Policeman remembers his defining moment

Thirty-one years ago, Charles Troyer stopped a hijacker whose aim was the White House

November 13, 2005|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

Charles "Butch" Troyer will always be known for one action.

He shot a man who was going to hijack an airplane, fly it into the White House and kill then-President Richard M. Nixon. It happened 31 years ago.

The hijacker, Samuel J. Byck, commandeered a Delta DC-9 on a chilly February morning. He never managed to get the plane off the runway at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, but he ended up shooting three people - killing two of them and seriously wounding the third.

Byck was holding eight passengers hostage when Troyer somehow aimed a gun through an airplane window and fired four shots. Byck fell to the floor and then shot himself in the head.

"It is the highlight of my career," said Troyer, 62, who retired from the Anne Arundel County Police department this summer. "It is the most important thing that happened."

The story has been told in two documentaries, and a feature-length film released this year, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, which starred Sean Penn as the hijacker. It is the stuff of legend in the county's eastern police district where Troyer worked for much of his 38-year career.

"We were in awe of him," said Lt. Scott Pittway, who organized a well-attended retirement lunch for Troyer.

Speakers lauded Troyer's career and actions that day, and loaded him with gifts - flags, plaques, declarations, a couple of travel vouchers courtesy of Delta Airlines and a piece of luggage from the Fraternal Order of Police.

But Troyer said he has never spent much time reflecting on his moment of glory. Nobody really asked about it, he said, until the Penn movie came out this year. And Troyer's role is only touched upon in the film.

Troyer is enjoying his retirement, though he hasn't abandoned police work. Troyer still spends two nights a week as a watchman at a nursery on Ritchie Highway.

During an interview at his Odenton townhouse, Troyer patiently retold the hijacking story, but he also spoke of other situations that earned far less publicity.

For example, early in his career, Troyer was the first officer to arrive at a bank robbery. The robber saw Troyer, grabbed a woman and threatened to shoot her, Troyer said.

"I told him that I'd shoot him if he shot her," Troyer said. "It was a bluff, but it worked." The man put down his weapon and Troyer said his own hands shook as he cuffed the robber.

He also spoke of the old days, when the department was smaller and more collegial. Before officers had take-home cars. He liked the way the department used to feel like family.

"He was the kind of the policeman before everything changed," said Cpl. Michelle Mangold, a friend and former colleague.

"You picture him on the corner with his hat tilted back. He was always able to get information because people trusted him."

Born in the Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown, Troyer and his family moved to Ferndale when he was 15. When he graduated from Andover High School in Linthicum in 1963, his father told him to get a job.

So Troyer joined the Navy and provided communications support for the hurricane hunters - a squadron that collected weather data - stationed in Jacksonville, Fla.

When he got home from the military, his father, again, encouraged him to find gainful employment.

"Dad said, `Want to be a police officer?'" Troyer recalled.

It turned out that the Ferndale office was hiring, and Troyer signed up and was initially assigned to the county's Northern District.

Pretty quickly, Troyer realized it would be difficult to live on a police officer's pay. When he joined the force in October 1967, his starting salary was $5,780 a year. Troyer took a second job providing security at BWI Airport. It paid $5 an hour.

Troyer, who was 30 years old with a wife and infant daughter, was working that second job - standing in line to get a cup of coffee about 6:45 a.m. Feb. 22, 1974 - when he heard the gunshot. Byck had killed Maryland Aviation Administration police Officer George Neal Ramsburg, 25, who was guarding the gate to the airplane Byck wanted to hijack.

It sounded "like someone snapping a belt or marble falling on the floor," Troyer said. He ran toward the noise and saw his friend slumped on the floor "bleeding from his mouth, ears and nose," he said.

Troyer snatched the dead officer's powerful .357 revolver and sprinted down the jetway pursuing the hijacker. He fired a few shots into the plane just as the doors were closing, but the bullets ricocheted off the edge of the door.

Officers on the ground fired at the plane's tires, but the policemen's weapons were not powerful enough to penetrate the thick rubber and steel wheels. Even so, with the airplane doors closed, Troyer was told to come down to the tarmac to help.

Inside the airplane, Byck ordered the pilot and the co-pilot to get the plane into the air. They stalled. And, for some reason, Byck shot both men - killing the co-pilot, Fred Jones of Gainsville, Texas, and seriously wounding the pilot, Reese Lofton of Fort Worth, Texas.

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