Brother of slain officer pays tribute as a trooper

March 09, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

When the most recent graduates of the state police academy crossed the stage, they received polite, even enthusiastic applause. But when Phil Nickerson's name was called to receive his badge, everyone in the gymnasium rose to their feet, clapping.

All of the troopers taking the oath that February day were saying that they were willing to risk their lives in their chosen profession. But only Nickerson could say he was taking that pledge three years after his younger brother died in the line of duty.

And Nickerson, a former Kent County deputy sheriff, was accepting orders to serve in the Centreville barracks, on the outskirts of the Eastern Shore town where his brother, Michael, and a Queen Anne's County deputy sheriff were fatally shot by a mentally ill man.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Metro section about a newly sworn-in Maryland state trooper misidentified the federal agents killed in the standoff in Waco, Texas. The four agents were from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"A lot of people are shocked that he'd still want to be a cop," said Richard Strong, a Kent County deputy sheriff who worked with Phil and Michael Nickerson and who remains friends with the family. "I'm not sure I would want to be."

As Nickerson, 38, is finishing his field training at the side of a senior officer this month, some are wondering: Why is he doing this?

"It's hard to explain," said the father of two children. "This is what I do. Michael wouldn't have wanted me to quit."

Michael had followed his oldest brother into law enforcement. After working in construction for nearly a decade, Phil Nickerson became a Kent County deputy sheriff in 1995.

Two years later, Michael joined the Chestertown Police Department. He went on to the Kent County Sheriff's Department and later to the Centreville police force.

Michael Nickerson, 24, had been working in Centreville for three weeks when, on Feb. 13, 2001, he and Sheriff's Deputy Jason C. Schwenz were shot as they responded to a noise complaint in a Centreville trailer park.

A state trooper who also answered the call immediately arrested a mentally ill man, Frank Zito, who later confessed to killing the officers.

In the days and weeks that followed, some police officers working the Eastern Shore talked about quitting, said Centreville Police Chief Benjamin H. Cohey.

"In fact, it went through my mind," the chief said. "It was devastating."

It was no secret that the Nickerson brothers had aspired to join the state police and had applied several times over the years.

"When I hired Michael, he was up front that one his goals was to become a Maryland state trooper," Cohey said. "I believe Phil is carrying out the dream. ... I know he'll make a darn good trooper."

After Zito's trial and his death in 2002 of cancer while on death row, Phil Nickerson applied to the state police again and was accepted into the 6-month training academy.

State Police Lt. Col. Edwin L. Lashley, a former Eastern Shore regional commander, said Nickerson's decision to reapply was a "tribute to his brother and his family."

"He'll be an instant leader in this department," Lashley said. "He's gone through something most of us can't imagine."

Strong, the former colleague from Kent County, recalled an in-service training session that he attended with Phil Nickerson. The instructor asked the group to name the players in the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas.

Everyone could name David Koresh, but Strong said the group had a much harder time naming the FBI agents who were killed.

"Phil remembered that," said Strong. "I think part of it is that in his heart, Phil wants to make sure no one forgets his brother."

Still, the inherent danger in law enforcement is sometimes hard on Nickerson's family.

"I've always had a fear when he leaves for work. You can't say `I love you' enough," said Nickerson's wife of 17 years, Susan. "It goes through your mind - what would I do if ... ?

"It escalated after Michael was killed," she added. "I didn't sleep a lot. But I know Phil's a good police officer, and I have to support him."

Their oldest son, Tanner, 13, has some of the same concerns, she said. Their 5-year-old son, Baxter, is too young to understand the danger his father faces.

Phil's mother, Sue Nickerson, the new president of the Maryland chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors, said the family stands behind him.

"As a mother, you can't pick your children's careers. You can only support their choices," she said.

"I don't think police work is something you can do without thinking about the risks," she added. "He's certainly had them pointed out."

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