Old-school Officer Leaving Quietly

CRIME SCENES

October 25, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

Roger Nolan said he would tell me about his life and that he would "start from the beginning." He began with 1968, when he was 29 years old and had just graduated from Baltimore's police academy.

He didn't, until prodded later, volunteer information about being a Marine (he served in Vietnam), or about his wife (his closest colleagues have never met her), or about his son (who followed him onto the city force), or about policing the streets he grew up on, or even about his dedication to the Boy Scouts.

Police business stayed with police, and family business stayed with family, and Nolan worked hard to keep the two separate. He dispensed information strictly on a need-to-know basis, and people who weren't in the close-knit law enforcement community needed to know very little.

"He just didn't want to take a chance at getting too close to the outside world," said Donald Worden, a retired detective who worked with Nolan for years.

Sgt. Roger Nolan retires Monday with a simple ceremony - he sternly corrected me when I called it "a party" - in the commissioner's boardroom, 9:30 a.m. sharp, followed by lunch in the atrium, 11 a.m. sharp. He's leaving a department he reveres one day shy of his 70th birthday, a departure timed with military-like precision to adhere to a long-obsolete rule that requires sergeants to retire by age 70.

In 42 years on the force, he never used a single sick day.

I asked what he would be doing the next day.

"Same thing I do every morning," Nolan deadpanned. "Hope I wake up the next morning."

For nearly a quarter-century, Roger Nolan was, in the dusty department vernacular of Baltimore, "a murder police." He worked homicide, a title that demanded reverence and respect. Their motto: "We work for God." He investigated shootings, supervised detectives and is a founding member of the cold-case squad, which he led, starting in 1995.

"I spent the last 14 years doing what I could for the mothers of victims who called," he said.

To outsiders, Nolan could seem surly, sour and gruff. But to colleagues, friends, family, and, most importantly, to those grieving over their murdered children, he is compassionate, helpful and kind.

"We get calls, especially around the holidays, from people involved in cases that are closed, but mostly ones that are still open, and Roger will sit on the phone for a long time talking to the children and parents of the deceased," said Maj. Terrence McLarney, head of the homicide unit. "That's when you see the real Roger. You have to sit and listen to him talk with a grieving family member. ... Don't be fooled by his gruff exterior."

Nolan said he told victims' relatives the unvarnished truth, even if it appeared that there would never be an arrest, that they'd never get the closure they sought. He refused to lead them on, to put them off, to raise false hope.

He kept yellowed newspaper clippings tacked to his wall, reminding him that murders fading from memory were once headline news. But this old-school cop, who up to his last case still carried a magnifying glass to crime scenes, also embraced new technology such as DNA that revolutionized cold-case work and helped find criminals who likely would have escaped justice.

Born in Baltimore, Nolan grew up in a Pennsylvania Avenue rowhouse, later moving with his family to a third-floor rear apartment on Arlington Avenue on the city's west side. The son of a longshoreman, he's a product of city schools who joined the Marines in 1960 and was sent to Okinawa and Vietnam. He retired as a corporal in 1964.

He returned to Baltimore to find that drugs and crime had overtaken his childhood neighborhood. "It was another world," he said.

Nolan got a job at Sparrows Point, got married and eventually had three children. He entered the police academy in 1967.

His rookie year would define his work ethic. Weeks after graduation, Nolan came down with hives and called in sick. Within an hour, two lieutenants and a sergeant were at his door, warning him that he could be fired for taking the day off and advising that he use vacation time instead.

"I said, 'I swear to God, I'll never call in sick again.' " Nolan explained that he used vacation days when he was too ill to work. "I think I got carried away with it."

Nolan was a patrolman in 1970 when three members of the Black Panther Party killed an officer and wounded a second as they sat in their patrol car. He chased one of the gunmen and dodged bullets along Myrtle Avenue.

Three months ago, one of the shooters petitioned a judge for an early release so he could die outside prison. Nolan wasn't outraged by the request - "I can live with it," he told me - but it was clear that the development was difficult to process.

"It's a sad thing today," he said. "We have so many people geared toward tearing down the foundation of what's been established. There are people who think people shouldn't be in jail for any reason, and people who believe nobody is guilty of anything they did."

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