Delay, deep suspicion in hit-run case

January 05, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,

Anthony Swiderski said he was sitting in his Canton rowhouse Aug. 10, 2007, watching television, when he heard a bang outside, followed by screeching tires. His car had been hit, a hole punctured in the side, and a good Samaritan had taken down the tag number of the vehicle that sped away.

The first responding police officer ran the number and looked up at Swiderski with a half-smile. "I work with her. She's a cop," Swiderski, 56, recalls the officer saying.

What happened during the next 17 months might be frustrating for anyone who's been on the receiving end of a hit-and-run. But for Swiderski, a retired Baltimore police officer and District Court commissioner who knows a thing or two about police work, the situation has not sat right.

No one was charged until months later, when Swiderski pressed charges against the owner of the car, Officer Margaret Duffy. These charges are scheduled to be heard today as misdemeanors in traffic court.

Duffy's attorney says police have done everything right in investigating the matter, but Swiderski doesn't see it that way. He says answers from police have been minimal and that prosecutors have refused to share information with him.

"If this group went to this extent to cover up a very minor, $1,300 property damage hit-and-run, committed by a low-level officer, what do you think they are doing in other things?" Swiderski said. "I never saw something so blatant in all my 21 years as a police officer."

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that an internal investigation remains open and that Duffy has been reassigned to juvenile booking pending the outcome. The state's attorney's office, meanwhile, is reviewing how the case was handled - both by police and prosecutors, according to a spokeswoman for that office.

Duffy's attorney, Frank D. Boston, said he thinks his client is the one who's receiving ill treatment. Police have gone to extraordinary lengths to investigate the incident, subpoenaing cell phone and insurance records and asking witnesses to look at photo lineups, he said.

"Never in all my years in law have I seen this happen in a [minor] accident case," said Boston, who maintains that his client is not guilty. "Clearly, they've gone above and beyond what a normal case calls for, maybe to my client's detriment. To suggest there is a cover-up is completely wrong and not true."

Swiderski's application for charges, filed Oct. 28, 2007, in District Court, is detailed. After 21 years with the Police Department, he retired as an agent assigned to the lab division's gun unit.

According to his account, it took about an hour for the first patrol officer to arrive at the accident scene, in the 2800 block of Foster St., and that officer quickly left in an attempt to locate the driver whose name was linked to the license plate number. The number, he said, belonged to Duffy. She is a 13-year veteran who was the 2005 Officer of the Year for the Police Department's Southeastern District. She has also won several other awards.

About 30 minutes later, two officers allegedly told him that Duffy had been racing to her home because of a family emergency and called police to report the accident.

Swiderski asked to speak to a supervisor. He says she told him that the family emergency explanation was not true. He observed witnesses give police written statements and watched police take photos of the damage, including pieces of the car left at the scene.

Inquiries over the next few weeks went nowhere. He said he got different answers from different police officers and couldn't get any follow-up reports.

Police and prosecutors would neither confirm nor deny Swiderski's account, citing the ongoing case.

After waiting more than two months for police to file charges, Swiderski went to District Court and presented his side of the story in a seven-page, typed report.

"I would suggest that it appears that, besides the obvious charges/offenses such as hit & run and leaving the scene of an accident, wrong way on a one way street, etc., that parties or individuals known or unknown may have made false statements and/or hindered the investigation of this case," he wrote.

Duffy would be charged with misdemeanor traffic violations based on his account, but that did not trigger a fresh look from prosecutors, according to Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. The head of the prosecutor's unit that investigates police misconduct, A. Thomas Krehely, has since resigned and has not responded to requests for comment by The Baltimore Sun.

"We are reviewing the way this investigation was pursued, by both the Police Department and the state's attorney's office following the incident," Burns said. "The individual that was responsible for handling this matter is no longer with the office."

According to electronic court records, Duffy's trial has been postponed seven times. Swiderski said he has been told that it will go forward this week, though he hopes for further investigation into the Police Department's handling of the case.

"So many supervisors and commanders obviously have known about it," he said. "It's weird, you know?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Melissa Harris contributed to this article.

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