Community honors one officer's sacrifice

Hundreds gather to celebrate Scott Wheeler's life and work

June 23, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

When Scott Wheeler applied for a job at the Howard County Police Department, his mother told the agency's background investigator: "My son would give everything he has to his job."

"How prophetic your words were," Police Chief William J. McMahon told Janet Wheeler yesterday at her son's funeral at Grace Community Church in Fulton.

More than 1,000 people - about half of them members of the law enforcement community - attended yesterday's service for the first Howard County officer to die in the line of duty since 1961.

During the service, McMahon promoted Police Officer 1st Class Wheeler posthumously to corporal and announced the creation of an annual traffic safety award in his honor.

Wheeler, 31, died Monday at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center from injuries he suffered when a car he was trying to flag down for speeding struck him on eastbound Route 32. Wheeler was working overtime as part of a three-person, grant-funded "stop team," in which officers step out into a traffic lane and direct violators to the shoulder.

The department is reviewing whether it will continue the practice.

Wheeler, who lived in Millersville his entire life, was also an organ donor.

"My friend was dying, and at 2 p.m. yesterday he received my brother's kidney," said Michael Wheeler, the fallen officer's older brother. "Even in death, there is life."

The audience applauded the announcement. That moment and a few bursts of laughter during seven eulogies eased the sorrow during the 1 1/2 -hour ceremony.

As a montage of photographs of Wheeler and his family flashed on a screen to a charming and folksy version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," many people cried. There were pictures of him proposing to his wife, Tracy, with a white, heart-shaped cake. "Will You Marry Me?" was spelled out in red icing.

There were photos from their wedding in September, showing him and his wife wearing leis on a sunny beach. And then there were the "Raider Nation" photos, including one of his Oakland Raiders logo cuff links, which he wore during the wedding.

Wheeler and his wife traveled once every year to California to watch the football team play. There were photos of him with his face covered in Raiders black and silver paint - in the wildest of patterns, including one that matched the fur of a Bengal tiger. He donned Viking hats and spiked shoulder pads.

"About six years ago, I received a call that there was another Raider fan in the Howard County Police Department," said Detective 1st Class Clayton Davis. "I agreed to meet that Raider fan."

Davis said that at their first meeting, he gave Wheeler one of his old Raider sweat shirts, and "it was like feeding a stray cat."

"He would call three to four times a day," Davis said.

Wheeler would often call and chant "Raiders, Raiders" into the phone.

As he began to cry, Davis said, "My 8-year-old daughter told me yesterday that everything would be OK and that she would become my new Raider buddy."

In 2001, Wheeler completed 25 of the 26 weeks of the Baltimore City police academy and then transferred to the Howard County Police Department, where trainers required him to start at the county academy from the beginning.

Baltimore Police Officer Scott Henry, who trained in Baltimore's academy with Wheeler, said that his friend must have had "50 people he called just about every night."

"He got everything out of life he wanted," Henry said. "Tracy, you were definitely No. 1."

Michael Wheeler said that he, too, received frequent phone calls, often in the middle of the night, from his brother.

"We would talk every day," Michael Wheeler said. "He'd call at 3 a.m. and ask, `You wearing socks? What are you doing?' I'm going to miss those phone calls. ... I'm afraid I'm never going to be able to laugh like that again."

After the service at the Fulton church, a long funeral procession traveled on I-70, the Baltimore Beltway and I-83 to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, where Wheeler was interred.

McMahon told mourners at the church service that Wheeler, who had been honored as "officer of the month" three times in his 6 1/2 years on the force, had a passion for keeping the county's roads safe, was a "good cop" and hero.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said that he and Gov. Martin O'Malley often watch members of the National Guard depart for overseas duties. He said watching the anguished wives wave goodbye to their husbands was almost unbearable.

"Families of police officers face those same emotions every morning," Brown reminded the audience.

McMahon also thanked Tracy Wheeler for her openness during her husband's final hours.

"You allowed 50, 60, 70 or 80 cops to enter your personal space and say their goodbyes," he said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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