An officer with the gift of gab

Roger Twigg

March 25, 1992|By Roger Twigg

OFFICER Nicholas Roger Wingrove has retired from the city police department -- about 30 years too late as far as I'm concerned.

Back in the '50s when I wanted to work off a large dinner of spaghetti, I would walk all the way to the corner of Callow Avenue and Whitelock Street -- a distance from home of at least 75 yards -- and sit on the railing by the Callow Pharmacy. Officer Wingrove would then appear out of nowhere and invite me to go home where I belonged.

To say that teen-agers in the area hated it when Officer Wingrove was around is to put it mildly. Officer Wingrove was the local ogre. He didn't understand us.

The officer took a dim view of youngsters who wasted their time on street corners or played ball in the middle of a busy street.

Sometimes he would ask ridiculous questions: "Does your mother know what you're doing?" he'd ask, or, "Have you done your homework?"

You'd think a cop had better things to do. This one acted as though we'd committed a capital crime. I figured one day he'd read us our Miranda rights and haul us off to an institution, where we'd be sentenced to a lifetime of homework.

Sometimes Officer Wingrove would accompany us home -- just to make sure our parents knew where we were. Such indignity!

Deputy Commissioner Joseph W. Nixon grew up in the 2300 block of McCulloh Street, which also happened to be on Officer Wingrove's beat.

"It was a game with us," Commissioner Nixon said with a smile. "He would run us off the corner, and we would run around the block."

There was no escaping the man.

If you were playing football in the street or racing up and down the block and spinning wheels in a high-powered '49 Ford, Officer Wingrove was always there to bring a screeching halt to the festivities. (He never did find out about the 30 stitches I had taken on my right knee when I ran into a delivery bike while going out for a pass in the middle of Callow Avenue on Thanksgiving Day.)

Officer Wingrove spent 40 years in the department. Into retirement he took 27 official commendations and a bronze star.

He earned the star in 1964, when he and his partner solved a triple homicide in the 2100 block of Callow, just two blocks from my house.

Using his gift of gab, he managed to determine that the victims, three youngsters found crammed in a refrigerator in a garage, were last seen with two other neighborhood children. The two eventually admitted they had pushed the children in the refrigerator while playing hide and seek -- and then had forgotten them.

As a result of that tragedy, legislation was passed requiring that doors be removed from discarded refrigerators.

The deaths upset the officer so much that, not long after, he took a crowbar to the door of a refrigerator he found on one of the sidewalks on his beat. He soon learned that the machine was new and had just been delivered!

Officer Wingrove also received a certificate from the Police Hall of Fame in Miami for his efforts in the refrigerator case.

The police commissioner offered to promote him to sergeant at the time, but he declined the promotion to remain on the street.

In 1972 he deputized a youngster to help solve the killing of Harold Spicer, a News American photographer. "You had to know how to talk to people," Officer Wingrove said. "When the judge asked me if I actually deputized the kid, I said, 'Yes, sir.' The judge said he saw nothing wrong with that."

Over the years he used his gift of gab to capture burglars, sex offenders and others.

Once he did grab the wrong man for a series of purse snatches. "He told me, 'No, sir, I didn't steal those purses. I didn't take no purses, but I did take this watch [on his wrist] in a burglary.'"

Lt. Col. Leon Tomlin, head of the property division, worked in the same patrol car with Officer Wingrove when the former came to the force.

"He was really something. He seemed to have a sixth sense about things. We would hear a call for a burglary, and he'd say, 'Let's go over to such and such street. I'll bet [the burglars] will be driving down that street.' Sure enough, that's where they'd be!" Colonel Tomlin said.

Officer Wingrove, who was known as "Officer Reds" because of his red hair and freckles, is 63 and lives in Perry Hall with his wife, Marie. Only one officer remains on the force from his 1952 police academy class of 165 men. He is Officer Joseph Fonte of the Northern District.

Officer Wingrove admits to one failing. He says he wishes he had taken his own advice and studied harder. "Maybe I could have done a lot better."

Probably not. And probably he'll have a good retirement if he doesn't hang around on street corners.

Roger Twigg is a police reporter for The Sun.

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