A kind and dedicated officer

Tough policeman is recalled for gentle nature, `baby face'

March 14, 2001|By Peter Hermann and Tim Craig | Peter Hermann and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Michael J. Cowdery Jr. looked so young his friends on the police force called him "Baby Face." He was so nice that even when complaining about a broken furnace at his home, he told the repairman not to rush.

The city officer was so dedicated to his job that he chased youthful loiterers away from his Hillendale apartment complex, just to help the manager.

"He was the nicest policeman I have ever met," said Florret Snipes, 49, a rental agent at the Pelham Wood Apartments, where he had lived for three years.

"He was more like a priest - just the nicest little guy in the world," Snipes said.

Cowdery's death Monday night from a .357 Magnum handgun - police said yesterday it had been recovered and confirmed as the murder weapon - brought to a violent end a 4 1/2 -year career with the Baltimore Police Department, most recently as a plainclothes officer assigned to an aggressive squad in the city's most violent neighborhoods.

Viewing will be held from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at Vaughn Greene Funeral Home, 4905 York Road. The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St. Burial will follow at Dulaney Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

The 31-year-old son of a Philadelphia police officer, Cowdery was proud of his work with the Eastern District Initiative, a group 120-strong drawn from around the city in August to target drug dealing and shootings in East Baltimore.

Three weeks ago, he and his colleagues received commendations for their work, which helped reduce east-side homicides from 37 to 20 over seven months, compared with the same period in the previous year. They helped the new mayor keep a campaign promise to bring slayings under 300 citywide for the first time in a decade.

"He was part of the squad that contributed to less murders last year, and that always put a smile on his face," said Cowdery's neighbor, Ronald Bryant, a city officer in the Southeastern District.

Cowdery was born in a Philadelphia suburb and graduated in 1987 from Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor, Pa. He received a bachelor's degree in economics from Hampton University in Virginia in 1991.

Cowdery was single; his 10-year-old son lives in the Philadelphia area. He joined the city police force in July 1996 after signing up during a recruitment campaign in Pennsylvania.

Though his father, Michael J. Cowdery Sr., is a 28-year officer in Philadelphia - now an investigator with the district attorney's office - the younger Cowdery's parents were nervous about their son following in dad's footsteps.

The elder Cowdery "had a mixture of high pride and apprehension," said Louis J. Camaratta, 52, the deputy chief of the Philadelphia district attorney's detective unit and a family friend. "He was concerned as any father would be of his son, and he knew the dangers that a police officer faced."

Camaratta said that the fear was compounded by the younger Cowdery's being in Baltimore, even though his sister lives in Glen Burnie. "He was out of reach," Camaratta said. "It wasn't like you could jump in a car and be there in 20 minutes when something went wrong."

Cowdery's parents got the dreaded call late Monday, shortly after Cowdery was shot in the head and upper body on Harford Road while he talked to a woman and his colleagues interviewed two suspicious men in an area known for drugs and violence.

Pennsylvania State Police took Michael Sr. and his wife to the state line. Maryland troopers then sped the couple to Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. They arrived at 4:30 a.m., about five hours after their son was pronounced dead.

In the commotion of the hospital emergency room, packed with concerned officers, Michael Sr. walked around dazed, said Capt. Michael J. Andrew, commander of the Eastern District Initiative. "The poor guy was in shock."

The father of the 104th Baltimore officer to die in the line of duty since 1870 then faced Mayor Martin O'Malley, just over a year in office and already preparing to bury the fifth officer under his watch. With Michael Sr. was his wife, the slain officer's sister and his girlfriend.

"I thanked them and told them how many lives this initiative that their son volunteered for saved in the Eastern District," O'Malley said yesterday.

O'Malley said Michael Sr. responded, "This is a nightmare."

Family members indicated through police union officials yesterday that they did not wish to talk to reporters.

Until August, Cowdery had been patrolling the Northeastern District, a 16-square-mile swath of mostly working class neighborhoods. But this past summer, he volunteered to help cut crime in the Eastern, a pocket of concentrated violence with the city's highest homicide and shooting totals.

His former boss in the Northeastern, Maj. Michael P. Tomczak, said Cowdery was perfect for his new role: a motivated, energetic young officer who, although typically quiet and low key, chased down criminals with zeal.

"Supervisors had nothing but accolades for him," Tomczak said. "He required little supervision."

That's exactly what the Eastern District Initiative needed. Not required to respond to calls, the extra-duty officers are on their own to chase down suspected drug dealers and clear crowded street corners of loiterers.

"He was a very aggressive officer, but his friends called him `Baby Face,'" Andrew said, noting his looks.

Working in a cold, driving rain Monday night, the officers went right to work on a desolate stretch of Harford Road, scene of a homicide last month, and a source of constant complaints about drug dealers.

"They were up there doing what they are supposed to do," Andrew said, "addressing people and trying to get the drug dealers off the street."

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