Trooper Down! by Marie Bartlett by Marie Bartlett - Read Online
Trooper Down!
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It’s a trooper’s worst nightmare. What begins as a routine patrol suddenly turns violent when someone pulls a weapon. Moments later, the trooper is down—wounded or dead. Then, like a swarm of angry bees, every other trooper on the force mobilizes to catch the suspect. Whether they’re issuing a ticket for speeding “just a little” over the limit or conducting an all-out manhunt, the people who have chosen this perilous and demanding profession are rarely revealed as vividly or candidly as they are here. In Trooper Down! Marie Bartlett uses her gripping hell-for-leather style to paint a fascinating portrait of one of the nation’s most elite law-enforcement agencies. In interviews and anecdotes, troopers relate stories of narrow misses, breathtaking confrontations, strange and hilarious encounters with various “crazies,” and, most heartbreakingly, working the wrecks—aiding the injured and dying in highway accidents—while troopers’ wives and widows tell of the heart-wrenching realities trooper families face. Through this remarkable book, we not only comprehend the life of a trooper, we are unforgettably there.

Published: Workman eBooks on
ISBN: 9781616202385
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Trooper Down! - Marie Bartlett

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You know the feeling. You’re driving sixty-eight miles per hour in a fifty-five-mile-per-hour zone and suddenly you look up, see a blue light flashing, and realize that at any moment you’ll be pulled over and asked to submit your driver’s license. At best, you’ll be reprimanded for exceeding the speed limit. At worst, your driving history will be thoroughly scrutinized, and you’ll be ticketed, fined, and told when to appear in court.

You are apprehensive, and perhaps annoyed, as the trooper approaches your car. The ultimate figure of authority on the highway, he has momentarily detained you from reaching your destination and has the power to curtail your freedom even further.

Calmly, professionally, he requests the information he needs, hands you back your driver’s license, and—if you’re lucky—tells you to slow it down because next time he’ll give you a ticket.

His last name is imprinted on a silver pin over his right shirt pocket. But unless you’re arrested, treated improperly, or have special reason to find out who he is, you probably won’t notice his nameplate. Moments after he’s gone, you may not even remember what he looks like. For he’s just another cop.

In North Carolina, which has more patrolled roads than any other state in the union, slightly more than one thousand troopers monitor up to four million drivers each year, on a state highway system that supplies major transportation arteries between north and south, east and west.

That’s one of the reasons I chose North Carolina to represent state troopers around the country. They are also considered one of the most thoroughly trained, well-equipped, and respected state law enforcement agencies in the nation. In years past, when highway patrols were officially ranked in terms of which had the highest arrest records and the most favorable public image, North Carolina was consistently listed among the top three, along with Texas and California.

Steve Wollack, a California psychologist who designs attitude tests for a number of state patrols, says North Carolina troopers reflect what is best about the elitist structure of a specialized police agency.

I’ve seen cases of such conflict in law enforcement that police were actually shooting at each other, he said. "But there’s an esprit de corps that exists within the North Carolina highway patrol which is very impressive, and has helped make it a top-notch organization."

While the primary role of the North Carolina state trooper is to police the roads and enforce motor vehicle laws, he performs duties that range from assisting stranded motorists to securing major disaster areas. His job can be as mundane as fixing a flat tire or as perilous as chasing an escaped felon.

In that respect, he shares many of the experiences found among police officers in all types of law enforcement. FBI agents, state investigators, city police officers, and county deputies—whose work often overlaps—can identify with the incidents and attitudes related in this book.

Since the North Carolina Highway Patrol was established by the state’s General Assembly in 1929, forty-four patrol officers have lost their lives while on duty. Twenty-three were killed in traffic accidents, seventeen by gunfire, and four in plane crashes. In 1985, a particularly violent year for North Carolina troopers, three officers were shot and killed after stopping vehicles on routine traffic checks. The year prior to that, another patrolman was seriously wounded trying to apprehend two escaped convicts. Every year, in fact, a surprising number of highway patrol officers are injured by persons they attempt to arrest.

According to FBI studies, more law enforcement officers, including troopers, are killed and assaulted annually in the South than in all other regions of the country combined. From 1976 to 1985, for instance, 441 officers were killed in Southern states compared to 154 in the western half of the United States, 160 in the Midwest, and 122 in the Northeast.

