While other families spent Thanksgiving together last year, Maryland State Police Sgt. James T. DeWees worked nearly all that day after being roused out of bed at 2 a.m. by a call about the suspicious death of a toddler in Carroll County.
DeWees, the supervisor of the county's Child Abuse and Sexual Assault Unit, pulled together his team, whose investigation eventually led to a grand jury homicide indictment.
This year, DeWees, 33, may get to spend Thanksgiving with his family, which will soon grow with the birth of a new baby.
After three years of investigating cases involving sexual offenders and child abusers at all hours, DeWees returns to a more regular schedule on the road, working out of the Westminster barracks.
Yesterday was his last day in a unit that was instrumental in the convictions of a former county schools superintendent accused of raping an elementary-school-age girl in 2002 and a former priest accused of molesting young boys two decades ago.
Today, DeWees hands over the reins of the unit to another state trooper, Sgt. John Carhart, a 17-year veteran and supervisor of a road patrol unit at the Westminster barracks. For the past two weeks, Carhart has been shadowing DeWees in what he calls a "crash course" in leading the CASA unit.
"Three years of doing this job will take a toll on you," DeWees said. "I have three small children, and the things you see on this job get to you. It's time for a change."
DeWees, a 14-year veteran trooper, was on the road or on the tactical team during most of his career, except for a stint in investigations before being promoted to lead the CASA unit.
DeWees led a unit that includes three civilian investigators, two additional troopers, an administrative assistant, a crisis counselor, two county sheriff's deputies and a Westminster police detective.
"If you are asking them to be out investigating for 30 hours, you have to be willing to do it, too," DeWees said this week. "They will follow a leader, but you have to lead by example."
He is proud of his investigators, whom he considers fact-finders first, not necessarily advocates for children. The unit, he said, is about finding the truth and making sure those who are wrongly accused never sit in a defendant's chair.
DeWees believes that he helped make the unit more aggressive in its investigations and built strong cases that led to prosecutions.
Under DeWees' lead, CASA became the county's central unit for handling sexual assault and child abuse cases after reaching an agreement with the Westminster Police Department in November. Previously, the city was the only municipality in Carroll County that did not refer these types of cases to the unit. When the agreement was reached, a Westminster officer was added to the CASA unit on a part-time basis.
Carroll's CASA unit was started in 1991 with three investigators, DeWees said. The caseload has steadily increased -- sometimes drastically.
"The pace is relentless, never-ending," he said.
In 2001, the unit handled 275 cases. A year later it handled 350, and DeWees expects the number for last year to be just below 500.
The past three years, CASA has been at the center of several high-profile cases, including the investigation of William H. Hyde, a former schools superintendent who was convicted in August of raping and sexually abusing an elementary-school-age girl.
In 2002, an investigation by the unit helped to convict Brian M. Cox, a former priest who admitted to molesting two young boys two decades ago. It was a case that spoke to the role of the CASA unit and its specific training in dealing with victims of sexual abuse.
DeWees said that in this type of police work, an entire case can hinge on the credibility of victims. In the Cox case, the willingness of the victims to come forward was essential to the investigation, he said.
DeWees had just begun his supervisory role in the unit in 2001 when three Carroll County teachers were charged with child sexual abuse.
Three years later, DeWees ended his role in the unit with the investigation of the first confirmed homicide of last year, the death of 14-month-old Mikayla Rae Barrett, who died on Thanksgiving.
Anthony P. Flakes, whom state police charged with beating the child's two siblings, was also charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the toddler's death.