Slain Baltimore officer went `where others fear to go'

Cowdery remembered at Mass as polite and hard-working

`Week of cruel ironies'

March 18, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Michael J. Cowdery Jr.'s life was one of contrasts. He studied economics in college, yet became a Baltimore police officer because he couldn't stand a desk job.

So polite that he surprised friends by volunteering for an elite squad of aggressive officers tackling crime on the violent east side. So reserved that friends said he would have been embarrassed by a police funeral's pageantry.

The 31-year-old was buried yesterday in a cold drizzle after a Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen -- five days after he was ambushed and shot in the head on a Northeast Baltimore street.

"He died doing what the Lord himself would do -- putting his life on the line for justice and for peace, putting his life on the line for people he didn't even know," the Rev. Richard B. Hilgartner said in his homily.

Hundreds of police cars filled four lanes of road stretching 10 blocks in honor of their fallen colleague, a 4 1/2 -year veteran and son of a career Philadelphia police officer.

Friends, family and colleagues filled the cavernous, tunnel-shaped cathedral for a two-hour Mass before joining a 3-mile procession that snaked north to the burial site at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

Cowdery's parents did not speak at the Mass. The officer's grieving father, Michael Sr., often reached from his front-row pew to touch the white-draped coffin at the foot of the altar.

Maj. Elfago Moye read a poem written to honor the 120-officer contingent for which Cowdery had volunteered to patrol the city's most troubled, drug-ridden streets.

"I go where others fear to go," the first stanza reads. "I did what others failed to do."

Cowdery's death came in the same week that two officers were arrested -- one in the break-in of a police office and another in the killing of his wife's paramour.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, meeting with reporters Friday, called the events a "week of cruel ironies."

Cowdery -- who had a degree in economics from Hampton University in Virginia -- joined the Police Department in July 1996 after leaving a job as a financial consultant and manager of a Famous Footware outlet in Philadelphia.

Known as "Mickey" to his family and kidded as "Babyface" by his colleagues for his youthful appearance, he was regarded as a hard-working, mature young man who treated people with dignity and patience.

Lt. Osborne B. McCarter said he was surprised when Cowdery left the Northeastern District to join the Eastside Initiative, filled with assertive officers who confront the most dangerous criminals every day.

"He wasn't the type of guy who did this for the adventure," McCarter said.

But his parents suspect Cowdery wanted to emulate his father -- a 28-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department. As a child, Cowdery watched with fascination as his father put on his uniform and often tugged the cuffs to help straighten out the wrinkles.

Cowdery also is survived by his mother, Constance L.; his sister, India, who lives in Glen Burnie; and his son, Matthew, 10, who lives in the Philadelphia area.

They gathered at yesterday's services, which ended at the burial grounds with officers firing a rifle salute and bagpipes wailing in the misty rain. A police dispatcher permanently signed Cowdery off the air, retiring his call number in a final tribute to the 104th city officer slain since 1870.

Cowdery was the fifth officer killed under O'Malley's year-and-a-half stewardship. "A beautiful cathedral cannot divert our mind to the great injustice that brings us here -- again," the mayor told mourners.

Colleagues said in eulogies that Cowdery wouldn't have wanted an elaborate funeral, but O'Malley told mourners that the officer deserved one because he had helped "free a community that had been held captive for years by violence and fear."

Since the Eastside Initiative began in August, killings have dropped 46 percent and shootings 56 percent.

Cowdery and three colleagues were questioning a group in the 2300 block of Harford Road when, police said, a gunman ran around a corner and without apparent provocation, shot Cowdery twice with a .357-caliber Magnum.

Other officers returned fire -- Officer Ronald A. Beverly was wounded in the gunfight -- and the suspect was hit in the side. Howard Tyrone Whitworth, 31, remained in serious condition yesterday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, charged in a warrant with first-degree murder.

Investigators have been unable to determine a motive, but they suspect Cowdery interrupted a thriving drug market and was mistaken for a rival dealer harassing the established crew.

Outrage wasn't limited to police and public officials.

Yesterday the mayor said residents joined the mourning at the funeral-home viewing.

Thirty people, most of them who didn't know Cowdery, lined up outside in a cold rain Friday, an hour before the doors swung open. A woman from Edmondson Village gave up a day's work to pay her last respects.

And a small pack of teens from Govans, knapsacks on their backs and sodas in their hands, stood stoically in front of Cowdery's open casket.

One looked up at the honor guard and whispered: "Sorry. It never should have happened."

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said the best way to honor Cowdery is for his officers to hit the streets and continue to drive down crime.

Likening his fight on city streets to battles during war and the loss of an officer to that of a soldier, Norris said "sometimes the people we need to liberate are on American soil."

Cowdery, he said, "did not die for nothing."

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