Executive played key support role in standoff

Ruppersberger stood by county police, aided residents of neighborhood

March 23, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

His face didn't make it onto television much, and he kept his propensity for gab in check.

But away from the spotlight, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger played an important support role in the Dundalk hostage crisis that ended Tuesday.

He wrote letters to employers, imploring them not to punish absent workers trapped inside their barricaded neighborhood.

He reunited mothers and children at the Berkshire Elementary School emergency shelter.

And he never wavered in his support for the county Police Department, which Ruppersberger has reshaped since taking office in 1994.

"My strategy is to keep calm in these situations, because a lot of people are looking to us for leadership," said Ruppersberger, a former prosecutor who one aide said "has blue in his veins" from his law-enforcement background.

Through much of the four-day standoff, police decisions were second-guessed by some members of the public, who demanded to know how accused killer Joseph C. Palczynski could slip into their neighborhood despite an extensive police search.

Within hours of the end of the crisis, such questions seemed to fade, and Ruppersberger received slaps on the back while walking the hallways in Annapolis, where he was lobbying for legislation.

"They are loving it," said Ruppersberger of the lawmakers who approached him. "[They] are saying, `Congratulations. You showed great leadership. You didn't blink.' "

More messages from well-wishers were piling up on his desk in Towson, including one from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

For a politician who almost certainly will run for governor, the safe escape and rescue of three hostages was among the best possible outcomes.

His Police Department's strategy of patient negotiations was affirmed when two of the three hostages held by Palczynski slipped from their Lange Street apartment. Police stormed the home, fatally shooting Palczynski and rescuing a third hostage, a 12-year-old boy.

"Dutch Ruppersberger made brilliant decisions," said James McGee, the Police Department's director of law enforcement and forensic services who created a psychological profile of Palczynski.

Hours earlier, the outcome of those decisions was in doubt. Neighbors questioned why the home of the family of Palczynski's girlfriend was not under constant surveillance during the 10 days the accused killer was on the loose, and why police didn't end the hostage standoff sooner.

Police tried to answer many of those questions yesterday, while Ruppersberger said he never had doubts as he kept the safety of the hostages as his top priority.

"I knew I had to let [police chief] Terry Sheridan take the lead, notwithstanding any public criticism," Ruppersberger said. "In the end, you cannot take your eye off the ball."

Ruppersberger's confidence in Sheridan dates back more than 20 years, when the executive was a young prosecutor in the Baltimore County state's attorney's office and Sheridan was an investigator with the Maryland State Police.

"I think that Terry and I, we were prepared for this because of our background," said Ruppersberger, who appointed Sheridan as chief just over a year after taking office in 1994. "We worked together on strike forces, on contract murders. I have so much confidence in him and his abilities."

During the hostage crisis, Ruppersberger attended several law enforcement briefings with Sheridan but did not make decisions there, police spokesman Bill Toohey said. His function, Toohey said, was "a support role and a learning role."

Ruppersberger's presence was more directly felt at the Berkshire Elementary School's makeshift shelter, where he visited regularly to allay fears and concerns of area residents whom police would not allow back to their homes.

Kelly Rye, 29, said she was amazed on Sunday when a single phone call from Ruppersberger arranged a reunion with her two young daughters, who had been stuck in their apartment with their father since Friday.

"They were with us by that night, after three days of the police telling us they couldn't do it," Rye said. "I was extremely impressed."

Neighbors who stayed at the shelter intend to invite Ruppersberger to a reunion they are planning in a few weeks, Rye said.

"I did not know him before this," she said. "You could tell he really, truly cared about us."

Ruppersberger also made fans out of some of those trapped inside their homes. Like a parent excusing a sick child from gym class, he wrote at least eight letters to employers on behalf of residents who couldn't make it to work.

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