Chuck Atwell was a police officer for nearly 27 years. He is the first to admit that he wasn't always as tactful as he could have been, but until last December, nothing he said ever kept him awake at night.
A year ago yesterday, he arrested a Calvert County man on drunken-driving charges. Atwell phoned the man's mother to tell her that her 20-year-old son was fine and that she could come get him when he sobered up.
Six hours later, police went to the woman's house to tell her that her son was dead.
"That still bothers me to this day," Atwell said. "It was contrary to what I told her. I said her boy was OK."
The son had poisoned himself with antifreeze, and Atwell has been fired for failing to call for medical help.
In his first interview about the case, the veteran officer said he has replayed the arrest in his mind countless times.
He said he had no way of knowing that the man had ingested a poison that mimicked the effects of alcohol. And he said he has been made a scapegoat.
But, Atwell said, he can't help being troubled by his words to the man's mother.
Atwell, who has been married for 23 years, has a 13-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son. The family lives in Harwood in southern Anne Arundel County, not far from Annapolis, where Atwell grew up.
A 1964 graduate of Severna Park High School, Charles R. Atwell II served as a military police officer in the Air Force. After he was discharged in 1968, he joined the Prince George's County Police Department and worked as a patrol officer until 1976.
After training horses with his wife for a few years, Atwell returned to police work in 1983 when he joined the Maryland Natural Resources Police. In 1987, he joined the Anne Arundel County Police Department.
Atwell, 55, said, "Almost 30 years of police work has boiled down to one arrest."
He said the incident seemed like nothing more than a routine drunken-driving situation.
The scene of the arrest
An off-duty Washington officer saw someone driving erratically on northbound Route 4 in Lothian. The vehicle swerved into a guard rail and, with two flat tires, came to a stop on the side of the highway.
When Atwell arrived, Philip A. Montgomery, an electrician's apprentice from Calvert County, was sitting on the curb in handcuffs. Montgomery's eyes were red and teary, and he was rocking back and forth.
At a trial board hearing in October, the off-duty officer testified that he told Atwell that Montgomery said he had drunk antifreeze. The officer said he wasn't sure whether Atwell heard him. He also said he thought Montgomery had been using a slang term for alcohol.
Atwell said the off-duty officer never told him that Montgomery said he had drunk antifreeze.
County police regulations require an officer to seek medical treatment for any "ill, injured or unconscious person."
During the interview, conducted in the offices of his lawyer, Mark Howes, Atwell maintained that if he had been told about the antifreeze, he would at least have asked the young man about it and might have called an ambulance as a precaution.
As it happened, Atwell said, he had no idea Montgomery needed medical attention. The man wasn't bruised or bleeding from hitting the guardrail and he wasn't vomiting, Atwell says.
`He seemed drunk'
"To me, he seemed drunk, just as I've dealt with time and time again," he said.
But Atwell acknowledges that Montgomery didn't smell of alcohol. And when Atwell looked for evidence in the man's car, he found nothing more than a half-empty bottle of orange juice.
"Maybe I jumped to conclusions that he was drinking vodka and orange juice," Atwell said.
Atwell said he talked to Montgomery on the way to the police station. Sometimes Montgomery would answer. Other times he'd doze, or stare out the window. "I just thought he was ignoring me, as drunks sometimes will do," Atwell said.
At the station, Atwell said, he thought Montgomery was ignoring him again when he tried to get the young man to consent to a breath test. He left Montgomery snoring loudly in a cell.
Hours later, while back on patrol, Atwell radioed the station to ask whether the drunken-driving suspect "was still comatose." Atwell said he was asking whether Montgomery was still asleep because he wanted to make sure that the man's mother had been called and that the paperwork on the man's arrest would be completed.
"In hindsight," Atwell said, "it was a poor choice of words."
Atwell acknowledged that it wasn't the first time he said something he shouldn't have. Sometimes he was too abrupt, too matter-of-fact, he said. Speaking his mind is the only thing that supervisors have admonished him for, he said.
On the night of the arrest, when Atwell returned to the station to ask the man to sign traffic tickets, Montgomery wasn't breathing. Atwell said he ran for a sergeant who knew CPR, and the officers tried unsuccessfully to revive the man.
About a month later, detectives asked Atwell whether he knew anything about Montgomery drinking antifreeze.