DENTON -- Former Crisfield police Chief Norman C. Swift III pleaded guilty to nonfeasance in office yesterday in Caroline County Circuit Court in return for the state's dropping more serious charges of arson, bribery, theft and malfeasance.
Swift, 35, was allowed eight hours with his family before reporting last evening to the Somerset County Detention Center at 6 p.m. to begin a one-year sentence.
The plea agreement reduced the charge of malfeasance -- criminal wrongdoing -- in office to nonfeasance -- failing to perform his public duty -- and dropped the other charges.
Swift was sentenced to five years, with four years suspended. He will begin a work-release program immediately, spending his days as a construction worker for an uncle and reporting to the detention center each night.
If convicted on all of the counts against him, he could have been sentenced to 61 years.
"It would be tough for anyone," Swift said of his sentence as he sat in the courtroom with his wife, Joan, and parents, Edna and Norman C. Swift Jr.
Swift's 10 years on the Crisfield police force, five of them as chief, ended in scandal last February when state police and fire investigators, armed with a search warrant, combed the Crisfield Police Department for evidence to link him with malfeasance and other crimes.
The most serious charge was setting the October 1987 fire in the J. P. Tawes and Brothers lumberyard that destroyed nearly two blocks of downtown Crisfield and did $5 million worth of damage.
On March 14, a Somerset County grand jury indicted Swift on two counts of arson, three counts of bribing a drug dealer and one count of malfeasance in office. In a theft charge brought later, Swift was accused of taking money from the home of a deceased Crisfield resident.
Swift's trial on the malfeasance charge would have begun yesterday if the plea agreement had not been reached. Subsequent trials had been planned on the other charges.
In testimony yesterday Logan C. Widdowson, the Somerset County prosecutor, described the town police headquarters as littered with unmarked criminal evidence, unprocessed arrest warrants, unlogged incident reports and drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine, that had never been processed or sent to police laboratories for testing.
Without such records, police cannot prosecute cases successfully, Mr. Widdowson said.
"We'll never know how many cases of drug-dealing and theft were compromised not by what you did, but by what you didn't do," said Judge J. Owen Wise, who heard the case in Denton because of publicity in Somerset County. He said Swift was unfit to be a police chief. "I know how people get to be chief in a small town -- they just hang around a long time," Judge Wise said.
Swift's attorney, James V. Anthenelli, said his client inherited the sloppy office and was unable to change attitudes and habits in his nine-member police force.