Police chief recalled as fair, honest leader

Westminster official died in traffic accident

August 06, 1999|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Westminster Police Chief Sam R. Leppo, who died Wednesday in a three-vehicle crash in Frederick County, was remembered yesterday as a firm and compassionate leader, committed to the safety of his officers and the citizens he served.

The state flag flown at half-staff and black bunting outside the entrance to police headquarters served as a silent tribute to the memory of the 53-year-old chief who lived in Union Bridge. He joined the Westminster force 32 years ago and was appointed chief in 1976. He was the longest-tenured police chief in active service in Maryland.

Carroll County Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning called Chief Leppo a lifelong friend, personally and professionally.

"I've known Sam for over 40 years, since the days we played Little League baseball together," Mr. Tregoning said. "Sam's best characteristic was his leadership ability. He will be greatly missed in the law enforcement community as well as in Westminster. His vision and goals for the quality of life for the citizens he served will forever be his legacy."

City leaders and Westminster officers echoed those sentiments.

Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan said in a written statement, "We lost one of our family today. Sam Leppo personified the Westminster Police Department, and over his tenure as chief, it grew and matured into one of the best departments of its size anywhere.

"Fairness, firmness, compassion, honesty and, above all else, an unyielding commitment to serve the citizens of Westminster with only the highest of ideals were what Sam Leppo was all about."

Mr. Yowan named Maj. Roger Joneckis acting police chief.

State police said Chief Leppo was off duty and driving his 1995 Mazda pickup truck south on Route 194 about 2: 45 p.m. when a 1988 Dodge Aries sedan, driven by a 17-year-old Walkersville boy, pulled onto the highway from Fountain Rock Road.

The car struck Chief Leppo's truck on the passenger side, causing it to roll onto its driver's side and into the northbound lane of Route 194, where a 1995 Honda Passport driven by Robert L. Robey, 53, of Frederick struck the truck.

Chief Leppo was pronounced dead at the scene.

Mr. Robey was flown by state MedEvac helicopter to Washington County Hospital, where he was treated and released, police said.

The driver of the Dodge was not injured. He has not been identified by police because no charges have been filed, state police said. The accident is under investigation.

At Westminster police headquarters on Longwell Avenue yesterday, Capt. Dean Brewer recalled being Chief Leppo's first hire in August 1976.

Captain Brewer and Capt. Randy Barnes, who joined the force in 1979, agreed that Chief Leppo was a "cop's cop," a good boss and a great friend. Chief Leppo was "forward-thinking," Captain Brewer said.

"He would read about a new crime-fighting technique in a magazine and bring it to us. `Check it out,' that's what he would say," Captain Barnes recalled.

"If you could justify what you wanted and prove it to him, he would go ask the mayor and City Council for it, but you had to prove it to him," Captain Brewer said.

Never one to seek publicity, Chief Leppo preferred having Captains Brewer and Barnes speak to the media. At public ceremonies, he also liked to keep a low profile.

He loved riding horses. He also enjoyed having officers visit and bring their children, Captain Barnes said. "He always managed to have some goodies for them nearby."

Officer safety was a prime concern for the chief.

"He sought to upgrade all equipment, patrol cars, for example, and he wanted new tires, not good used ones, for the cars," Captain Brewer said. "And when he became chief, he made sure every new officer got a bulletproof vest. Before that, any officer who wanted a vest had to buy his own."

W. Benjamin Brown, former Westminster mayor and county commissioner, said he lost a friend in the accident. He recalled Chief Leppo as very serious about his job.

"He was the classic definition of a straight arrow. He didn't cut any corners and didn't cut anyone any slack," said Mr. Brown, recalling that he got his share of parking tickets, but never thought about asking the chief to get rid of them.

Mr. Brown said he and Chief Leppo and their families vacationed in the Grand Canyon during the summer of 1991. The chief had an extensive knowledge of the West and had driven through the central states more than a dozen times, he said.

Chief Leppo missed his first -- and only -- day of work for illness in 32 years a couple of years ago, Captain Brewer recalled. "He was in the hospital with a very painful kidney stone. He only missed that one day, but he took a lot of ribbing over it."

About 2,000 people, including police officers from across the state, are expected to attend the full-dress memorial service Sunday.

Chief Leppo is survived by his wife of 29 years, the former Ruth Freyman; a son, Sam R. Leppo II of Owings Mills; his parents, Clarence and Ellen Leppo of Union Bridge; three sisters, Sue Wantz, Joan Clenny and Krisie Chrobot, all of Union Bridge; and two nieces.

The family will receive visitors at Hartzler Funeral Home, 6 E. Broadway, Union Bridge, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. today and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Union Bridge Volunteer fire station, Whyte and Locust streets. A walking procession to Mountain View Cemetery on South Main Street will follow.

Sun staff writer Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this article.

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