While no definite conclusions were drawn as to why this occurs, FBI officials theorize that Southern law enforcement officers may be more susceptible to violent assaults because of several contributing factors: Many police officers in the South tend to work in isolated regions, with a scarcity of backup support. There is easy accessibility to handguns and a general intolerance for gun control in the South, and policemen—particularly troopers—convey a nice-guy, Southern-gentleman image instilled during training that can work against them on the road, especially when they’re faced with dangerous individuals. In fact, some troopers believe that until recently, the North Carolina Highway Patrol was more concerned about maintaining a good public image than it was about promoting safety and self-defense on the job.

Starting salary for a rookie highway patrolman in North Carolina was $17,000 a year in 1987. After seven years, state troopers earn up to $30,000, with top pay for a master trooper at about $32,000. That’s a far cry from the early days, when patrolmen typically worked fifteen to twenty hours a day, six days a week, for wages that seldom exceeded $150 per month. Today, officers work forty hours a week, with split shifts, weekend, and holiday duty the norm. When emergencies arise, they are called from across the state, whether they are on duty or off, and are required to respond twenty-four hours a day.

They are told how to conduct themselves and what’s expected from their personal behavior, even when they are not in uniform. A few troopers argue the highway patrol virtually controls their lives.

Yet they are among the most dedicated, committed employees found in any profession. Men and women who join the highway patrol don’t see it as a job. It’s more a calling, a way of life.

Few people really know what a highway patrol officer encounters on the road, how he feels about his job, why his work consumes him, and the ways in which it ultimately affects his life. This book attempts to explore all of those issues.

Trooper down is a term used when an officer is out of commission due to an assault or injury received on the job. This book is the story of North Carolina’s Highway Patrol, but the attitudes, problems, and day-to-day experiences told by the men and women in these pages represent those of patrol officers throughout the nation.

As much as possible, I have used the troopers’ own words to relate their stories because I felt it would give the reader an inside look at how troopers see themselves and others. In a few cases, certain characteristics or facts have been altered to protect the identity of the people involved.

I was surprised and fascinated by what these officers had to say, and grateful for their willingness to say it. Without exception, every trooper I interviewed was not only candid, but courteous and cooperative. Many of them took time from their off-duty hours to sit and talk with me at length. Others went out of their way to see that I obtained all the information I needed.

Some of the material I wanted to include had to be omitted for editing purposes. For example, an entire chapter on the highway patrol’s communications system, which serves as a lifeline to troopers on patrol, was deleted to save space. I hope telecommunicators across the state, who generously gave of their time and their stories, will accept my apology. Without them, the highway patrol would come to a virtual halt.

At the heart of the book are the accounts of three North Carolina troopers who were killed in 1985. I found these passages difficult to write. In each case, the violence was senseless, and the victims—all of whom were fine people—had their lives prematurely ended. I’m deeply indebted to the families of the troopers involved—Frank and Bonnie Harmon, James and Frances Coggins, and Mrs. Jackie Worley—for their faith in this project and for their courage in recounting the painful details surrounding the incidents.

I also wish to thank Colonel Jack F. Cardwell and the North Carolina Highway Patrol for giving me almost unlimited access to the information I needed to complete the book. Without such cooperation, Trooper Down! would not have been possible,

While nearly everyone I met provided some type of assistance, certain people were particularly kind. My special thanks to the following: Captain William T. Harris, Troop G Commander, who patiently honored all my requests, including rides on patrol just one more time so I could experience first-hand the role of a trooper; Major Robert A. Barefoot, Sergeant Braxton B. Oliver, and the instructors at the Highway Patrol Training Center in Garner, North Carolina, who allowed me to roam their campus freely and answered dozens of questions about cadet life; and Communications Center directors Glenn Griffin, Thurmond Perry, R. C. Savage, and Frank Huggins, who explained how the patrol’s statewide radio network operates.

Several people were responsible for helping me see this project through. My heartfelt thanks to: Rick Boyer, fellow author, who led me to Catherine Mahar, a wonderful agent in Boston; Asheville Citizen-Times western bureau chief Bob Scott, who gave so much and asked so little in return; Dr. Louis Rubin, publisher, and Susan Ketchin, editor, at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, whose excellent ideas enhanced the manuscript greatly; finally, Trooper Joey Reece, who kept me out of trouble by making sure I got the details right.

