Setting sights on new goals

Retirement: After 24 years of decorated service, police sniper takes his finger off the trigger

June 19, 2000|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

After 24 years and thousands of torturous practice runs, Baltimore County Police Officer William "Bart" Bartholomew's moment of truth was compressed into three tension-filled seconds as he peered down his powerful rifle scope and squeezed the trigger.

Bartholomew, a veteran sniper for the county's SWAT team, had seen his quarry threaten children on a school bus hours before, during a nerve-wracking barricade situation in Parkville in May 1997. When the gunman emerged later from a town house on Mohican Court and took aim at two policemen down the street, Bartholomew - scrunched in a second-floor bathroom 50 yards away - fatally shot the man.

For that action, Bartholomew was recommended for one of the department's highest decorations for bravery. On June 14, Officer Bartholomew retired after more than 20 years of service, never having pinned such a medal to his uniform.

"I was just doing my job, something I've trained for. It was nothing spectacular," he said. "A medal isn't something I thought I should be wearing on my chest."

Bartholomew, 45, has heard all of the moral arguments against the long-range shooting by a hidden sniper of an enemy in combat or a hostage-taker in everyday life. Since the invention of the long rifle, opponents have argued that a sniper acts summarily as judge, jury and executioner.

From Kosovo to Columbine High School, people have voiced their opinions about snipers; Bartholomew said he just placed himself in a bubble and did his job.

Now, he's leaving behind those debates and one of the most tense occupations in police work as he and his wife, Tammy, a special education teacher, move to a new log home on the edge of the Idaho wilderness. She will teach and he will continue a job as a security adviser to Middle Eastern governments and work as a part-time instructor for Heckler & Koch, an international gun manufacturer.

"Through all of it, through the Marine Corps and the police department, I tried to make certain of two things," Bartholomew said. "I wanted to use my expertise only in the most drastic conditions and that my team members went home to their families."

The culture of SWAT teams is often misunderstood and greatly exaggerated in Hollywood movies. Special weapons and tactics members do have a swagger about them, other officers say, and most are considered professional loners who train constantly and are on call round-the-clock.

Within that small group are the snipers, the expert shooters and disciplined stalkers who monitor a barricade or hostage situation through their powerful scopes. Connected with other team members through sophisticated radios on special frequencies, snipers maintain a position, or "hide," sometimes for days, and they rarely are told to shoot their quarry.

"Our job is to conclude a situation peacefully. That's our first priority," said Lt. Michael Howe, the county's tactical division commander and Bartholomew's boss. "We have all the time in the world to attempt to end a situation without violence."

In March, while Bartholomew was working in the Middle East, county police were in a four-day standoff in Dundalk in which an armed Joseph C. Palczynski held three hostages. Palczynski was shot and killed by elements of the police assault team.

As Bartholomew departs, his colleagues lament losing not only an experienced and skilled colleague, but also the tactical division's court jester.

"He was a thinking dog," said Officer Bob Tribull, the 18-year veteran who will now lead the SWAT sniper contingent. "On a call-out, he was in his bubble, you couldn't distract him. But there was no greater prankster in the world. He loved to laugh, at himself and others."

There are plenty of stories about those pranks, such as the time Bartholomew purchased a bag of doughnuts and offered them to a ravenous Navy SEAL team at the end of a morning's training session. The SEALs, hungry as they were, would not touch the doughnuts, because of his reputation for pulling pranks.

A native of Pittsburgh, Bartholomew joined the Marine Corps to follow a family tradition - his father hopscotched across the Pacific as a Marine in World War II.

In the Marines, Bartholomew joined the scout-sniper unit in his division and was trained by Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock, who had 93 confirmed kills as a sniper in Vietnam, including a North Vietnamese general.

Hathcock trained Bartholomew in both shooting and the art of stalking and establishing urban and woodland "hides."

"It was really like sitting at the knee of the master," Bartholomew said. "He could yell at you without opening his mouth, if you know what I mean. He was strictly business. Gunny was the person who taught me how to go into my bubble, be absolutely focused on your mission. It got to the point where I can now watch my round leave the rifle and watch it to the target."

Bartholomew learned that other elements, such as humidity and the wind, are crucial when sighting a target. A round fired from a rifle has different characteristics in hot and cold weather.

"Without the human element, shooting is like a science," said Bartholomew. His weapon - a .308-caliber Remington rifle, with telescopic sight and suppressor, or silencer - is called a "police package" and costs $4,000.

After a short stint in the Carroll County sheriff's department, Bartholomew applied for a sniper's job with the U.S. Secret Service and the police in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. The county job opened up first, he said.

"For me, I've had nothing but good fortune and good friends," he said. "It's the perfect time to pull the pin on my career, get out and wave bye-bye."

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