 47 feet to his death in an off-duty accident, veteran Detective Mark A. Franklin passed away from a battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The four deaths came within a two-week span in September. And while Harford County was grieving, the area's tight-knit law enforcement community buried two more from within its ranks, a former sheriff and a retired state trooper.

"I struggle right now, wondering if there is more than I could have done and if there is more I can do," says Bane, a slim, rosy-cheeked man who has spent the last 37 years with the sheriff's office and has led it since 2006.

"When you have deaths that don't make any sense, you try to make sense of them. There was no chance for us to recover. Six in a row and I am starting to say to myself, 'Who's next,' or 'What happens if we have another one.' "

The agencies, though relatively small, get involved in high-profile crimes, including drug-dealing in the Interstate 95 corridor and the July kidnapping of Vi Ripken, the mother of Cal Ripken Jr. They say they'll continue to handle such cases despite the personnel losses, but can request help from other agencies if strains appear.

The sorrow of the unexpected, serial adversity offers a glimpse inside the brotherhood that exists in the ranks of law enforcement, especially within small agencies.

The brotherhood is a bond, the officials say. It develops over holidays spent away from family and in unlikely places: in a dark alley chasing a fugitive or at a domestic violence call with an armed, angry spouse.

The bodies of the fallen men were attended in 24-hour vigil by Aberdeen police and Harford deputies from the time of death to burial at the culmination of elaborate services featuring taps, processions and hundreds of uniformed officers.

At Armetta's service, his canine partner, Maverick, yelped repeatedly as an officer drove Armetta's cruiser toward the grave sight.

"We can separate a tragic crime scene from us, because it is a job, as much as it may hurt or as bad as it may look; this is personal," the straight-laced Trabert said, choking back emotion. "We can't get away from it. It's in our heart. It's in our mind.

"The guy's office was down the hall. I walk by it every day. That pain is for real."

Licato, of Rising Sun, was the first to die. The 34-year-old was killed early Sept. 6 along Route 1 near the Conowingo Dam after his car left the road for an unknown reason, slid down an embankment, and hit a pole and two trees before catching fire in a ravine.

Bane said Licato was likely heading home from work, but may have been following a lead on a felony warrant. Licato, who joined the sheriff's office in 1998, came from a family of officers. His father, Donald, is a former Baltimore homicide detective who retired from the Aberdeen Police Department less than a month ago. His brother, Donnie, is a deputy in Harford.

"He was a good, conscientious guy," said Sgt. Kevin Thomas, president of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union. "He enjoyed making a difference in the community."

Licato was a bachelor who loved to play cards and work out with his dog, Gunner, a German shepherd rescue whose original owner was killed in Afghanistan.

"There was only one Charlie Licato," said Bane, who told stories of Licato's passion for the job and ideas to improve the organization.

Two days after Licato's accident, Armetta, of Joppa, was out celebrating his brother's upcoming wedding with about 10 men when a bus carrying them pulled over along Interstate 95 in Baltimore around 3 a.m. Some of the men had been wrestling on the bus, and Armetta, 29, pushed through the door and fell over the jersey wall, according to a police report.