Plea bargain devalues slain officer's life

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 02, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

She remembers years with a husband who was filled with frustration. The husband was a cop who said the system kept breaking down. The bad guys kept getting away. The wife shrugged her shoulders and never quite understood what he was talking about.

She understands now. The husband was murdered on a highway in a routine traffic stop, and the system seems to have broken down in the prosecution of his killers. The husband was Maryland State Trooper Ted Wolf, and his killers got a break, and now the old frustrations are all coming clear to Virginia Wolf.

"It hit me the other day," she said, still not believing the latest legal development surrounding her husband's murder. "All through his career, Ted said the system didn't work the way it should. He said, 'We're out here risking our lives every day to arrest these people. We get evidence, we bring it to court. We make our cases the right way. And people plea bargain their way around it and wind up back on the street.' "

An ironic little laugh floats its way past Virginia Wolf's lips now.

"I'd listen to him," she says, "and I'd say, 'You think you've got problems? Let me tell you about my day.' "

The criminal justice system works with a logic all its own. Nearly two years ago, on Interstate 95 in Jessup, Corporal Wolf stopped two men in a stolen car, Eric Tirado, 27, and Francisco Rodriguez, 21, both of the Bronx, N.Y.

Tirado pulled out a gun, and he pointed it at Wolf's face, and he shot and then shot again and then fled with Rodriguez into the night.

Last July, in a Howard County courtroom, a jury found Tirado guilty of pulling the trigger but gave him a break on sentencing: life instead of death. The jury knew all of the facts in the shooting but not all of the facts about Tirado.

In court, on the morning of sentencing, he sobbed out his sorrow. Please don't put me to death, he said. He was sorry for shooting Ted Wolf, he said. He was sorry for the pain he'd given Wolf's family, he said.

What he didn't say -- and what the jury didn't know, because Judge Raymond Kane wouldn't allow testimony -- was that, a week earlier, Tirado and Virginia Wolf had mistakenly crossed paths outside the courthouse.

Tirado, in handcuffs, flashed Mrs. Wolf a familiar digital obscenity, a universally recognized gesture of contempt.

So much for all his sorrow; so much for the emotions the jury felt when they gave him a break on sentencing.

Then, 10 days ago, Francisco Rodriguez copped a plea with the Howard County state's attorney's office. The plea bargain gives Rodriguez a life sentence, but it's to run concurrent with a 15-year federal sentence he's already serving. The federal rap is an unrelated drug charge, and it carries no parole provisions.

But the Wolf sentence does. In other words, when Rodriguez completes his drug time, he'll be eligible immediately for parole on the murder rap.

How could this happen? The state's attorney's office won't say, and the plea bargain has been sealed so no one knows the specific reasons Rodriguez has gotten such a break. The sealed files are now being fought in court by this newspaper -- and they've left Virginia Wolf remembering her husband's frustrations.

"I never really listened to him," she said the other morning. "I just . . . you know, I'm a citizen, I believed the system works as it should. I should have listened."

She was there when Tirado and then Rodriguez came to court. At Tirado's trial, they read a statement of Virginia Wolf's to the jury which should haunt the courthouse even now.

"I'm still plagued by horrible uncertainties," she wrote. "I still have horrible nightmares during my few hours of fitful sleep. I wonder if there will ever come a time when a song on the radio or a TV commercial or a phrase in someone's conversation will not trigger a bittersweet memory, reducing me to tears or sending me to the depths of depression."

She never bought Tirado's apology, especially after the confrontation outside the courthouse. She didn't believe Rodriguez's, either.

"I believe they were sorry for their predicament, but not for what they did," she said last week. "Probably, their lawyers told them to say they were sorry. I don't think Rodriguez ever looked at me.

Ted Wolf was given a hero's burial, but not a hero's conclusion in court. His life should be worth more than this. In a state where hundreds are murdered each year, his death still strikes a significant chord.

It reminds us of our implicit deal with the police: You protect us, and we respect your vulnerability. You fall in the line of duty, and we make the criminals pay for it. Only it hasn't worked out that way in the murder of Ted Wolf.

"The people in the state's attorney's office," Virginia Wolf says now, "didn't want to tell me about the plea bargain. They knew I wouldn't like it. I heard about it from a reporter, but the state's attorneys wouldn't tell me for about it for a few months.

"You know, it's this sense that they're just kissing off my husband's life. And I can't let that happen."

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