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Deadly Force

Acting on a mistaken drug trafficking suspicion, a SWAT team broke down their door, shot beloved pets and shattered a happy home. Was it an extreme reaction, or business as usual in America's war on drugs?

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By April Witt
Sunday, February 1, 2009

Payton swung his big, goofy head onto the bed, worked his snout under a pillow and gave a gentle bump. The mayor's wife, nudged awake, opened her eyes and smiled. Payton, the couple's playful No. 1 dog, was letting her know that he and his timid little brother, Chase, needed their morning walk. As the mayor's wife stirred, the two black Labs -- known collectively as "the boys" -- panted and bounded round the bed gleefully. "Get up! Get up! Get up! Get Up!" the boys seemed to be saying. They did this every morning. Inside this sunny red-brick house on a well-tended corner lot in the tiny town of Berwyn Heights in Prince George's County, the family routines were precise from thousands of loving retracings; and they almost all revolved around the boys.

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After six years of marriage, Trinity Tomsic and her husband, Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye (sounds like "Shy") Calvo, still hoped for children. As the couple waited, the boys were more than a balm; they were a shared joy. Cheye, 37, and Trinity, 33, had even bought this quaint little house because it had a fenced yard with an expansive lawn where the boys could romp -- dog heaven. On this morning, Tuesday, July 29, Trinity fed the boys by 5 a.m., then planned to take Chase running before walking Payton. Running was the one activity at which shy Chase bested Payton, who had long ago been slowed by a leg injury. "Chase knew we were going to go running before I even had my tennis shoes on," Trinity later recalled. "I don't know how he knew. He just always did."

Trinity snapped Chase in his running harness, then reconsidered. She was a finance officer for the state of Maryland. She had a stack of crucial reports awaiting her approval. Maybe she should just leave for the office now. "I came very close to telling him that we'd have to run later," she recalled. But Chase looked so ridiculously excited that Trinity couldn't stand to disappoint him. "He was jumping up and down, up and down, like, 'We're going to go running! We're going to go running.' It was the best thing to see him so happy."

And so, they ran out from their tidy house with the pretty mailbox made to match, down familiar streets where they knew neighbors by name and habit, past the home of the sweet old man who always joked when he saw them running: "They went that-a-way." They ran until Trinity tired, and Chase looked back at her with an expression she read as, "Mom, could you speed it up?"

"It's so important to me that we ran," Trinity says now. "I would feel so terrible if, on that last day, the thing he loved most I bailed on because I wanted to get to the office a few minutes early."

***

Payton and Chase spent the day outside together in their fenced run. Weekdays in good weather, they'd loll there until they heard the R12 bus grinding down Edmonston Road -- bringing Trinity's mother home to feed them dinner. Then Payton, 7, would jump up on the fence and bark until Chase, 4, who copied everything Payton did, joined in. On this day, Trinity's mom, Georgia Porter, surprised the boys. She got home an hour early, pulling into the driveway at 5:30 p.m. in the used Toyota she'd bought two days before.

Down the street, a stranger sitting in a parked car noted that a lone female had just arrived at the residence.

Unaware they were being watched, Georgia fed the dogs, then knelt beside the lush organic vegetable garden that Trinity tended meticulously. Georgia, feeling celebratory, wanted to make their favorite summer pasta dish for dinner. She picked cherry tomatoes with one hand while tossing a ball to Chase with the other.

It had been a year since Georgia, 50, had left her lifelong home of Price, Utah -- widowed, jobless, feeling defeated -- and moved in with Cheye and Trinity to try to begin again. It had been hard leaving her rural home, her beloved horses and mountain views, to commute three hours roundtrip daily -- by bus, then Metro, then bus again -- to a job in Takoma Park for a commercial floor estimator. She felt proud of her new used car and what it signified: She was, finally, moving ahead.

The dogs followed Georgia inside. Maneuvering around the kitchen as she cleaned and chopped vegetables, Georgia had to keep stepping over them. She didn't mind. Georgia had bought Chase as a puppy as a surprise gift for Trinity and Cheye. Georgia, who is Greek by heritage, thought of herself as both dogs' "yaya," Greek for grandmother. "They were always right there with me when I cooked," she recalled. "Dogs who are loved like to be right by their people."

At about 6:30 p.m., Cheye came home. He had just one hour to change into shorts, take the boys for their evening walk, change back into business clothes, eat, then head to the town center to chair a community meeting. He'd be gone before Trinity got home. At 33, Cheye had become the youngest mayor ever elected in Prince George's County. It was a part-time job that paid an honorarium of $150 a month. Cheye -- once voted "most school-spirited" in the class of '89 at Riverdale's Parkdale High School -- turned out to be a natural. A policy wonk, he had a passion for the minutiae of local governing. For weeks, he'd been drafting and redrafting a letter laying out precise arguments on why the state should crack down on a developer who had fouled Indian Creek. Tonight, mayors and council members from three neighboring towns were coming to sign Cheye's letter. Cheye was upstairs changing, thinking through the key points of his letter, when the dogs began barking downstairs.


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