Deputy faces firing over stress related to shooting

March 29, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

Almost two years ago, the former boyfriend of Rick Roberts' ex-wife broke into Deputy Roberts' Essex home, leading to a gunbattle and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder for the Baltimore County law enforcement officer.

Now, just when Deputy Roberts thinks he is ready to carry his gun again and stop resenting the prisoners he guards, Sheriff Norman M. Pepersack Jr. has sent him a suspension notice -- a prelude to firing.

Sheriff Pepersack notified Deputy Roberts last week that he has a "permanent or chronic physical or mental ailment or defect that incapacitates him from the proper performance of his duties."

That was a revelation to the 41-year-old deputy.

Mr. Roberts is appealing a ruling by a workers' compensation panel that denied him benefits because he wasn't at work when he was attacked and a finding by the county Personnel Salary Advisory Board that he is not permanently disabled.

"They won't give me a disability retirement, but they're firing me on it," Deputy Roberts said. "I'm laughing, but it isn't funny."

He has added a union grievance to his legal laundry list.

Norman K. Holsinger, acting executive director of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, called the impending dismissal "a hatchet job" and vowed a fight.

Deputy Roberts, a county police officer for nine years, became a deputy in 1981, taking a job with normal working hours so that he could spend more time with his family.

Sheriff Pepersack said he is legally barred from discussing personnel or medical matters. But he fiercely denied speculation that the firing is related to the 1994 election or Deputy Roberts' support of his opponent in the last election.

"It puts me in an awkward position," Sheriff Pepersack said. "I think the situation -- well, I can't even talk about it. . . . It has to go through the procedure."

Dr. Neil Blumberg, a forensic psychiatrist who treated Deputy Roberts for the disorder until last year, said the deputy's experience "absolutely" would lead to the psychological problems he experienced.

"I usually describe it as a normal reaction to an abnormal event," said Dr. Blumberg, who spoke with Deputy Roberts' consent.

Vietnam veterans, prisoners of war, crime and automobile accident victims may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. Blumberg said.

Recovery depends on factors such as the severity of the trauma, the person's makeup, the kind of support received and whether the person is placed in the same situation again, he said.

The incident that led to Deputy Roberts' situation occurred May 26, 1992, at the Roberts home in the 1000 block of Foxcroft Lane.

Ronald Dale Lawrence, 38, is serving a 30-year prison term on two counts of attempted murder in the attack on Deputy Roberts and Kathleen Roberts, with whom he had reconciled after they divorced. Lawrence failed to convince a jury that he was not criminally responsible.

Kathleen Roberts had dated Lawrence before returning to Mr. Roberts, but Lawrence wouldn't accept the end of the relationship. He broke into the Roberts home and went upstairs to their bedroom, where he and the deputy exchanged gunshots. They missed each other, but Lawrence shot Mrs. Roberts as she tried to close the door.

Mrs. Roberts, 37, was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The bullet is still in her lung.

"My wife was shot, and she became stronger and I became weaker," Deputy Roberts said. "It's a difficult thing to admit. Men aren't supposed to feel like this."

Deputy Roberts was cleared of any questions about his conduct almost immediately and returned to work, Sheriff Pepersack said.

He had no problems at first.

About three months later, for reasons the deputy says he can't explain, "everything got worse." He said he didn't want to wear his gun and resented the prisoners he guarded when he heard them planning to use insanity defenses, as Lawrence had.

"People go through a stage where they're psychologically numbed, overwhelmed by the trauma, so they can function without experiencing the anxiety that sets in later," Dr. Blumberg said. "Then they start to realize they could have been killed."

Deputy Roberts went on light duty, working part-time, and was out on sick leave from January to June of last year. He hasn't carried a gun since January 1993.

"Anything that reminds you of the trauma causes you to relive that trauma," Dr. Blumberg said. "If you're exposed to prisoners, guarding a courtroom where people act up and he might have to jTC use his gun -- that could be extremely traumatic and overwhelming to him."

But light duty as a permanent job is not a suitable option, said Sheriff Pepersack. Last month, Sheriff Pepersack gave Deputy Roberts an ultimatum and a March 15 deadline to return to full duty. Deputy Roberts decided March 14 that he would return but said he then was told that the offer had been withdrawn and that he would be fired after his two-week suspension ran out this month.

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