Harford County confronts deaths of four officers

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.

Word spread quickly to his friends and co-workers. Trabert said that when he pulled up to the station within hours of Armetta's accident, he found officers out front crying.

"He just got married. He just had a child," Trabert said. "He just started a new position within the police department. Everything for Charlie was just coming together."

Armetta joined the department in late 2007 and recently revived its K9 unit with his 2-year-old partner, Maverick. The two got off to a rocky start — the dog bit the deputy chief during its first week.

"I told Charlie, 'I don't think this dog is going to work out.' He said, 'Chief, this is going to be our dog,' " Trabert recalled. "He worked with that dog, and when he got out of training, that dog was amazing. Those two bonded like I have never seen."

Trabert said the department let Armetta's widow and their 1-year-old daughter adopt Maverick.

Next in the tragic line was Loughran, 43, of Pylesville. The 16-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office died at home Sept. 13, Bane said. The symptoms of his fatal heart attack began while he attended Licato's funeral hours earlier, according to the medical examiner's office.

Bane said Licato was "destined for greater things" in the agency. "He was very methodical. If he had you as a suspect, he was going to get you, sooner or later. You were going to get a conviction in court, because he was going to get the job done."

Loughran, who had also worked as a school resource officer at North Harford High School, was married and had a 2-year-old son. Thomas, the union president and a close friend of Loughran, said he was an introspective, intelligent and compassionate man, with a passion for Shakespeare and camping. He had a good sense of humor, even if he needed to make himself the joke to get a laugh, Thomas said.

Franklin, who joined the Aberdeen force in 1999, died a day after Loughran's funeral. He had taken leave in January after being diagnosed with cancer, Trabert said.

"We expected him back," Trabert said. "He was a fighter. He never gave up and neither did we, not until the last day."

Franklin, 55, had been a part of the department's honor guard and SWAT team before establishing the criminal investigation unit about 10 years ago.

Trabert said Franklin was the "toughest man I know and the hardest-working man I know. He lived every moment, the way everyone should. When he was off the job, it was all about his family. When he was here, it was all about the job."

He was married and had three sons and a daughter. Outside of work, he loved to ride motorcycles, and was a skilled carpenter and electrician.

In addition to the active duty men who passed away last month, retired Maryland State Police Lt. Ronald C. Petty, 62, of Havre de Grace died Sept. 9 of multiple myeloma, and former Sheriff Theodore S. Moyer, 83, of Edgewood died Sept. 17 of pulmonary disease.

A black bunting shrouds the lettering outside the Aberdeen Police Department; in front of the sheriff's office building is a police cruiser draped with a black cloth.

Bane is re-evaluating the resources available to help officers cope with job stress, especially in light of Loughran's death to a heart attack. The sheriff's office has a crisis management team, a psychologist available for advice and a chaplain corps, among other resources.

"Being the sheriff, that takes on a new meaning to me; I am to take care of my people, I am supposed to be ready for these kinds of things. I am supposed to prevent these kinds of things," Bane said.

The office was so quiet the day after Loughran's death that Bane was tempted to tell everyone to go home, because deputies must be focused for high-stakes police work. The agency, established in 1774, had only lost three active duty officers until the recent tragedies, he said.

"As sheriff, I really started to worry," he said. "You've got to wonder what's going through their minds. You start to realize how fragile life really is. You can be here one minute, young, vibrant and gone the next."

Baltimore Sun reporter contributed to this article.



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