Crime Scenes: Rookie trooper jumps over barrier to avoid crash

Officer had served two tours in Iraq, experienced IED explosion

March 16, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Thaddeus Allen served two tours in Iraq as an infantryman in the Army, barely escaping injury when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Jeep.

His third time out as a newly minted state trooper, the rookie barely escaped again, this time by jumping over a concrete divider just as a suspected drunken driver slammed into the back of his cruiser while stopped on Interstate 95.

For the 27-year-old trooper, Friday's narrow miss on the rain-slick highway bore out what instructors had drilled into him at the academy.

"We were taught that one of our biggest enemies are the other cars on the road," Allen said this week as he recounted his harrowing tale. "Most people don't move over or pay any attention, especially the drunks."

Allen was with his field training officer, Trooper Elix Gerber, who is just two years older but with four years on the force understands the perils and pitfalls of working the sides of busy highways. "I told him, 'Hey, it's stuff that happens. It's just part of the job,'" Gerber said.

Police identified the driver of the Ford Taurus that hit the cruiser as Scott A. Schwartz, 27, of Baltimore. He has been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, reckless and negligent driving, and failure to reduce speed to avoid a collision.

Police throughout Maryland are renewing their warnings about mixing booze with driving, particularly with Thursday's celebration of St. Patrick's Day, in which people have been known to incorporate alcohol into revelry. State police said they average 16 drunken-driving arrests each day in the five days leading up to the holiday, and more than 38 per day on the day itself and on each of the four days that follow.

Traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of police officer deaths in the country. Last year was the 13th consecutive year in which more officers were killed by vehicles, 73, than by gunfire, 61, according to the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial Fund. Of those killed in accidents, 16 were hit as they stood near their cruisers on traffic stops.

Four of the five police officers killed in the line of duty in Maryland last year, including two in Baltimore, died in car accidents.

The crash that Allen narrowly escaped occurred six days before St. Patrick's Day and seven days after his graduation from the police academy.

It was about 1 a.m. when Gerber pulled up behind a disabled motorist in the northbound lanes near Van Dusen Road in Prince George's County, near Laurel. The female driver had run out of gas just two exits from home, and she was sitting in the passenger seat on her cell phone trying to get help. She had stalled in a construction zone blocking a travel lane — the break-down lane was closed.

The lights were flashing on Gerber's unmarked cruiser, and he had set up one warning flare and was putting a second one down when he saw the headlights of a car coming right at him and Allen. He held up the flare to attract the driver's attention, but the warning was ignored.

"I dropped the flares and jumped over the concrete barrier," Gerber said. He yelled for Allen to jump, but the rookie had seen the inevitable collision and had jumped a moment earlier. "He was coming fast," Allen recalled.

They watched as the Taurus hit the left rear corner of the cruiser, shoving it into the back of the woman's car. A front tire flew free of the Ford and across the northbound lanes of the highway, hitting two other vehicles. The driver and the woman in the disabled car were not injured.

Allen said he had purposely parked several feet from the back of the broken-down vehicle to minimize any accident. Had he been bumper to bumper, the trooper said, the woman in the car "would've flown out of her seat and maybe through the windshield."

It was a scary start for Allen's carrier in law enforcement. He grew up in West Virginia and joined the Army, serving in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul in 2005 and 2006 and in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009. He moved to Howard County with his wife just a few weeks ago, in preparation for his new job in the College Park barracks.

He said his relatives "were kind of shocked" by his close call. "But they know that a lot of state troopers get hit by cars," Allen said, explaining that one of his academy instructors had been hit three times in his career.

Allen still has seven weeks of training before he can go out on his own. And he nearly got killed before he even had a chance to arrest somebody. They'll be plenty of drunken drivers for him to catch, but probably no roadside bombs.

"I hope not," Allen said.

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