Oakton Man's Web Site Honors Police Who Died in Line of Duty

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005

While growing up in Northern Virginia, Anita Malcolm Smith learned only a couple of facts about her great-uncle George A. Malcolm: In the early 1900s, she knew, he served as the head instructor of a Lorton school. And not far from that campus, he was murdered.

Smith, 56, had seen a photo of the young Malcolm. He was a slender, handsome man with thin casually pursed lips and soft eyes that looked away from the camera. Her family did not talk much about his slaying, she said, and those who were alive when he was killed in 1905 were no longer living when she was born.

"All we knew was that he was shot while trying to defend a student," she said in a telephone interview from her home in the Tidewater area.

Smith might have lived the rest of her life knowing only those scant details unless an Oakton man named Chris Cosgriff had not called her last year. Cosgriff, 27, had come across an article in The Washington Post while doing research about line-of-duty law enforcement deaths for his Web site, the Officer Down Memorial Page ( http://www.odmp.org/ ).

A brief article caught his attention, one that described the gunfire that erupted near Lorton on April 6, 1905, during which a Fairfax County sheriff's deputy was struck five times while trying to arrest a man who had been harassing female students at the Lorton Valley school, where the officer also worked.

The young deputy was Malcolm.

"I was baffled," Smith said. "None of us had any idea he was a police officer."

Nor did the county's sheriff's office, which had no record of the line-of-duty killing.

The Fairfax sheriff's union honored Malcolm at a May ceremony outside the historic Pohick Church, near the church cemetery where he is buried. And in what is considered the ultimate tribute in law enforcement, his name was engraved on the wall of the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Northwest Washington, more than 100 years after he was killed.

Malcolm was one of four area men whose line-of-duty deaths were recognized this year, some more than a century after they were buried, due in large part to the persistent efforts of Cosgriff, whose volunteer work with the nonprofit Web site has led to more than 500 death discoveries over the last few years.

For nine years, Cosgriff has meticulously collected details, photographs and badge numbers of law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty around the country and displayed the information in online tributes. He labors, he says, so that the officers and their sacrifices will not be forgotten.

Arlington County Special Police Officer Louis F. Shaw was among those long-forgotten deaths, a line-of-duty killing that the police department was unaware of because the agency was not officially formed until several years later. But Shaw was publicly recognized for the first time in May during National Police Week, an annual gathering in Washington attended by thousands of peace officers from around the world to honor those killed while on duty.

Shaw's living relatives knew most of the details of his death but hadn't thought to request that his name be added to the blue marble walls of the National Law Enforcement Memorial, which sits in Judiciary Square and bears the names of more than 17,000 fallen officers.

Frank Marcey, 67, Shaw's nephew, grew up with an idea of what had happened to his uncle, even though his relatives didn't talk much about it. As a child, mementos of his uncle's career were all around him: the police-issued handcuffs, badge and pistol. Marcey gave the pistol to Cosgriff, which Cosgriff said he plans to donate to a soon-to-be-built law enforcement museum.

"Here it's been 70 years and most of my family is gone, but we're finally learning the real details," said Marcey, of Sterling. "It's been a very emotional, and pleasurable, time for us."

And none of it would have been possible, Marcey said, had Cosgriff not dedicated himself almost 10 years ago to learning the truth about fallen officers.

"He did a tremendous job," he said. "For him to do all he did, we're just very honored."

Cosgriff created his Web site while a freshman at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. Working from his dorm room, he designed a basic site after being angered by an article he read in The Post's Metro section about a Prince George's County man who was released from prison 17 years after killing two county police officers. Around the same time, a female officer from the Philadelphia Police Department was killed while trying to stop a bank robbery.

"I had learned a little about Web sites, and so I just created it," Cosgriff said. He wrote a few sentences about the Jan. 2, 1996, slaying of Philadelphia Officer Lauretha Vaird. A few days later, a patrolman with the Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Police Department was killed by gunfire. Cosgriff added the officer, Bryant H. Peney, to the site.

"His twin brother found the site and e-mailed me to thank me and it meant a lot to me. It's what got me going to really honor all officers on the site, and over time it's just grown," said Cosgriff, a slender man with a boyish face and a tuft of closely cropped hair.

