Son murdered, dad might leave police

Closure: The father of a slain city officer thought his son would be a teacher. Now, he weighs becoming an educator to keep youths from turning into killers like his son's.

April 14, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Michael J. Cowdery Sr., a veteran Philadelphia police detective, seethed as he sat in a Baltimore courtroom, glaring at the man accused of executing his son as he lay helpless on a cold city sidewalk last year.

The man swore to the jury that it wasn't him, that police had gotten the wrong man.

"No, sir," he answered with a hint of cockiness when his attorney asked whether he had shot Cowdery's son.

Jaw clenched, nostrils flaring, Cowdery gripped the wooden bench in front of him as his chest rose and fell quickly.

In his pocket was a small portrait of his boy at 5 years old, his hair wild, his smile enormous and engaging. Next to that was his son's Maryland driver's license.

Cowdery had already exploded in the courtroom, the day the gruesome details came out about the death of his 31-year-old son, Baltimore Police Agent Michael "Mickey" Cowdery Jr.

But he refused to leave. Cowdery sat in the second row next to the jury box, wearing a suit and tie during every agonizing minute of the three-week trial, which he likened to a "Shakespearean tragedy."

For witnesses, survivors and jurors, murder trials are difficult, even gut-wrenching. For the victim's family, they're tormenting.

For a police officer who buries his own boy in the familiar blue uniform, it is all but unendurable.

"You can't know what it's like sitting 15 feet from the person who killed your son and listen to him tell blatant lies," says Cowdery, 59, a lean, unfailingly polite man with a shy smile and alert blue eyes. "You don't know how much restraint it took."

The rainy night Mickey Cowdery was killed was re-created, dissected and scrutinized from every angle in the courtroom.

Everyone heard how Mickey was shot above his left ear at "contact range" and how his hooded sweat shirt muffled the sound.

In the end, nobody could establish a clear motive for the killing.

Still, a jury convicted self-described drug dealer Howard "Wee" Whitworth of first-degree murder April 1, which was a bittersweet victory for Cowdery.

"I can breathe a little easier, I can see things a little more clearly knowing that chapter has finally closed," he says.

"Before, I couldn't focus on anything else. Now I can focus on what I want to do with my career."

A former high school teacher turned cop, Cowdery always saw Mickey as a math teacher. But Mickey, who dreamed of becoming a superhero as a little boy, went after the excitement he saw in his father's life.

Now Cowdery - who once wanted a different life for his son - wants a different life for himself.

"I'm sick of playing cops and robbers in Philadelphia," he says.

Life in Philadelphia

The Cowderys still live in the West Philadelphia townhouse where they raised Mickey and his younger sister, India. Walls, tables and mantels are covered with family pictures.

Mickey and India, ages 9 and 5, in Cape Cod. Mickey and India with their dates at the prom. Mickey and India at high school graduation.

A Valentine's Day card from Mickey to his mother, Constance, which is now 14 months old, is propped on their brick fireplace.

On top of the television are two model police cars: one from Philadelphia, one from Baltimore.

"This is my car," Cowdery explains, rolling the one from Philadelphia. "And this is Mickey's."

The Cowdery men were just as much best buddies as they were father and son.

Mickey was born in Philadelphia, just as his father and grandfather were.

From the time Mickey was a "little guy," as his dad says, the pair would disappear together weekend afternoons to buy superhero action figures, watch kung fu movies or take a martial arts class.

When they stayed in the house, it usually led to wrestling, knocking around the furniture, making noise.

"I wasn't what you called strict," Cowdery admits.

As the son got older, he would mimic his father, and as adults, they shared the same slow style of speaking, the same even temper, the same playful humor.

They even wore diamond studs in their left ears.

"I always admired his," says Cowdery, who got his earring a few years after Mickey did.

No one on the Baltimore force could initially understand why Mickey, a former financial consultant with an economics degree from Hampton University in Virginia, became a police officer.

They couldn't figure out why Mickey was so enamored of police that the license plate on his Ford Probe read "21 JUMP" for the 1980s police drama series 21 Jump Street.

"We'd tease him, say, `What are you doing here?'" says Detective Ronald Beverly, his partner, who was shot in each leg chasing Mickey's killer.

"He was so well-spoken, so well-educated," Beverly says. "We used to wonder how he got like that."

When they met his father, they understood.

Cowdery quit his high school teaching job to become a police officer so he could provide more for his family. But law enforcement wasn't his first choice.

"Every son emulates his father," Cowdery says. "My father was a member of the Philadelphia Fire Department. They weren't hiring, so I said, `Let me try the Police Department; that's the next best thing.'"

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