Centreville man indicted in killings of 2 Shore officers

Murder counts could lead to possible death penalty

April 03, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE - In the first death penalty case in Queen Anne's County in nearly 40 years, a Centreville man with a history of mental illness was indicted yesterday by a county grand jury in the Feb. 13 shooting deaths of two police officers.

Francis M. Zito, 41, is accused of killing Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz, 28, and Centreville Police Officer Michael S. Nickerson, 24. He was indicted on 17 counts, including two of first-degree murder that could bring a death sentence.

Members of the grand jury heard more than six hours of testimony yesterday from eight witnesses presented by prosecutor David. W. Gregory. Among those who testified was Trooper Richard Skidmore, who, responded with Nickerson and Schwenz to a routine noise complaint at Zito's trailer home.

Skidmore was uninjured by several 12-gauge shotgun blasts that were fired from inside the trailer as the three stood in an enclosed porch.

Police said Skidmore pulled the fatally wounded Nickerson away from the porch and later subdued and arrested Zito.

Schwenz died instantly, and Nickerson died during surgery at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Among those who appeared before the grand jury yesterday were Betty Zito, Zito's mother, and Detective Dale L. Patrick, the lead investigator for the Queen Anne's County sheriff's department.

Gregory said the case was taken before the grand jury to allow his office a chance to better prepare its case, because proceedings are conducted behind closed doors with only jurors, prosecutors and witnesses present.

"It's the first death penalty case in Queen Anne's County since the '60s," Gregory said. "Frankly, the grand jury offers an opportunity to organize our case."

Zito has a history of mental illness since childhood and has been jailed and hospitalized for assaults and violent outbursts many times over the last 15 years, according to court records.

Well known to local police for frequent complaints about excessive noise filed by neighbors at the trailer park on the western end of Centreville, Zito was released from Kent and Queen Anne's Hospital in nearby Chestertown about a month before the shootings. Last year, he was found guilty of assaulting his mother with a box of plastic wrap.

Gregory said an arraignment hearing would be scheduled after Zito and his attorneys are served with the indictments.

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