Through my research—which began as a newspaper feature and grew into a book—I came to see the men and women behind the gray-and-black uniform as individuals. I gained a new understanding and sense of respect for what they do, day in and day out. I met with them on their jobs, in their homes, in restaurants, jails, courthouses, headquarters, patrol cars, and on the side of the road. I took coffee breaks with them, had dinner with their families, spent hours on patrol with them, watched them laugh at their mistakes, cry about their losses. As a result, I came to view them as people, rather than simply figures of authority. Some of these officers I now consider good friends.

I was impressed with their honesty, intelligence, and sensitivity. While a few of the troopers I met were less than sterling characters, the majority were decent, hardworking people attracted not just to the elite image of the highway patrol, but by a sincere willingness to help others.

None of which means that next time I’m caught speeding, I won’t be stopped, questioned, or fined. For that’s one of the first things I learned about the North Carolina Highway Patrol. It’s an organization composed of professionals, people who by and large believe in what they do and take their work seriously, yet who are often misunderstood.

There are things the public will never comprehend about the highway patrol, said one officer. "They see this guy riding around in a shiny car, or drinking coffee at a restaurant, flirting with women, or writing a few tickets.

"But that just happens on the best damn days. They don’t see the times when we’re holding a kid whose mother just got killed, or telling somebody’s parents their son won’t be home, or seeing a teenager so strung out on drugs he’ll never be worth anything to society.

"They don’t see us at two in the morning on one of these back roads with a car full of drunks—none of them wanting to go to jail. Or see us facing the possibility of getting shot.

"The hours are hard and demanding. We’re working nights, holidays, weekends, while our family spends time without us.

There’s just a lot more to it than anyone realizes.

This book is for troopers everywhere, on every highway in every state, and for the public they willingly serve.


February 1988

Candler, North Carolina


We’re state employees with a job to do, but we’re a fraternity too. You don’t say, ‘I work for the highway patrol.’ You say, ‘I’m a member of the highway patrol.’ It’s like joining a club, with a very elite membership.Anonymous trooper

It is 11:05 on a Friday night and North Carolina highway patrolman Joel K. Reece is parked in a silver, unmarked LTD, calibrating a VASCAR unit. The device earmarks speeding drivers by measuring and computing the distance between two points of reference. Troopers like it because it allows them to spot potential violators without being detected.

There’s nothing to do now but wait in the dark. Reece leans back against the seat and taps his hand against the steering wheel, forefinger and thumb pressed together—a sure sign he’s getting restless.

At five feet eight and 160 pounds, the thirty-two-year-old officer is small but powerfully built, with dark good looks and an impish grin. The son of a former policeman, he is proud of the patrol’s sharp image and works hard to keep himself in shape.

Once called a golden boy—a term used for troopers who present a neat appearance, perform their duties well, and don’t create problems for the patrol—he is devoted to his job and the organization.

I guess I’m a company man, he has said during his nine years on the patrol. I love what I do.

The radio crackles and Reece picks it up. It is another trooper, patrolling another stretch of highway.

Ten-twenty? Reece asks the caller (what’s your location?).

Downtown Swannanoa.

What’d you do? Give up around here?

Negative, the patrolman replies. I’ll be back in just a minute. We’re looking for a 10-55 (drunk driver).

A second officer’s voice comes over the line.

This is the pits! he exclaims. "There’s nothing going on tonight. When we do find a drunk driver, we’ll probably wreck, what with all of us trying to get to him at the same time."

It’s early, says Reece. It’ll pick up.

The men sign off and Reece decides to cruise Interstate 40. In the traffic ahead is a green, dilapidated Buick periodically crossing the midline.

Reece clocks him at a suspiciously slow 28 mph before he flicks on the blue light.

Moments later, the Buick comes to a weaving halt.

In the dark there is no way to tell if the driver is alone, male, female, harmless, or armed to the teeth. Flashlight in hand, Reece approaches the car with a caution born of experience. Ever since his close friend, Giles Harmon, was shot and killed during a routine traffic check, he applies all of his law enforcement training to every stop.

Reaching the left rear of the car, he swipes his hand lightly across its side, making sure his fingerprints are left behind. Such prints could serve as evidence against a driver who fires at an officer, then takes off, claiming he was never