When Police Chief Marvel (Bill) Coffey was suspended last month and ordered to stand trial on charges of filing a false report, perjury and misconduct in office, few townsfolk were taken by surprise.
They remembered what happened in 1976 shortly after Coffey cracked down on drunks who loitered in front of the Main Street liquor store -- Coffey himself was arested for drunken driving and spent a night in jail.
And then there was the time that the slow-talking, guitar-strumming chief -- likened by some to television's likable "Andy of Mayberry" -- installed a radar trap in town, resulting in wholesale ticketing. Among those stopped was the chief, clocked by one of his own men at 13 miles over the limit.
Last spring two men who ran on what was widely regarded as an anti-Coffey platform, won Town Council seats, and in the summer more than 200 residents signed petitions calling for the chief's outster after three of his four fulltime officers quit in a dispute.
The chief's most serious troubles, however, began two weeks ago when the Maryland special prosecutor's office charged that Coffey, 51, had lied a year ago when he testified he had witnessed the sale of stolen insulation . Coffey immediately was suspended without pay from his $13,000-a-year position.
"He's a nice fellow," said Jack Harris, who owns the grocery store here, "but I've never seen a man get into so much trouble in my entire life."
The continuing controversy over Coffey's administration has deeply divided this town of 2,000 people, located 35 miles north of Washington along the gentle banks of the Patapsco River in southern Carroll County. Some town officials say they've to get unlisted telephone numbers to escape the furor.
The opposing sides still exchange pleasantries and sit at adjoining tables in McDougall's Pharmacy -- a daily ritual -- but tension seethes just below the surface.
"I don't see the termination of the conflict that now exists; I see turmoil for some time to come," said Mayor Robert L. Killett, who has been called dictatorial because of his staunch support of the chief.
"There's been far too much publicity, and it's all been negative," said Killett, who runs a nursing home on thetown's outskirts and keeps a scrapbook of news clippings about the chief entitled: "The Assault."
Indeed, television crews have been here and a Carroll County newspaper has editorialized over Sykesville's "sick ennvironment." The furor, the paper said, has "drained a town of its resources and its respectability."
Sykesville -- whose city hall, a large white frame building with a wraparound porch, is called "the Town House" -- has largely lost its Norman Rockwell image. Now the town where the major employer is a state mental hospital is "like another Peyton Place," grouses one resident.
"There's things that should be told," said Leroy (Happy) Keeney, 78, mayor of Sykesville during the 1940s. One thing is that the pace of life here remains slower than elsewhere, says Keeney, who still charges only $1.25 for haircuts in the Main Street barber shop he's operated for more than 50 years.
Another thing is that Sykesville doesn't need four full-time police officers, according to Keeney. He recalled the one-man reign in the 1930s and 1940s of Chief Walter Blizzard. Blizzard was only 5 feet tall, but he swung a powerful night stick and singlehandedly maintained law and order, Keeney said.
In more recent times, there was Millard Cooper, who was the town cop-handyman-trash-collector combined. he was succeeded by Omer Hebert, who investigated a local "Big Foot" legend and then asked all residents to be fingerprinted voluntarily. Only the mayor volunteered.
Then in 1974 Bill Coffey, a retired Army sergeant whose most recent civilian post had been head of security at the old Kann's department store in downtown Washington, came to town.He joined the three-man force at what he sarcastically called the "struggering salary" of $7,300. The following year, he rose to chief.
"He's not been that bad a police cief," said Joan Candy, editor of the weekly South Carroll Herald. "I've seen worse here."
"It sounds funny for a small town," said Coffey, "but at night a woman couldn't walk down the streets of Sykesville without being abused verbally, physically or in some way."
"Bill made it safe to walk the streets," agrees June Hurley, the woman with whom the chief lives in a subdivision outside the town limits.
Nighttime corousers, who came from as far away as Montgomery County to congregate in front of the local liquor store, were urged to move on. After two weeks of parking tickets, the crowd moved across the Patapsco River bridge to two tavern parking lotss where, Coffey said: "Now it's the Howard County Police Department's problem."
Coffey's regime also ended what he says were the "almost nightly" burglaries of Main Street stores. "There has been no breaking and entering on Main Street for over a year," he said.
For this, the merchants were grateful. But the Sykesville Improvement Association saw red when Coffey's radar net appeared to be scaring nightly shoppers during the 1978 Christmas season.
At the same time, Coffey's force was suffering from rapid turnover. Fourteen officers came and went during his tenure. There were complaints that the chief was spending too much time in the Town House while his men on the street were being too aggressive in their law enforcement.
