Maryland State Trooper First Class Shaft S. Hunter made one of Howard County's biggest drug busts in 2004, pulling a half-million dollars in heroin from a Mitsubishi he had stopped for speeding along Interstate 95.
Early Saturday, the 39-year-old trooper and father of six was killed on that same highway, about five miles from that traffic stop, when his cruiser slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer parked along southbound lanes near Route 32. Police said he might have been pursuing a speeding motorcyclist.
He "died doing what he loved," his mother told police supervisors shortly after learning her son had been killed hours earlier while working an overnight shift. Colleagues described Hunter as a likeable, dedicated "go-getter" who served his country right out of college, first as a Marine and later as an 11-year veteran of the state police.
"Tfc Hunter was an outstanding trooper" Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, said outside the Waterloo Barracks in Jessup, with Gov. Martin O'Malley standing at his side. "He will be greatly missed by his family and the family of the Maryland State Police and the law-enforcement family."
O'Malley called the death a tragic loss of life. "All of our hearts and prayers go out to Trooper Hunter and his family."
He is the 43rd state trooper killed in the line of duty since 1921, when the state police force was created. His death comes at the end of National Police Week, which honors the more than 19,000 officers killed nationwide while protecting the public.
Hunter, who was assigned to the Waterloo Barracks, was working road patrol duty on an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift Saturday morning. A witness told investigators that a motorcycle passed his vehicle at a "high rate of speed," followed by Hunter's patrol car.
The cruiser struck the trailer — which was parked near a rest stop entrance — and slid along the side before coming to a stop near the front of the truck. Hunter was pronounced dead at the scene.
The driver of the tractor-trailer, Albert Sandino, 46 of Covina, Calif., was not injured. He told police that he was headed from Aberdeen to Virginia with a load of household bleach when he pulled over to check directions.
Hunter had not radioed in to colleagues to say he was giving chase, though that's not unusual in the early moments of an attempted traffic stop, Sheridan said. He added later, in response to questions, that it was "too soon" to conclude whether driver error played a role in the crash.
"We pay [troopers] to make good calls and rely upon their good judgment," Sheridan said. "In this particular case, we're not sure what happened."
Police plan to track down the motorcyclist, who wore a white helmet, using data collected by license plate readers stationed along the roadway.
Hunter was born in Bridgeport, Conn., and lists Stratford as his hometown on his Facebook page.
He earned a bachelor of science in criminal justice from St. Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C., in 1994, and joined the Marine Corps immediately afterward. He earned the rank of first lieutenant and was honorably discharged in 2000, officials said.
He entered the Maryland State Police Academy on Jan. 3, 2000, and was elected president of the 114th Trooper Candidate Class, giving the graduation address that year in June.
Lt. Dan Truitt, commander of the Waterloo Barracks, described Hunter Saturday as a "go-getter… that was very dedicated to his job."
Seven years ago, Hunter made the a traffic stop on I-95 that led to the discovery of heroin, worth $500,000 — described then as one of the largest drug busts in Howard County's history, according to prosecutors.
After Hunter pulled over the speeding Mitsubishi, he sought and received the driver's permission to search the vehicle. Hunter noticed loose screws around the bottom of the dashboard, according to a Baltimore Sun story. He removed panels and discovered two packages later found to contain three-quarters of a kilogram of heroin.
The Colombian driver, Alberto Puente, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Hunter, who was divorced, leaves behind six children ages 4 to 19. Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Saturday morning, and a message left at his parents' home was not immediately returned.
Hunter is the 43rd Maryland trooper to die in the line of duty since 1921, and the sixth since 2000. Here are summaries of the most recent fatalities:
June 11, 2010: Trooper Wesley Brown, 24, was working a second job providing security at a restaurant in Prince George's County when a customer he had earlier escorted off the premises returned and shot him.
Sept. 28, 2008: A state police MedEvac helicopter crashed as it attempted to approach Andrews Air Force Base with two victims of a car accident aboard. The crash killed pilot Stephen H. Bunker, a retired state police corporal, and Trooper Mickey C. Lippy, a paramedic, as well as emergency medical technician Tonya Mallard and patient Ashley J. Younger. The other patient, Jordan Wells, was severely injured.
May 9, 2004: Trooper Anthony Jones, 50, was assisting at an accident scene on U.S. 50 near Bowie when he was struck and killed by a van whose driver was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.
Oct. 30, 2000: Trooper Edward M. Toatley, 37, was fatally shot in Northeast Washington while trying to negotiate an undercover drug buy.
SOURCE: Maryland State Police