City Council should check the facts on officer's killer

April 04, 2001|By Gregory Kane

THE SLAIN POLICE officer's wife is outraged, his former colleagues appalled and the president of the Fraternal Order of Police has demanded an apology. All this as the result of a Baltimore City Council resolution many say should never have been passed.

The resolution was introduced by Councilman Norman Handy on March 5 and passed the same day. It urged Gov. Parris Glendening to pardon one Marshall "Eddie" Conway, who was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted for the murder of Officer Donald Sager and the wounding of Stanley Sierakowski in April 1970. Conway was a member of the Baltimore Black Panther Party. The resolution mentioned as one of the reasons for a pardon the fact that Conway and his family members were targets of the FBI's notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which targeted black leaders for "neutralization."

"I think it's just ludicrous," Juanita Sager, Donald Sager's widow, said last week. "I'm totally opposed to even the thought of [a pardon]. He [Conway] not only took my husband's life, he took my life and my son's life. We still pay for that." Sager's son was 7 when his father was killed.

Now there's something for Handy and the resolution's co-sponsors - Helen Holton, Paula Johnson Branch, Bernard "Jack" Young, Keiffer Mitchell, Agnes Welch, Bea Gaddy, Robert Curran, Cathy Pugh, Lisa Stancil and Kenneth Harris - to ponder: If Sager's widow and son are still suffering, if they're still paying, why shouldn't Conway continue to do the same?

Retired Officer Robert McKenzie is one of those who figures Conway should. He was near the 1200 block of Myrtle Ave. the night those deadly shots rang out.

"This fellow should not be released," McKenzie said. "I can remember that night vividly. I can still hear Stanley calling for help after he was shot. It was a cowardly act. I know Don was hit four or five times. I don't know how many times Stanley was hit. Don died right there on the scene. Stanley wasn't any good afterwards for as long as he lived. I really don't think Mr. Conway is ready to be released. I don't think he's done enough time."

Peter Ward, a former Baltimore assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Conway, told The Sun just how cowardly an act the shooting was.

"The two officers got a call to a domestic disturbance," Ward said. "They went to the house. Whoever answered the door said, `We don't know what you're talking about.' So it was obviously a setup. They sat down in the car and were writing their reports. Conway, [Jack Ivory] Johnson and [James Edward] Powell came from in front of the car, went past the car and then came around either side and fired into the vehicle."

Ward also took issue with news reports that claimed that police "theorized" the shooting was part of an initiation rite into the Black Panther Party. That was no theory, Ward says. That was fact.

"That was Jack Ivory Johnson's confession," Ward recalled. "He said he and Powell were interested in joining the Panther Party and that the rite was to `off a couple of pigs.'"

It was Roger Nolan, now a sergeant in the homicide division of the Baltimore Police Department, who exchanged gunfire with a man he later identified as Conway. Shell casings found at the scene of Nolan's shootout and the homicide scene were, Ward said, from the same .45-caliber handgun. That and the testimony of a jailhouse tattletale - Charles Reynolds said cellmate Conway told him details of the shooting - convicted Conway. The former Panther's supporters contend that all this evidence is circumstantial and that Reynolds could have lied. Ward doesn't think so. He figures most folks don't know about the watch.

When Sierakowski was released from intensive care, homicide Detective Joe Thomas, who was working with Ward, interviewed him. Sierakowski said that the man who shot him - he was hit four times with a .45, and Ward still marvels that he lived - took his watch. Reynolds had written Ward from Michigan, where he had been returned after escaping to Baltimore. (He was caught here and being held when he and Conway were cellmates.) He said Conway had told him details of the shooting. When Ward and Thomas went to question him, Reynolds told them Conway had told him he had thrown the .45 in the harbor and taken the watch home. Ward knew Reynolds was on the level. Until that point, the only people who knew - who could have known - about the watch were Thomas, Ward, Sierakowski, other police investigators and the man who shot Sierakowski.

"It was as tight a case as I've ever tried," Ward said. "And I've tried many."

Gary McLhinney, the police union president, sent a letter to resolution supporters suggesting that they should have checked the facts before voting for it. Surely McLhinney must be jesting. Check the facts just because you're an elected official? These are the same bozos who held a secret meeting with police Commissioner Ed Norris, proclaiming "we didn't want the media."

As if the feeling isn't darned mutual.

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