Neighbors growling over sound of gunfire

February 14, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Teresa and Joseph Streb moved from Rosedale to rural White Marsh a little more than a year ago in search of relative quiet. They found the sound of gunfire.

"You hear shotguns all the time," Mrs. Streb says. "Our kids come running in the house because they're scared."

But for Michael Sparwasser, a 19-year-old college student who has lived in the same rural White Marsh area most of his life, the boom of shotguns brings no sense of fear. His father, Jerry Sparwasser, feels much the same.

"It doesn't alarm me at all," says Jerry Sparwasser. "I'm in a rural area. I figure someone's firing their gun, getting ready for hunting season, or target practicing or hunting rabbit."

When the Strebs hear gunfire, they think of people being shot, maimed and killed. The Sparwassers think of hunting and target shooting, working with a tool that must be used safely.

Those opposing views clashed recently when the Strebs called police to complain of loud and persistent gunfire, the source of which was target practice by Michael Sparwasser and his friends. Soon, a half-dozen police cars were on the scene, arrests were made, weapons confiscated. Later, a state delegate wrote a letter criticizing the police.

It all started Jan. 24.

"It was an incredible amount of gunfire," Mrs. Streb says. "It was scary."

Joseph Streb describes it as having been "like World War III."

In a wooded area just off Bucks School House and Ridge roads, Michael Sparwasser and four friends -- Robert Quick Jr., Wallace Bradley, Jesse Johnson and Laurin B. Askew III -- armed with shotguns, pistols and rifles, blasted away at clay pigeons. Michael's younger brother was there, too, to watch and help launch the pigeons.

"We've always gone shooting there," says Michael Sparwasser, an early childhood education major at Towson State University.

They thought nothing of what they were doing. Michael Sparwasser and his friends -- along with others in the area -- had long used the old quarry for target practice. And, they say they were shooting toward an embankment, that no people or houses were in the line of fire.

County police say there were houses above the embankment. When police arrived, the young men didn't stop shooting, even after the officers turned on the flashing lights on their cars.

Michael Sparwasser says he and his friends didn't stop shooting because they didn't think they were doing anything wrong.

The first officers on the scene called for backup, then arrested the young men, handcuffed them, drove them to the White Marsh police precinct and confiscated their weapons -- four shotguns, three pistols and two rifles, including a semiautomatic. They were charged with firing a weapon in the metropolitan zone, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $200 fine.

The episode might have ended there, but the Sparwassers, angry that police didn't simply ask them to stop shooting and go home -- or just give them a citation -- complained to Del. Joseph Bartenfelder, a Baltimore County Democrat. They say the police went overboard. Michael Sparwasser says that at least six county police vehicles surrounded his group and that they were handcuffed for 2 1/2 to three hours.

Mr. Bartenfelder, who employs Michael Sparwasser part time on his Fullerton farm, heard all this and wrote Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan, questioning the "appropriateness" of the police response.

Now, Chief Behan has called for an internal investigation.

And everybody's angry.

The officers whose judgment the Bartenfelder letter questioned are angry. Teresa Streb is angry and wonders if, given the politician's letter, police might not respond the next time she complains about gunfire. Even after talking with Mr. Bartenfelder, she was not reassured.

"I hate to say it, but I really think he wrote the letter because he knew the kid and he didn't like the fact that he was handcuffed and arrested," she says. "[But] from what I hear, when you're arrested, you're handcuffed."

Mr. Bartenfelder says he does not approve of what Michael Sparwasser and the other young men did.

"They were wrong," he says.

He does ask why so many officers were involved, why the young men were arrested, handcuffed and slapped with a misdemeanor charge.

"All of a sudden, you had seven police cars tied up on that incident," he says. "That means they're not out there on the road, patrolling."

Michael Sparwasser, who has taken gun-safety courses with the state Department of Natural Resources, says he thinks the police should have told his group to "pack up and go home. And we would have." Instead, he says, "we were treated like hardened criminals."

Sgt. Stephen Doarnberger, a county police spokesman, says that when police arrest people in possession of firearms, they routinely take them to the precinct, so the suspects and the weapons can be checked. In this case, checks on the weapons and suspects came back negative.

The young men are scheduled for trial in May. Michael Sparwasser doesn't know what will happen then, but he is certain of one thing: He won't be shooting his guns up at the old quarry anymore.

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