By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008
A 19-year-old man who was recently released from jail was charged with first-degree murder yesterday in the slaying of a Prince George's County police officer.
Authorities said Ronnie L. White was detained Friday in Laurel after two men in a pickup believed to be stolen hit Cpl. Richard S. Findley in a parking lot near the 14700 block of Laurel-Bowie Road.
Findley and other officers from an elite squad had been attempting to box in the suspects when White, who police say was the driver, rammed Findley's cruiser. Findley got out of his cruiser and White hit him, dragging him on the front of the truck, police said. Findley, 39, suffered massive head trauma, and he died a short time later at Laurel Regional Hospital.
Maj. Daniel Dusseau, commander of the county's criminal investigations division, praised the quick work of the dozens of officers and detectives who swarmed nearby Laurel Square Apartments and searched door-to-door after Findley was hit. Police said they detained four people, including White, during the search.
Dusseau said additional arrests are likely. Sharon Taylor, a police spokeswoman, declined to say whether the other three people were still detained. She also declined to identify the person, one of the three, who was arrested Friday on unrelated charges or to specify what those charges were.
It was unclear yesterday whether White, of the 9100 block of Tumbleweed Run in the Laurel area of Howard County, had been assigned an attorney. Efforts to locate phone numbers for his family members were unsuccessful.
Court record show that in 2006, White was charged with first-degree assault and armed robbery; the case was dropped. Last year, he pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm and, in a separate case, to drug possession. On Nov. 28, he was sentenced to more than six months in prison. It was unclear when he was released.
Findley was described as warm and friendly and as a person who didn't lose touch with friends, not even with the parents of his ex-wife. Denis Frazier, Findley's former father-in-law, said the two remained close even though he and his daughter, Findley's first wife, divorced more than a decade ago.
"He was one of these guys you just can't throw away," said Frazier, who lives in Wisconsin.
Findley was passionate about spending time with his daughters, Nicole, 9, and Lauren, 6, Frazier said. "Gymnastics, horseback riding -- they were always doing something," he said. "He absolutely adored them."
Frazier said Richard Findley's wife, Kelly Findley, called him at 5:20 a.m. yesterday to deliver the news. "She said it's been like a bad dream and she wished somebody would wake her up," Frazier said.
Findley lived in New Windsor, in Carroll County, about an hour's drive from where he worked in Prince George's. Frazier said Kelly Findley told him that although she usually didn't stir at dawn when her husband left for the long commute, she did Friday morning. "She woke up and said goodbye to him," Frazier said.
Later that morning, shortly before noon, Findley pulled his cruiser in front of the suspects' blue Chevrolet Silverado to stop them from leaving Laurel Pines Apartments. On Friday afternoon, police could be seen collecting shreds of clothing and other evidence more than a block away from where Findley was initially struck.
"We're just extremely overwhelmed right now," said Al Schwartz, chief of the Beltsville Volunteer Fire Department, where Findley volunteered. "We're just glad someone was charged."
Findley, a 10-year member of the force, was the first Prince George's officer to be killed in the line of duty since his close friend, Cpl. Steven Gaughan, died in a shootout in 2005. They are the only two county officers killed in the line of duty this decade, and both were members of a special unit that pursues repeat violent crime offenders and car thieves.
The department began forming special assignment teams in each district in the late 1980s and early '90s to respond to a growing need to get dangerous criminals off the streets. The teams have since been expanded to include car theft units and have been deployed in a variety of missions, including anti-gang efforts, in recent years.
Lt. John Decker led the department's first unit, which was started in its Beltsville station, where Findley and Gaughan were assigned. There, a wall of plaques celebrates the unit's accomplishments: the arrests of a serial rapist, drug kings and car thieves, among others.
"They go after the worst of the worst. They deal with the real criminals, the immediate threats," said Decker, now a lieutenant in the department's Hyattsville station.
The units are a key part of the county's policing effort, he said. "You don't put your slugs in there. You put your warriors in there, guys who have a feel for it and have proven they can catch real criminals," he said.
Capt. Scott Haines, assistant commander of the county's police District 6, said Findley had been promoted to the team because of his efforts as a patrol officer.
Maj. Dwayne Preston, commander of the district, said Findley died doing what members of the team do "on a normal basis."
On Friday morning, Findley and other officers from the unit had spotted stolen license plates on the blue pickup and were "sitting on it," conducting surveillance to see whether anyone would return to the vehicle. The two suspects did, and, in an attempt to prevent the suspects from reaching the public roadway and the possibility of a chase, the officers boxed in the pickup.
"Findley was the kind of guy to pull his car in front," said Decker, who had worked with him for several years and who acknowledged that the practice of getting in front of a stolen car can be dangerous but said it is better than letting a chase spill onto public streets. "If you get behind them, they're not going to stop, so you want to stop them before they get mobile," he said. "Any time you try to block a stolen vehicle, there's a chance it could happen the way it happened to Findley."
Decker said he was not surprised that the county's only two fallen officers in the past 13 years were members of the team, but he said it was tragic that it happened to two great officers and two who were such good friends. "It comes with the territory, but these two, being so close together, it's just real bad luck."
Staff writers Jenna Johnson and William Wan and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.