By Aaron C. Davis, Ovetta Wiggins and James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 28, 2008
A veteran Prince George's County police officer was fatally injured in Laurel yesterday when he was run down by two men in a pickup that was believed to be stolen, prompting scores of officers to swarm a nearby apartment complex where four people were detained.
Cpl. Richard S. Findley, 39, who was dragged a short distance under the Chevy Silverado, suffered massive head trauma and died later at Laurel Regional Hospital.
"Today we lost a hero, a hero who was out doing what we asked him to do," said Vernon Herron, the county's director of public safety, who pleaded for witnesses to come forward. "We're not going to be able to stop these thugs from doing this to our community without your help."
Findley, a 10-year member of the force, was the first Prince George's police officer to be killed in the line of duty since his close friend, Cpl. Steven Gaughan, died in a shootout in 2005. Findley and Gaughan were assigned to a special unit that pursues violent offenders and car thieves, and Gaughan was shot less than two miles from where Findley was struck. Findley had taken the lead in raising money to help Gaughan's family.
"He was one of a kind, he really was," said Al Schwartz, chief of the Beltsville Volunteer Fire Department, where Findley volunteered for the past 20 years. "You could be in a bad mood, and he could always make you smile."
Findley lived in New Windsor, in Carroll County, with his wife and two young daughters. Maryland State Police took his wife by helicopter to the hospital in Laurel.
Authorities said Findley and other officers from the department's 6th Police District in Beltsville spotted the blue Silverado yesterday morning in a parking lot at the Laurel Pines Apartments, in the 14700 block of Laurel-Bowie Road. Findley was "sitting on it," waiting to see whether someone would return to it, police spokeswoman Sharon Taylor said.
Shortly before noon, police said, two men got into the pickup. When Findley and other officers tried to block the vehicle's path, the suspects rammed Findley's cruiser. Police said Findley exited the cruiser and was struck; he fired his weapon and was dragged as the pickup sped away, colliding with other vehicles.
A neighbor said she heard "screeching from the truck flying past the patio." The resident, a 42-year-old dental assistant, said she heard what she thought was the sound of three or four firecrackers and only later realized they were gunshots. She ran outside and saw Findley face down on the ground, his left arm over his head and a gun lying about five feet from his body.
"I was shocked," she said. "I was thinking, 'This can't be happening.' "
An officer on the scene transmitted a distress code. Officers throughout northern Prince George's soon heard "Signal 13," the county's code for an officer in distress, and dozens of county, Bowie, Laurel and U.S. Park Police cruisers raced toward the scene.
As officers searched for the blue truck, dispatchers received a report at 11:57 a.m. that Findley had been "dragged by vehicle" and had a "possible severe head injury," according to electronic police logs of the incident. Four minutes later, another call came: Findley's weapon and four shell casings had been found on the pavement, and paramedics had decided to rush him to Laurel Regional to rendezvous with a medical evacuation helicopter.
"It never ended up being needed, unfortunately," said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the county's Fire and Emergency Services Department.
As Findley was placed in the ambulance, a 911 caller reported seeing two men, one bloodied on his back and side, at the Laurel Square Apartments a few blocks away. The caller said the men were trying to flag down a car and had entered the apartment building at 13609 Avebury Dr.
Police cordoned off the entire complex, and dozens of heavily armed officers swept into the area.
"They were running around and drawing guns. All of a sudden, I felt swarmed with policemen," said Dianne Shields, 46, speaking by phone from inside the police barricade. "They won't let me leave. I tried four times. They told us to go in the house."
Walter Calderon, who lives two buildings away, had run out to Taco Bell, leaving his two sons, ages 8 and 9, at home watching television. By the time he returned, officers had sealed off entrances and exits, ordering residents in and near 13609 Avebury Dr. outside and behind police lines, while residents farther from that building were told to lock their doors.
In the past three weeks, Calderon said, there was a hostage situation and a slaying in the area. "I'm ready to move out," he said.
Resident Norman Gary, 33, who was ordered to remain in his apartment, said he stared out the window for three hours watching the manhunt unfold. After noon, he said he saw a sobbing female officer walking down Avebury Drive.
Four people found in the complex were detained for questioning, said Maj. Daniel Dusseau, head of the department's criminal investigations division. He described all four as persons of interest and said one had been arrested on unrelated charges. None of the four was identified, and he did not say whether anyone was injured.
Residents in most of the complex were allowed to return to their apartments shortly after 3 p.m. as police concentrated their efforts on 13609 Avebury. It was not until about 7:45 p.m. that officers escorted residents into that building.
Officers remained later into the night, and resident Shelly Jefferson said one police officer told her that investigators were waiting for search warrants.
The pickup was recovered, Taylor said.
During the afternoon, according to a police radio report, an officer searching an apartment said he found a black bag with an assault rifle and four pounds of marijuana. Officials would not say whether the contraband was related to the arrest.
Staff writers Lori Aratani and Hamil R. Harris and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.