CENTREVILLE - It has been nearly two years since two Eastern Shore police officers were murdered here, and residents still can scarcely believe that such violence came to their slow-paced Queen Anne's County seat.
Yesterday, as they absorbed news of the death of convicted killer Francis M. Zito - the mentally ill man known for years around town as "Crazy Frank" - many wondered whether this or any other ending can soothe this rural crossroads.
"The whole episode was sad for a small town, but he was a burden to society," said Jonathan Olsavsky, who manages a real estate office across the street from the county courthouse. "With two officers gone, there's no winning. I have to say that at least this saves the taxpayers a lot of money."
Zito, 43, who admitted killing Centreville Officer Michael S. Nickerson, 24, and Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz, 28, died of lung cancer at the University of Maryland Medical Center on Sunday. He was transferred to an intensive care unit Oct. 29 after collapsing at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, the state's Supermax prison in Baltimore.
Zito, who had a history of mental illness that began in childhood, spent much of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals. At his trial in May, jurors refused to accept his insanity plea, issuing two death sentences in the slayings of the two officers and a life sentence for the attempted murder of State Trooper Richard Corey Skidmore.
On Feb. 13 last year, the trio answered a call about loud music at Zito's trailer home on the outskirts of Centreville. They were standing in his enclosed porch, trying to enter his trailer, when he fired a 12-gauge shotgun at point-blank range.
"It was only by the grace of God, a matter of inches, that we didn't lose three officers," said State's Attorney David W. Gregory. "The magnitude of this crime is hard to overstate. It's been at least 50 years since the last death penalty case. Emotions probably run the gamut in this town - some people are frustrated that the death sentence won't be carried out, some look at this as a way of quietly closing the book."
Zito was a familiar figure in Centreville, where he was often seen talking to himself or inanimate objects. He complained during repeated outbursts at his trial that police were harassing him and conspiring to steal what he said were valuable manuscripts, story ideas and song lyrics he incessantly scribbled in notepads.
"Because of his mental illness, most of his life was a very tortured existence," said defense lawyer Brian Shefferman.
Shefferman and another of the defense attorneys, Patricia Chappell, say that Zito's mental illness might have contributed to his death, because his complaints about ill health, including chronic hoarseness, were sprinkled with assertions about alleged conspiracies to poison him. Chappell said Zito, who had received a diagnosis of an inoperable tumor, was handcuffed to his hospital bed, sedated and under guard the last time she saw him, Nov. 7.
"He was someone who was dogged by mental illness to the very end," Chappell said. "It shows the depth of his mental illness that he was unable to describe his [physical] symptoms in a way anyone would understand or believe. He became very ill very quickly."
Zito's mother, Betty, who owns and lives in the trailer court where the shootings occurred, said her son's body would be cremated without memorial service or burial, according to Chappell.
Centreville Police Chief Benjamin H. Cohee, who hired Nickerson a few weeks before the shootings, said he never believed that Zito's mental state prevented him from understanding his actions.
"I am relieved this is all over," said Cohee, whose daughter Kimberly was engaged to Schwenz. "I'm still not convinced he was crazy. He played that card every time he needed to deal with law enforcement."
Some of the slain officers' relatives, who say they are considering filing suit against the state's mental health system, complained they were not notified that Zito had been moved to the Baltimore hospital. Others said they are relieved that there will be no death penalty appeals that could have lasted five years or longer.
A hearing to request a new trial was scheduled for Dec. 6 in a Wicomico County courtroom, where Zito's trial had been moved because of extensive publicity. The appeal process, automatic in Maryland death penalty cases, had not begun, his attorneys said.
"I have to say that there is some sense of relief," said Sue Nickerson, the mother of one of the victims. "The town - all of Queen Anne's County, really - has been shocked. The people deserve some sense of calm. It's over now, for them at least."