'Hard to believe it's been a year'

Police, family mark anniversary of officer's death

June 18, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

Of all Scott Wheeler's memorable attributes, his fun-loving nature made perhaps the most lasting impression, his wife says.

"He had a laugh that you will never forget," Tracy Wheeler said Monday as she drove home from the place where her husband, a Howard County police officer, was hit by a speeding car a year ago. With the support of some friends, she had placed a wreath at the site on Route 32 and said a prayer at 1:50 p.m, the time of the accident.

Today marks one year since Corporal Wheeler died, the result of injuries suffered when he was struck by a car he was attempting to flag down as part of a speed-patrol detail.

For Tracy Wheeler, the past year has been about trying to carry on. The couple had been married nine months when the accident occurred. She had just finished writing thank-you cards for the wedding when she had to begin writing thank-you cards for the funeral.

"It's kind of hard to believe it's been a year," Wheeler said. "Not a day goes by that we don't think about Scott and what happened that day."

The year has also been a difficult for the Police Department, as well as for some members of the community.

Larry Blickman of Clarksville didn't know Wheeler personally. But after the accident, he began petitioning the county to erect a memorial road sign. Now, two brown signs stand facing both sides of Route 32 at Interstate 95.

"I think the community was really shocked and touched by what happened," Blickman said. "It was important to have the recognition of the officer, being that it was a line-of-duty death."

Police Chief William J. McMahon said officers continue trying to cope with the death of their colleague.

"This is the first true line-of-duty death we've had in 40 years," McMahon said. In 1994, recruit officer Roger Cassell Jr. died during training activities.

"We have a young department, and it really kind of shook the department," McMahon said.

McMahon said he remembers when officers gathered for 35 hours at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where Wheeler was taken after he was struck.

Wheeler, 31, was a 61/2-year veteran of the Police Department and lifelong Millersville resident. A police officer first class, he was promoted posthumously to corporal.

"I think it was the first 40 hours that Scott was struggling there that left the biggest impression - just seeing our employees come into that hospital and praying and wishing for Scott's recovery and reaching out to Scott's family," McMahon said.

McMahon said the community's "spontaneous tributes" also have been overwhelming, such as signs, cards and fruit platters for the Wheeler family. He said he particularly remembers the image of a boy holding up a sign thanking Wheeler during the burial procession.

"I think the informal support that folks provide each other is important, and I think we need to not forget that just because we hit certain points ... doesn't mean that everybody's OK."

McMahon said that although it was "disappointing" that the driver of the car that hit Wheeler was not indicted, Wheeler's colleagues respect the opinion of the grand jury.

In March, a Howard County grand jury decided against indicting Stephanie Latoya Grissom on manslaughter charges. Police say the Columbia resident was traveling at 71 mph on the 55-mph roadway and swerved at the last moment before hitting Wheeler, who had stepped out into the road to flag her down for speeding.

Wheeler's older brother, Mike, said he feels sadness and anger about the circumstances of his brother's death.

"Basically, the last year has been surreal," he said. "I miss my brother every day. He was my best friend."

Despite the difficulties of the past year, the Wheeler family and Police Department have used the incident as an opportunity to bond and raise awareness of road safety.

"In many ways, some good can come out of a tragedy," McMahon said. "The way the department and officer rallied around the family has been a good thing to see and something that will last from a tragic occurrence."

In the wake of the accident, the Maryland State Police and the police departments of Howard and Anne Arundel counties stopped using the "step-out" method on high-speed roadways, out of concern for officer safety.

Above all, those who knew Wheeler want his memory to live on.

"He was a great guy," Tracy Wheeler said. "He was the love of my life. It's kind of hard to sum him up in a few words.

"You don't find many people like him."

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

TIMELINE

June 16, 2007: Officer Scott Wheeler struck by a car on Route 32 at Interstate 95 after stepping out into the road to flag down a speeding car.

June 18, 2007: Wheeler dies at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

June 22, 2007: Wheeler's funeral held at Grace Community Church in Fulton. He is promoted posthumously to corporal.

March 5, 2008: Grand jury decides to not indict driver of the car that hit Wheeler, Stephanie Grissom, a Columbia resident, on a charge of manslaughter.

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