Officer ever vigilant for drunken driving

A one-time heavy drinker is Howard's top cop in catching alcohol violators.

July 03, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

It is minutes before sunset as Officer Mark Heron relaxes in his unmarked Crown Victoria, turns off the engine and points his small, black binoculars at the entrance to a Clarksville liquor store.

He is confident that he will get someone. Howard County is full of teenagers hoping to throw back a few brewskies on a humid summer weekend. And Heron, the county's alcohol enforcer, knows exactly where local kids buy their buzz.

He has only to watch and wait. And not for long.

Less than 15 minutes pass before three young men in a maroon Ford Expedition pull up to the store near River Hill High School. The driver, 6 feet 1 and weighing more than 200 pounds, appears to be much older than 21, but Heron's body stiffens when the man does not immediately enter the store.

Instead, he waits behind his SUV until a friend pulls up. The two talk, disappear inside and emerge carrying a bucket filled with bags of ice and, on the second trip, a chrome pony keg.

After loading the supplies into the back of the Expedition, their parting handshake gives them away. It is one of those multigrip, pull-your-friend-in-close, music-video-style moves. Old people do not shake hands like P. Diddy.

Heron follows the Expedition and runs the SUV's license plate through a Maryland motor vehicle database. It is registered to a 20-year-old.

Heron flips on his lights and siren. A driver's license check reveals that it is a passenger's 19th birthday.

The driver explains that he thought that minors could transport beer as long as they did not drink it or buy it. As Heron expected, the latter was accomplished with the help of the driver's over-21 friend.

Heron privately - and colorfully - dismisses these excuses, which he says he gets from teenagers and parents alike, and then hands all of them tickets for underage possession of alcohol.

"I guess they were looking to throw a birthday party, but now they ain't got no beer," he says and then chuckles. "He didn't look too happy when I snatched that keg up."

At 41, the former Marine and father of two is one of Howard County's most driven police officers, and with more than 100 drunken-driving arrests last year, one of the most statistically significant.

Heron calls darkness his friend. He works the worst-possible hours: 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. every Thursday through Sunday. As if that was not enough, he serves on the department's honor guard, conducts alcohol enforcement at Merriweather Post Pavilion concerts and is on call 24-7 as a hostage negotiator for the SWAT team.

"He has one of the best attitudes in the department," said Sgt. James Capone, Heron's supervisor. "And although he generates statistics, it's the immeasurable things that count most. It's how many unknown lives he saved because he took a drunk off of the road."

Once drank heavily

A self-proclaimed "heavy drinker" during his eight years of military service, Heron can remember the last time that he consumed alcohol. It was Jan. 31 at his wife's birthday party. And he did not hop behind the wheel afterward.

"I drank in the Marine Corps because of the peer pressure and just wanting to follow along," he said. "It was a part of the military's culture."

Heron joined the Marines to travel the world, and after serving in Korea, Japan, Honduras and Canada he returned to Wheaton, where his family settled in 1970 after leaving Jamaica.

He worked as a private security guard and a pizza deliveryman, while taking classes at Montgomery College and applying to area police departments.

In 1995, Howard County offered him a job. The alcohol-enforcement position came open seven years later.

Heron says that he applied for the alcohol-enforcement position after learning that an accident that he had passed on Interstate 95 involved a drunken driver crossing the median and killing three of five family members in a minivan.

"He just doesn't like drinking and driving," said his wife, Helen, 38, a former police officer. "Before I go out with my friends, he always says, `Don't drink and drive. I'm going to lock up somebody's wife tonight.' "

Despite his jovial nature and dedication to his work, there are frustrations.

Helen Heron says that her friends see her husband so infrequently that they believe she is secretly divorced. The couple live outside of Howard County, in Burtonsville, because Mark says that he does not want someone he has arrested to approach him at the grocery store in front of his 5-year-old son.

The paperwork on a drunken-driving arrest is double that of a normal traffic stop. And Heron must load each report with enough detail to distinguish the arrest from hundreds of others when defense attorneys grill him on the witness stand months later.

And after all of that, there are those judges who let first-time offenders off with probation - "a slap on the wrist and they're back on the road," Heron says.

He is convinced that a majority of Howard County's serious crimes are related to alcohol, even though he relies on experience, not statistics, to support the claim.

As Heron drives to the police department's property room to deposit the keg, dispatch calls for assistance at Howard County General Hospital, where a violently uncooperative drug addict is set to arrive. In addition to being high on what is likely PCP, dispatch says the man is drunk.

SWAT team help

Paramedics sedate him on the way to the hospital, leaving Heron free to move on. Minutes later, with the keg still in the back seat, Heron is paged and asked to assist the SWAT team in negotiations with a 26-year- old Columbia man who is holed up in his house with a revolver and threatening suicide.

As Heron drives to the SWAT team's preparation area at a community pool parking lot, a dispatcher announces: "Subject's speech is slurred. He sounds mildly intoxicated."

"Remember what I told you?" Heron says with a look of satisfaction. "It almost always comes back to alcohol."

The events of the evening have proved his point.

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