A high price for doing what's right

Westminster grad fears threats against student informers

March 12, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Jennifer Sarsfield knows what it's like to take the heat for snitching on friends.

She knows about the insults. She knows about the death threats. She knows about the fear.

The former Westminster High School honor student suffered through several harrowing weeks in 1998 after she told investigators what she knew about three classmates who sold heroin to a 15-year-old boy who died of an overdose.

Now a 19-year-old psychology and pre-law major at Hood College in Frederick, Sarsfield says she's stunned that Westminster High administrators and student leaders would even consider the program they started six weeks ago, which pays students up to $100 for tips on classmates who have drugs, alcohol or weapons on campus.

"They should have learned from my situation," Sarsfield said, "but obviously they haven't. It's very unintelligent. It's like they're asking it to happen again."

Faculty members, police and the county prosecutor point out that Sarsfield's ordeal was different from the way "Project TIPS" is intended to work. Sarsfield was subpoenaed as a witness in the highly publicized case against three teen-agers charged in the overdose death of Liam O'Hara. The officials in charge of Westminster High's new program promise that they will keep secret the names of students who inform them of illegal activity in school.

But some, including Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes and interim schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, worry that the identity of those who snitch could come out, especially once a student is arrested and the case moves to court. The initiative has already netted two arrests for drug possession, two arrests for setting toilet paper on fire in the boys bathroom, and one suspension for a violation of the school's drug and alcohol policy.

Defense attorneys, arguing that a defendant has the right to face his accuser in court, say they certainly would try to find out who provided school administrators with the information.

It's a concern that raises the specter of the harassment Sarsfield endured - and the possibility that it could happen again.

"You're not dealing with professional informants, so to speak," Barnes said. "You're dealing with kids, and kids talk and kids tend to brag. ... You're dealing with administrators, who are not law enforcement people, and students providing information, so there are all kinds of ways that confidentiality could be breached."

Westminster High Principal Sherri-Le W. Bream declined to comment for this article, saying only that she "would prefer not to get into the Sarsfield situation," which she characterized as "totally different than what we are proposing." Another administrator asked that his name not be published for fear that he would face retaliation if students associated him with Project TIPS.

For Sarsfield, the decision to turn in her friends was easy.

One friend was dead of a drug overdose. Three others were involved in selling the heroin that killed him. Another friend saw the drug deal being made in the parking lot of the Westminster Burger King that Sarsfield's parents own. And all were talking to her about it.

But the consequences of that decision still bring an indignant edge to her voice and angry tears to her eyes.

"When I feel strongly about something, I really feel strongly about it," Sarsfield said. "I just couldn't believe that they were going to get away with this. ... So when people with the state's attorney's office wanted to talk to me, I was going to talk to them, and I told them everything I knew because something had to be done."

Within four weeks of O'Hara's death, police arrested two boys whom Sarsfield had known since kindergarten and a girl who had been a close friend of hers for two or three years before they drifted apart in high school. Kristopher Olenginski, then 16, was charged as an adult with heroin distribution. The other boy, 15, and the girl, 17, were charged as juveniles.

Sarsfield wasn't working at the Westminster Burger King on Jan. 8, 1998, when O'Hara bought the $30 worth of heroin that killed him, so she couldn't give a firsthand account to the authorities. Instead, "I told them the hearsay," she said. "I told them what the girl who worked that night had told me. I told them what I knew about the kids [who sold O'Hara the drugs]. I told them the truth - that I had watched the girl smoke crack."

Sarsfield repeated that information in April 1998 when investigators for Olenginski wanted to interview her. She was told that she would be able to review the transcript of that deposition to make sure everything was correct.

"The next thing I knew, I was at the mall on a Friday night and people were coming up to me and screaming at me and quoting from the transcript," Sarsfield recalled. "Then, at school, people were going around the halls calling me terrible, terrible names."

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