Slain officer called hero at funeral

Hundreds gather to honor veteran of Balto. Co. force

October 24, 2000|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Hundreds gathered yesterday to remember John W. Stem Sr., the former Baltimore County Police officer who died last week, 23 years after he was critically injured trying to help a fallen comrade.

At a noontime funeral at Friendship Baptist Church in Howard County, friends and family said Stem's commitment to the community was unstoppable, despite the gunshot wound in July 1977 that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Stem, who received the department's Medal of Honor for heroism, returned to work in the department's youth division until he retired in 1990.

Cornelius J. Behan, who was the county police chief in 1977, called Stem his "personal hero."

He said he had been inspired by Stem's determination to return to police work after being shot.

"I thought, `If he can take it, I have to take it,'" Behan said.

Stem, 51, died Thursday of complications from wounds he received as he tried to help Officer Charles A. Huckeba, the first county officer to be shot to death on duty.

Last week, officials ruled that Stem had died in the line of duty as well.

He was buried in the Fallen Heroes Section of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium yesterday with full police honors, and his name will be added to the memorial to fallen officers outside the Baltimore County Courts Building in Towson.

Stem's illness and death inspired an outpouring of emotion from current and retired county police officers.

During the last week of his life, officers sent more than 70 e-mail messages for his family to read to him, said Sgt. Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 4.

At the funeral, County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan read an article, "Tight-Knit Family," that Stem wrote last year for a department publication, describing the day he was shot.

Responding to a call from a Lansdowne man seeking help with his unruly son, Stem and Huckeba came under fire when they approached the man's house.

The son began spraying the street with bullets, and Huckeba was shot in the face.

Stem was struck in the upper back as he tried to help Huckeba.

"I believe that if I had been wounded first, that certainly [Huckeba] or any other fellow officers ... would have taken the same chances I took to save a life," Stem wrote. "I have no regrets for my actions that day and have carried on with my life the best I can; it was my job!"

Yesterday, as Sheridan passed Stem's open casket, he saluted.

Some mourners expressed shock that they were attending another funeral for a police officer killed in the line of duty.

On Thursday, many of the same mourners had attended a funeral for two Baltimore officers killed in a traffic collision while patrolling their beat.

Stem's death, following that of Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero in February, marks the first time that two Baltimore County officers have been killed in the line of duty the same year.

Statewide, seven police officers, including four in Baltimore and one in Wicomico County, have died in the line of duty this year, compared to none last year.

"I know I am not alone when I say it seems incomprehensible that we are here again," said Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who attended Thursday's funeral.

State Police Superintendent Col. David B. Mitchell presented Stem's widow, Sandra, with a Maryland flag flown over the State House in Stem's honor.

Toward the end of the hourlong funeral, mourners watched a slide show of Stem's life, which included many photos of him in his uniform.

Others showed him vacationing and at family gatherings.

Stem's son, John W. Stem Jr., said that although his father was used to being called a hero, he spent his life answering to his own hero, Jesus Christ.

"My father demonstrated that people with disabilities can lead productive lives," said the son, who was 1 1/2 when his father was shot.

"Dad, you fought a good fight," the younger Stem said.

"I thank you for your example."

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