Trooper honors late uncle by joining force

On his 21st birthday, Tanner Nickerson received a birthday card and a gun.

He had graduated from the Maryland State Police academy in September, more than two weeks before he could legally make an arrest.

The newly minted trooper bided his time at the Centreville Barracks wearing street clothes until Oct. 11, the day he became old enough to put on the olive-colored uniform and Stetson hat, and arm himself with a .40- caliber Beretta.

Tanner Nickerson has a unique reason to be eager. He follows both his uncle — who was killed wearing the uniform of a small-town police force, his life cut short before he could become a state trooper — and his father, who joined the state police to fulfill his slain brother's dream.

Together, the father-son duo solidifies the Nickerson name as one synonymous with law enforcement on the tightknit Eastern Shore. It's also an added burden for the quiet young man, who has to live up to the memory of his uncle and to the standards of his father.

"There's a lot riding on his shoulders," said Susan Nickerson, the wife of one trooper and now the mother of another.

The state police have five other father-son teams on the force, in addition to 35 retired troopers whose sons currently serve. But the Nickerson clan is linked to a tragedy that can summon both sorrow over the February 2001 death of a relative kin and pride in the family's perseverance.

Michael Scott Nickerson was three weeks into his job as an officer for the Centreville police when he and a sheriff's deputy were killed by Frank Zito, who fired a shotgun at officers who were asking him to turn down his stereo. Jurors rejected Zito's insanity defense and convicted him of two counts of murder. He was sentenced to death; he died in prison of lung cancer in November 2002.

The slain Centreville officer had always wanted to join the Maryland State Police, and his application was pending when he was killed. Three years later, his brother, Phillip L. Nickerson, left his job as a sheriff's deputy to became a trooper.

Now Michael's nephew has joined his father, patrolling the tiny towns, back roads and highways east of the Chesapeake. And tourists speeding to the Eastern Shore, seeking to escape the urban summer heat to reach sandy beaches and the boardwalk, could be pulled over by the father or the son — or both, if drivers are unlucky enough to get stopped twice through their adjacent patrol areas.

In fact, Tanner could be driving west on patrol into Kent County and pass his father driving east from home to his job in Easton — as the two did in separate cruisers one day this month while crossing the two-lane bridge over the Chester River.

"That's my dad," Tanner said from the passenger seat, minutes after writing the sixth traffic warning in his career. He rarely says more than a few words at a time, but he appears confident at work, though he gets embarrassed when his mother hugs him in public.

His father, Cpl. Phillip L. Nickerson, who outranks his son at home and on the job, often tunes in to the police radio to listen to his child. Moments before the two passed each other on the bridge, the elder Nickerson listened in as the younger Nickerson gave a warning to a driver for forgetting her license.

"He did good," the 45-year-old father proudly said.

Tanner Nickerson's coverage area includes places his uncle once patrolled and the trailer park near Centreville's downtown where the shooting occurred and Zito's relatives still reside.

Tanner could ask to be assigned away from his father, away from Zito's trailer, away from the pressures of working what is essentially a hometown beat. But for him that's not an option. The point is to work where his uncle worked, with the people and on the byways he calls home. He lives with his parents where he grew up, in Still Pond, Kent County, population 134.

"I love it here," the young trooper said.

Tanner was 10 years old when his uncle died, and law enforcement has been part of his life ever since.

His mother is a member of the Maryland chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors, a support group for families of slain police officers around the state. His grandmother, Sue, runs the organization, and as long as Tanner can remember, he has watched others go through the pain he and his family went through years ago.

Susan Nickerson now sees her husband and son off to work at the job that killed her brother-in-law. Of her son's choice, she said, "It makes your heart feel good. I of course worry about Tanner, but I'm proud of him, and I want him to be successful.

"What can I say, but 'I love you' and give them a kiss as they go out the door, and pray for their safe return," she said. "We're in this together, as a family."

Susan Nickerson spoke sitting next to her son in the headmaster's office of the independent Kent School, at the end of a farm lane in Chestertown, where she is a secretary and her son attended kindergarten through eighth grade.

Tanner sat at the edge of the couch, at rigid attention, his hat carefully balanced on a knee. As his mother gushed, a smile occasionally crept across his boyish face.

Tanner's militarylike decorum dissipated as he walked the halls of his old school, embraced by teacher after teacher who recalled a rambunctious but determined youngster. His second-grade teacher, Karen Bennett, had no doubt what her pupil would grow up to do.

"Because of his dad," she said.

Tanner's a quick learner, garnering praise from one of his trainers, Cpl. Frank J. Stanco, 17 years his senior. On the job, a stoic and professional demeanor is not only required but encouraged. Polite but firm. Few words. By the book.

In the car earlier this month, Stanco repeatedly quizzed his young charge about various laws, how to make car stops and what kind of interactions he's had with the public. When they saw a driver had pulled off Route 213 and appeared to be stranded, Tanner headed to the passenger side of the car.

The woman was lost and had stopped to read a map. She had an elderly passenger but no driver's license, which got her a written warning from Tanner. The young trooper called in to dispatch, easily speaking in the baffling codes and lingo.

"He did an excellent job," Stanco said. "I can tell you that on my first time on the radio, I was a mess. It was a dragon to me."

At the academy in Sykesville, Tanner told his classmates his sad family history. But he sticks to a rather clinical recitation of facts. "I just told them what happened," Tanner said, explaining there's really no way to avoid the subject.

His fellow recruits would have found out when his father took the podium at a fallen heroes memorial in May, an event the recruits attended. Phillip Nickerson told how his brother had been called to Zito's trailer the night before he was shot, and how he was worried because of the enclosed porch and porthole window.

"It made me very concerned," the corporal said. "I told Michael to be careful if he ever had to respond there again."

The very next night, he did get called back.

Phillip Nickerson recounted learning from the chief surgeon at Maryland Shock Trauma Center that his brother had died, that he had been struck in the head, that "he did his job."

The elder Nickerson advised, "Stand tall, boys."

He was talking to the recruits.

He also was talking to his son.

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