Former Crisfield chief going from jail to Persian Gulf

November 16, 1990|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff

CRISFIELD -- In a roundabout way, Norman C. Swift III can credit Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for springing him from the cramped confines of the Somerset County jail.

Swift, the former Crisfield police chief suspected of setting a 1987 fire along the town's waterfront, was sentenced to a year in jail last week for nonfeasance in office. Now, under an unusual plea agreement, he is expected to be freed and given a gun to join the call-up of his Maryland National Guard unit.

When the 1229 Transportation Co. of the Maryland National Guard unit assembles in Salisbury for active duty tomorrow, Swift, a sergeant in the unit, will be there with his fellow guardsmen, officials said.

Swift's plea agreement allows the 35-year-old former police chief and volunteer fireman to continue his association with the Crisfield-based unit that he joined in 1974, according to his lawyer, James V. Anthenelli.

Maryland National Guard spokesman Col. Howard Freedlander said yesterday the Somerset County unit has received orders to mobilize in response to the Persian Gulf crisis. Freedlander said he expects Swift to be among the guard members who parade through Salisbury tomorrow morning before they are dispatched on an as yet undisclosed assignment.

"As we understand it, he's authorized to go," Freedlander said.

Swift's involvement with the guard gives him a temporary respite from his one-year sentence in the Somerset County Detention Center, but he will have to complete his jail term when he returns.

Judge J. Owen Wise suspended an additional four years of Swift's sentence in Caroline County on Nov. 7. Swift's trial was moved there from the lower Eastern Shore because of publicity.

Swift's release from jail is the latest twist in a highly-publicized scandal that has rocked Crisfield since an October 1987 fire destroyed nearly two blocks of commercial buildings along the town's waterfront business section.

Whipped by strong winds off Tangier Sound, the blaze burned all night and destroyed $5 million of property before firefighters from around the Shore were able to get it under control. It was the worst fire to hit Crisfield in nearly 60 years.

An investigation by the state fire marshall's office concluded that the blaze was intentionally set. Swift was charged with arson, but prosecutors dropped that charge last week as part of his plea bargain.

Swift stepped down from his $25,500-a-year position as police chief last February after state police raided the Crisfield police headquarters and seized evidence they said showed he had been mismanaging his office. Police said they discovered unmarked criminal evidence, including drugs that had never been processed or sent to police laboratories for testing.

A month later, Swift was arrested and charged with arson after a witness told a grand jury he had seen the police chief carrying a container of kerosene outside a lumber yard on the night of the fire, according to court records. The blaze began in the lumber yard and spread to other buildings.

Swift's troubles with the law multiplied, court records show, when arson investigators uncovered allegations that the police chief had demanded and received bribes from a convicted drug dealer and, in a separate incident, had stolen cash from a local seafood business. In addition to arson, Swift was charged with bribery, theft and malfeasance in office.

Swift was scheduled to go on trial before a jury last week in Caroline County, but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of nonfeasance -- failing to perform his duty as police chief -- in exchange for the more serious charges being dropped.

The plea bargain stipulated that Swift spend a year in jail on a work-release program so he could continue to work for an uncle's construction firm. It also allowed him to participate in National Guard outings and to leave the county entirely if his unit were activated.

Swift's sentence left many in Crisfield frustrated that the only suspect in the arson was allowed to avoid a trial that could have shed some light on what caused the fire.

"It's an unsatisfactory conclusion, if it's a conclusion," said Tony Bruce, the attorney for Crisfield. "To have it end like this is anti-climatic at best."

Somerset County State's Attorney Logan C. Widdowson said he agreed to the plea bargain because it ensured that Swift would spend at least some time in jail. Otherwise, he said, the mostly circumstantial evidence against Swift may not have been enough to convince a jury to convict him on any of the charges.

The state's two key witnesses against Swift were involved in legal troubles of their own, said Widdowson. One of the witnesses is currently in prison on a drug conviction.

Investigators uncovered no evidence giving Swift a motive for the arson, Widdowson said. Most of the property owners who suffered losses never filed insurance claims because, according to old Crisfield custom, the buildings were not insured against fire.

Crisfield Mayor Richard Scott said there is little else the town can do but accept the verdict against Swift and continue to work on improving the tarnished image of the local police department. Clarence Bell, a longtime member of the force, was named police chief, and State Police are helping to restore some order in the department.

"Our police department suffered a blow," said Scott. "But I think the state's attorney did the best he could with what he had. One thing's for sure, we might never know who set the fire."

Widdowson said the arson case remains open, but he holds little hope it will ever be solved.

"If anything comes up, we'll follow it," he said. "Every lead has been run down. Unfortunately, there are no more leads."

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