"People going two miles over the speed limit who hadn't had a ticket in 25 years were stopped and treated like criminals," said Robert McCracken Jr., a council critic of Coffey. "Then there was harassment of certain juveniles. Whenever something happened, the same ones were always contacted."
Coffey's arrest by 'Frederic city police, for driving a motorcycle the wrong way on a one-way street while impaired by alcohol and without a license "didn't set too well with many people," McCracken said. Coffey spent the night of Nov. 20, 1976, in jail, paid a $250 fine and attended a driver's clinic.
As opposition to the chief grew, his home was vandalized, the word "PIG" was etched in acid in his driveway, sugar was dumped into his station wagon fuel tank and a pet rabbit was found dead on the porch. Town merchants offed $100 for information leading to apprehension of the culprits, but no arrests ever were made.
Events moved swiftly in 1979.
On Jan. 24, Coffey arrested a Sykesville man and charged him with receiving stolen goods and grand larceny. The chief told a District Court commissioner that he saw the man sell $2,000 in stolen insulation to an individual who was cooperating with police.
But another officer later told prosecutors that Coffey was at least a mile from the site of the alleged sale. Charges against the Sykesville man were dropped, and the officer's allegations became the basis for the criminal charges Coffey now faces.
The officer, William H. Grimes Jr., has had a succession of run-ins with his chief. In early February, Grimes said he clocked Coffey driving over the speed limit. The chief was stopped by a state trooper but not ticketed. Coffey said he was headed to sykesville in the early morning hours because Grimes had not answered a radio check. Coffey then suspended Grimes for three days, for operating the town's radar unit outside the town limits.
Then, later the same month, Coffey accused Grimes of pocketing a $5 parking ticket fine.Grimes resigned but their dispute continued.
In March, Coffey charged Grimes with petty larceny, embezzlement and false pretenses in the connection with the $49.91 purchase Jan. 27 of a camera kit and two packs of film. The chief said Grimes had charged a personal purchase from McDougall's Pharmacy to the town. Grimes said it was all a misunderstanding. The county prosecutor declined to press charges against Grimes, who had taken his complaints against Coffey to the Maryland special prosecutor's office.
McCracken, a 28-year-old plumber, and Robert Reinhardt, Jr., 27, a utility contractor, meanwhile, ran first and second in a field of candidates for four Town Council seats. Coffey worked for three of their opponents, researching, writing and running off their campaign literature " on my own time, with my own typewriter and my own paper."
"Our police department is the laughing stock of the county." McCracken charged. He advocated abolishing the f orce and having the town policed by state troopers.
It was no laughing matter, however, when the police safe was broken into July 28. Although a 19-year-old Sykesville resident was arrested in connection with the theft, Coffey demanded that three of his officers take lie detector tests.
The three officers resigned instead publicly, cataloguing their complaints against the chief.
The one that has caused the biggest stir centered, however, around thee chief's companion, June Hurley. The officers charged that she spent a large amount of time inside the Town House interrogating them about various cases.
Hurley, herself a special deputy sheriff assigned to search females in drug cases, rejects all the charges, but says she stopped coming into the Town House, as had been her custom.
After the resignations, the anti-Coffey petitions circulated and a town meeting in August had to be moved to larger quarters to accommodate the crowd.
"I felt people were there to hang Bill Coffey," said Mayor Killett, who was sharply criticized for limiting dis cussion of the chief to 15 minutes, "I felt we'd get nowhere with name calling," he said.
For the time being, Coffey stayed on, but the council was split down the middle on his administration. Feelings escalated when Killett took away the police committee duties of the two anti-Coffey councilmen.
A partial truce has since been reached over the committee assignments, but Reinhardt still refuses to serve until Killett talks to him. The mayor says it's up to Reinhart to make the first move. "It's a game we're playing," he said.
Negotiations between Chief Coffey and the special prosecutor's office ended in December when plea bargaining broke down. Coffey has denied reports that he had agreed to resign rather than face criminal charges, which were lodged Dec. 18.
The town has hired two new officers and appointed one, a former Baltimore Harbor Tunnel patrolman, acting chief. Coffey says he is enjoying a "needed rest" while preparing for his Jan. 24 court appearance.
The town can hardly wait. "I want to know the truth," said Joan Davis, president of the Sykesville Improvement Association. "I signed the petition [against Coffey]. Then I thought: I'm hanging somebody before I even know the truth. I like both Bobby McCracken and Bill Coffey. It's really a quiet, nice town."
Up the street from Joan Davis' travel service, grocer Jack Harris was unimpressed by the whole dispute.
It's just newspaper stuff. It comes and goes. The town stays here."