A veteran Baltimore County police officer was in serious but stable condition last night after being shot three times at point-blank range by a robbery suspect on Pulaski Highway, authorities said.
Officer James Edward Beck, 40, a 19-year veteran of the county's police force, was shot shortly past 3 a.m. after stopping an old Ford pickup truck suspected of being involved in a robbery only minutes before in Rosedale.
Officer Beck's life may have been saved by a woman interested in police work who was riding along with him at the time and who called a police dispatcher seconds after he was wounded.
Officer Beck was gunned down after chasing the truck east on Pulaski Highway. Police spokesman E. Jay Miller said the officer was shot as he approached the driver's side of the pickup truck in the 8500 block of Pulaski -- just inside the Beltway.
The gunman -- described as white, 35 to 40 years old with scraggly hair and some facial hair, shot Officer Beck with an automatic weapon, once in the left shoulder and twice in the chest, then fled in his truck, police said.
A young woman -- an applicant to the county's police academy -- was riding in Officer Beck's car and witnessed the shooting. She immediately used the officer's radio to call for help.
Officer Beck was flown by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he underwent more than seven hours of surgery. The officer was not wearing his bulletproof vest at the time of the shooting, said Mr. Miller. County police officers are not required to wear their vests while on duty, although vests are available to them, he added.
"She probably saved his life," said Mr. Miller of the young woman -- who works as a private security guard -- who was riding in Officer Beck's K-9 patrol vehicle with his police dog, Ace. Mr. Miller said it has been the department's policy for several years to allow citizens interested in police work to ride along with officers.
Mr. Miller refused to identify the woman or to make her available for interviews because she is an eyewitness to the shooting and police want to protect her identify from the gunman, who is still at large, he said.
The gunman was accompanied by a woman, described as thin, white, about 5-foot-6, 20 years old, with long blond hair, no makeup, and wearing light-colored blue jeans and a white, red and black flannel shirt. They were in an old Ford pickup truck, described by police as medium brown, with a silver bumper and some dents to the body, and with wooden stakes upright along the back.
Officer Beck was shot while responding to an armed robbery, reported at 3:05 a.m. in the 7900 block of Pulaski Highway, just outside the city limit.
Mr. Miller said a 32-year-old Essex man reported being robbed after he picked up a blond woman in the city along Pulaski Highway, a section known for prostitution.
The Essex man, whose identity was not divulged, drove the woman east on Pulaski, where they met up with the gunman -- apparently in a planned location, police said. The gunman and the blond woman robbed the Essex man of his watch and $43, returning the victim's wallet before they fled in a pickup truck.
Police broadcast a description of the pickup truck obtained from the robbery victim, and within minutes Officer Beck spotted what appeared to be the vehicle.
Police said they believe the robber is the same man who shot Officer Beck and that the blond woman picked up by the Essex man was the passenger in the pickup truck.
When Officer Beck pulled the truck to the side of the road, he apparently violated Police Department rules by failing to inform a police dispatcher from his car radio that he was about to approach the robbery suspects, Mr. Miller said.
His friends are hopeful
By early yesterday afternoon, Officer Beck was out of surgery, conscious and able to respond to questions by moving his eyebrows.
With doctors expressing guarded optimism, the officer's friends seemed hopeful that the worst had passed.
"It's improving with every statement [from doctors]," said Cpl. Jim Rommel, Officer Beck's supervisor in the K-9 unit. Corporal Rommel was among about 15 police officers standing vigil at the trauma center. In the morning, County Executive Roger B. Hayden and Police Chief Michael D. Gambrill had visited to lend support to the officer's family.
"He is very well-liked, and a lot of officers are taking this very hard," Corporal Rommel said.
Officer Beck's parents, girlfriend, ex-wife and 8-year-old daughter were at the hospital, but the family members declined to speak with reporters.
After arriving at Shock Trauma by state police MedEvac helicopter, Officer Beck entered surgery at 4:20 a.m., said Andy Trohanis, spokesman for Shock Trauma. During more than seven hours of surgery, a team of doctors worked to repair the abdominal injuries that posed the greatest threat to his life.