A small town mourns its young officer

December 21, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

SMITHSBURG -- By yesterday morning, the flags were already flying half-staff at the school and the volunteer firehouse. Black bunting went up at Town Hall, and, because it seemed too cruel a contrast, the Christmas lights came down.

Officer Christopher Shane Nicholson, one of three policemen here, was shot and killed Wednesday night, and it didn't take long for the news -- or the shock and the grief -- to tear through this community of about 3,000 east of Hagerstown.

"When you're in a small, close-knit community and helicopters are flying overhead, it doesn't take long to find out," said Lori Hartley, who saw emergency responders flooding a rural area northeast of town where the young and well-liked officer was shot. Police suspect a local man, who they say already had killed his girlfriend.

Hartley owns the Dixie Eatery on Main Street, where, as elsewhere in town, people talked of little else yesterday.

In the kind of place where police tend to be called because kids are skateboarding on the sidewalk, the death of the 25-year-old Nicholson strikes people here as almost incomprehensible. Even as the news sank in, at the restaurant, at the market and at other gathering spots in town, residents could still pick up the latest copy of the city newsletter, The Trumpet, which reported these goings-on in the police department: It handled 154 calls for service during the month of November; there were two juvenile arrests and no adult arrests, and Officer Nicholson took a two-week vacation.

"He went hunting with his father. He told me he got a deer," Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers said as she sat in her office at Town Hall, where everyone seemed to be walking about in a daze. At one point, Bonnie Renard, owner of the Smithsburg Market, arrived with the only thing most people can think to do at a time of such sadness and helplessness: She brought a basket of food. Some of the women in the office burst into tears as they hugged Renard, who, a sign back at the market informed customers, was celebrating her birthday yesterday.

Nicholson, who lived in Sharpsburg, had stopped at the market Wednesday night to pick up a carryout dinner, something he did several times a week. Six chicken wings and a bowl of chili -- his favorites, the staff there said.

"I feel like my child has been killed," Myers said. "I can't imagine what his true family is going through, it's been like losing a member of my family."

It's a cliche, but in a small town it's true, Myers said. "Everybody here is like a family, a big family," she said of the town offices. "Well, not a big family," she said of a staff where one person serves as the town clerk, treasurer and manager.

Everyone in town seems to know not just Nicholson, but also the man suspected of killing him. "That's what makes this so tragic," Myers said. "We know everyone involved."

Police say a 31-year-old woman, Alison Munson, was fatally stabbed Wednesday night in Halfway, a community south of Hagerstown. Police identified her boyfriend, Douglas Pryor, 29, of Smithsburg, as the suspect; he was under a court order to stay away from her after accusations of domestic violence and other problems stemming from child-support disputes.

Thinking the suspect might return home, the Washington County Sheriff's Office called Smithsburg police for assistance, and Nicholson responded. He drove toward where Pryor lived and parked on Welty Church Road to await backup, police said, but when that officer arrived, he found Nicholson in a field off the road, shot. He was flown to Washington County Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Police tracked Pryor down about two miles north, gunfire broke out and the suspect was shot and captured. He, too, was taken to the county hospital, where he remained in serious condition last night. Around town, people tended to purse their lips when asked about Pryor, only saying that he worked with his father who has a plumbing business.

About Nicholson, though, there is nothing but praise for the 1 1/2 -year member of the small force.

"People always say good things about someone when they die, but this is not just something we're saying now," Myers said. "He got along with everybody, even with the people he ticketed. He had such a great personality."

Myers saw the officer every day -- Town Hall and the Police Department have different entrances but share a building.

"I had a conversation with him every day. He always stopped in and said hello. He always walked in here smiling and with pride," she said, puffing up her own chest in memory.

On this day, she feels more like a mom than a mayor toward her fellow residents and her officers alike.

"They're so young, they have their whole life ahead of them, they're here to serve the community ... " she said, her voice trailing off helplessly. "We've provided our officers with the best equipment, and it hit him where the vest wasn't."

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