Crash kills rookie officer, injures another

October 08, 1994|By Elaine Tassy and Glenn Small | Elaine Tassy and Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writers

The three rookie police officers finished their first week on the job Thursday night and decided to celebrate at a Parkville bar and restaurant called Strapps.

"They wanted to get together and share some stories. It was a man thing," said Stephanie Kern, wife of Officer Scott Michael Kern.

A few hours later, Officer Kern was dead, one of his fellow officers was seriously injured, and the third had been charged with drunken driving after an automobile accident that stunned the Baltimore County Police Department.

"Emotionally, it just strikes you right in the heart," said Sgt. Joseph Bangert, a police academy instructor who had helped the three new officers through months of grueling training.

Police said Officer Kern, Officer Warren W. McNicholas and his roommate, Officer Michael B. Koffenberger, were heading home with Officer McNicholas at the wheel at 1 a.m. Friday when the driver's 1993 Ford Probe slid off a curve at high speed in the 4300 block of Ridge Road in Fullerton.

The car snapped a utility pole in half, then flipped. Officer Kern, 23, was killed instantly. Officer Koffenberger, 23, the son of retired city police Maj. Harry J. Koffenberger, was flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was listed in serious but stable condition last night after lengthy surgery to repair a shattered leg.

Officer McNicholas, 24, was not injured. He was charged with driving while intoxicated after a test showed a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent, well above Maryland's 0.10 threshold, according to charging documents.

The officer was released on his own recognizance after a bail hearing yesterday morning. His police powers were suspended, and he will be transferred to an administrative assignment until the investigation is complete, said Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, a department spokesman.

The three young friends were among 68 officers who received their badges Sept. 29 in police academy graduation ceremonies at Goucher College.

They all lived in a townhouse development in the 5600 block of Kelmscot Road in White Marsh. Officer Kern and Officer McNicholas had been assigned to the Essex precinct, Officer Koffenberger to Garrison.

News of the fatal crash devastated police officers around the county. "This is a tremendous loss," said Capt. Jim Johnson, Officer Kern's commander in Essex, where the rookie had been handling routine patrols. "He was a damn good officer. His performance appraisals were always excellent."

At the police academy, the officers' squad leaders were too upset to talk about the crash, said Sergeant Bangert, who said "a chill" went through him when he heard the news. He described the three as excellent students and role model recruits.

"It's difficult for everybody. All three families are really in our prayers," he said.

Although the academy program includes 12 hours of classes on drunken driving, the accident "shows that we're all human beings," he said.

Office Kern's parents, in-laws and other family members sat in the home he had moved into two weeks ago with his wife, Stephanie, 26, a dental hygienist who works in Cockeysville and Parkville.

"He was a wonderful kid, absolutely wonderful. He had tons of friends," said the officer's mother, Lorraine Kern, 46, who came from Fenwick Island, Del., to Baltimore yesterday with her husband, John Kern, 49.

She and Mr. Kern brushed away tears as they talked about their son.

"You can remember him by one thing, his smile," his father said, describing his only son as an unselfish person who "gave himself to anyone."

"He loved life," said the officer's wife. "We had plans of getting college degrees and starting a family in a few years. . . . We just about started our life, really."

The couple met while they were both in the Marine Reserve in Wilmington, Del., and married in November 1991.

"He was real easy to talk to -- he became my best friend," Mrs. Kern said. They moved from Delaware to Parkville six months ago, then to their new, sparsely furnished White Marsh home.

She said she knew that her husband and his friends, who shared quarters nearby, wanted to get together Thursday night. She spent the evening watching television and unpacking.

About 3:55 a.m., she got a call from the police. "They told me he was in an accident. The first thing I did was call his parents," she said.

"It's hard to think when something like that hits you," Mr. Kern said.

Officer McNicholas faces a District Court trial on the drunken driving charge and could face more serious criminal charges, said Howard Merker, a Baltimore County deputy state's attorney.

According to the police report of the incident, when Officer Jeffrey J. Parsons arrived at the accident scene, he smelled alcohol on Officer McNicholas' breath. The driver said he had consumed three beers.

Although he passed basic physical sobriety tests, such as heel-toe walk and reciting the alphabet, he had difficulty standing on one leg and missed touching his nose when asked, the report said. He was taken to the White Marsh precinct for further tests and charged with driving while intoxicated.

The state's attorney's office will consider seeking felony charges such as homicide by motor vehicle or automobile manslaughter, Mr. Merker said.

L Officer McNicholas could not be found for comment yesterday.

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