Howard officer's assault charges prompt shock

October 19, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

People who have worked with suspended Howard County Police Capt. Tara D. Nelson over her 20 years in the department describe her as a crisp, professional but approachable leader. She would buy Christmas gifts for her staff, they say, and ask -- rather than order -- them to take assignments.

Yesterday, some of those colleagues expressed shock and sadness that a weekend domestic dispute with her husband, whom she suspected of cheating, could topple a groundbreaking career that took her to the top of the Criminal Investigations Bureau.

Nelson -- the county's first and only minority female captain -- is charged with six counts of assault, accused of trying to run over her husband, Larry W. Nelson, 45, and his friend with her car Sunday. She has been placed on leave and her police powers suspended while an investigation is under way.

"She has worked so hard to get where she is," said Audrey Carter, a relative in Baltimore. Of Larry Nelson's decision to press charges, she commented, "I can't believe her husband would do that to her."

Tara Nelson's attorney did not return a phone call yesterday. The Police Department declined to comment.

Likewise, those closest to Nelson -- neighbors, friends, superiors, co-workers, fellow volunteers -- have rallied around her and declined to speak to reporters.

But the few willing to talk about her paint a portrait in stark contrast with the image that emerged in the charging documents.

Police union President Jim Fitzgerald said Nelson was known for her welcoming nature. She invited her entire staff to her Christmas open house last year and was host to summer barbecues for neighbors, co-workers and relatives.

"She's very outgoing and poised when she comes into a room," said Fitzgerald, who worked for Nelson in the department's warrant-fugitive division. "She doesn't just stand there. She greets everybody."

Others who worked with her corroborated Fitzgerald's statement but did not want comments attributed to them.

Nelson, 43, supervised a staff of 70 who investigate robberies, assaults and the rare homicide in the county.

In 2004, she served on a statewide task force on parking for people with disabilities, and since September 2002 has volunteered as a board member of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, a Columbia homeless shelter and emergency services provider to people in crisis.

In a 2004 interview with The Sun, Nelson acknowledged that she was an example for other women and minorities in the department.

"They've never had a female commander over there," Nelson said, referring to the criminal investigations bureau. "I guess I'm setting some milestones here, and I'm looking forward to that."

Nelson has a daughter from a previous marriage and a son with her current husband. The incident that led to her being charged with assault unfolded about 3 p.m. Sunday, according to charging documents.

Her daughter, who is a minor, told police she was inside the family's large, rural Woodstock home when she heard a crash. Through the window, she watched her mother ram the back of her Lexus into her stepfather's motorcycle, spin around and then hit the motorcycle again with the front of her car, according to charging documents.

Larry Nelson told police that Tara Nelson also tried to run him and his friend over with her car, according to the charging documents.

According to Tara Nelson's statement to Baltimore County police, the marriage had been a tumultuous one since November 2004. She told police her daughter also had spotted her stepfather riding on the motorcycle with another woman.

She told officers that while cleaning the garage Sunday, she found a receipt from a restaurant for two meals and found another receipt for a hotel with room service for two.

When her husband arrived home, she confronted him about the receipts. He responded that he didn't have to tell her anything. Nelson told police that she ordered him to back away from the car before slamming the Lexus into the motorcycle.

Larry Nelson, a former Howard County corrections officer, told police Sunday that his wife had held her service weapon to his head to get him to sign papers selling their house about a month ago.

He never reported the incident. He and his friend refused to give written statements after Sunday's incident.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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