During its first month online, the Officer Down Memorial Page had 240 visitors. Today, it has about 16,000 unique visitors a day, people who sift through the lives of 17,000 officers from all 50 states and U.S. territories. The site boasts a team of six volunteer researchers, including Cosgriff, who investigate all claims of long-forgotten line-of-duty deaths. They're currently researching about 300. Cosgriff spends about 30 hours a week working and adding to the site, he said, mostly from a computer in the basement of his home in Oakton. That's in addition to his full-time job as a solutions engineer for the technology firm NovusCG, based at the Pentagon.

Last year, in addition to Shaw, Cosgriff and his volunteers discovered 49 other forgotten deaths, including two Loudoun County police officers whose on-duty deaths were unknown by their departments. In Middleburg, Sgt. Henry Seaton, the equivalent to police chief back then, was stabbed to death in 1899 by a man he had arrested for being drunk and disorderly. In 1923, Inspector J.D. Lambert of the Virginia Department of Prohibition Enforcement (the modern-day equivalent of the state's Alcohol Beverage Commission) was shot and killed near Ashburn when he and a county deputy raided a still.

In honor of Shaw and Arlington County's five other line-of-duty deaths, a bronze statue of a police officer was erected in the courtyard of the county's police headquarters on Courthouse Road during Police Week. Below the statue is a description of Shaw's death on Dec. 6, 1935.

Shaw, 28, had no chance of survival when the police car in which he was riding was struck by a Shell Oil Co. truck about 5 a.m. The cruiser was thrown 75 feet into a telephone pole, rupturing the car's gas tank and engulfing it in flames. Shaw and a prisoner he and his partner were transporting to the county jail died.

His partner had stepped out of the vehicle to survey the scene of the hours-old accident caused by the prisoner when the crash occurred.

What began as an experiment for an 18-year-old kid who dreamed of becoming a police officer has evolved into a research tool for academics and historians and a teaching and training resource for hundreds of police departments across the country. Locally, Prince William County, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Prince George's County are among the jurisdictions that use the site to teach recruits about the perils of policing.

And it has also helped Cosgriff forge important relationships with those involved with the National Law Enforcement Memorial, he said. He credits the memorial with giving him a list of 10,000 fallen officers killed before 1996 to add to his site. And every time he discovers a new death, he sends the information to memorial officials, he said.

It is a carefully orchestrated process, one that involves many hours a week.

Cosgriff and the other volunteers -- he doesn't earn a penny from the site -- send copies of newspaper articles, death certificates, pre-filled National Memorial nomination forms and stamped envelopes to police chiefs and sheriffs around the country. All they have to do is sign the forms and return them; many of them don't, he said.

But even if their names don't make it onto the National Memorial, either because the agencies don't respond or they don't make the cut for whatever reason, the dead are memorialized online, a source of comfort to their relatives, Cosgriff said.

After each summary of an officer's death is a link to a "reflections" page, a space in which site visitors can leave comments. Most thank the officer for his or her courage and commitment, while others are much more personal.

"Thank you for everything you have been to me," Amy Elizabeth Gray wrote to her father, Ernest Gray, a Pennsylvania officer whose on-duty death in 1984 was finally recognized during Police Week because of Cosgriff's efforts. "Though I may not have had much time with you, you have been a huge inspiration in my life. I will never forget you. I love you."

Gray, an officer with the Pennsylvania Utility Commission who was 33 when he died in an accident on a rain-slicked road while on his way to a call, is the brother of Cosgriff's boss, Bob Gray, 47. Bob Gray said recently that Cosgriff's determination to honor his brother was heartwarming.

"It meant so much to us that he would take that time," he said.

And that's all the thanks that Cosgriff, who still harbors dreams of becoming a law enforcement officer some day, said he needs.

Cosgriff wanted to join the Fairfax County Police Department after high school but didn't meet the department's age requirement of 21. He didn't know what to do until he turned 21, so he decided he'd go to college, where he fell in love with computers and technology and learned to create Web sites.

"I'm not looking for recognition or money," he said. "I hear from widows and children and relatives about how much the site means to them. It makes it all worth it for me, and it keeps me going. I feel like I know these officers now."

In late June, Cosgriff learned about the lives of five more fallen officers, including Prince George's County Cpl. Steven Gaughan, who was shot to death June 21 during what should have been a routine traffic stop. Within hours of Gaughan's death, Cosgriff had summarized the slaying and uploaded a smiling picture of the officer on the site. By the end of the week, dozens of people had left comments on the page, many of them offering thanks for its creation.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company