Former Harford sheriff Robert Comes dies

The Aegis

Former Harford County Sheriff Robert “Bob” Comes, 85, of Churchville, died Feb. 19.

Mr. Comes (pronounced Coomes) was elected sheriff in 1990. Running as a Democrat, he unseated the incumbent, Dominick Mele, in the primary election that year and went on to capture the general election.

He served one term, losing a re-election bid to Joseph Meadows in 1994.

“I thought he did an excellent job as sheriff during a very, very difficult period at the Sheriff’s Office,” Bob Thomas, the current director of administration at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and a longtime friend of Mr. Comes, said Thursday.

“I thought that he had the best interests in mind of both the agency and the citizens the agency served,” Thomas added.

Thomas, 65, of Joppa, said he met Mr. Comes in the early 1980s while Thomas was an investigator with the Office of the State Fire Marshal, assigned to the agency’s Northeast Regional Office in Harford County.

Thomas spent 28 years with the Fire Marshal’s Office and later worked for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, the county executive’s office and the Department of Emergency Services.

He said he became friends with Mr. Comes through his supervisor at the Fire Marshal’s Office, the late Thomas Broumel, an assistant chief who also served as Bel Air’s police chief and was the Sheriff’s Office’s chief deputy under Mr. Comes.

Thomas and Mr. Comes attended various political functions, and both attended St. Ignatius in Hickory — Thomas is still a parishioner at the Forest Hill Catholic church. Mr. Comes served as an usher there for many years, Thomas said.

“He was just an outstanding all-around individual, and I was proud to have known him and shared good times with him over many, many years,” Thomas said.

Before being elected sheriff, Mr. Comes was a career deputy with the Sheriff’s Office and had risen into its top ranks, serving under sheriffs Mele, the late Theodore Moyer and William J. Kunkel.

He had a difficult tenure as sheriff, in part, because of a suspicious 1992 death of an inmate at the Harford County Detention Center, which is under the purview of the Sheriff’s Office.

The inmate, William Martin Ford, of Wilmington, Del., was serving a sentence for drunk driving when police officials said he was found unresponsive in a cell with a pillow case around his neck and died a short time later at a local hospital.

Members of Ford’s family said he had phoned them and expressed fears that he would be hurt. He had been placed in an isolation cell where his fatal injury occurred. Although the medical examiner’s office and sheriff’s personnel initially said the death was a suspected suicide, the final autopsy report classified it as “undetermined.”

Harford County government paid Ford’s family in excess of $400,000 to settle a threatened wrongful death lawsuit. There were subsequent investigations by the state’s attorney and by the county council president, the latter who was highly critical of actions by the jail staff, but no criminal findings in either report.

Mr. Comes staunchly denied any deliberate wrongdoing by any jail personnel or other Sheriff’s Office employees, while also conceding procedural errors “may have occurred,” according to media reports from that time.

“Bob was a good person, a good individual,” Kunkel, 90, of Abingdon, said Thursday.

Kunkel, who was Harford’s sheriff from 1963 to 1981, said Mr. Comes had been hired under the late Sheriff Raymond A. Fulker, who died while in office in March 1963 and was briefly succeeded by Sheriff Paul Stearns, who also died suddenly that year and was followed by Kunkel.

Jesse Bane, Bel Air’s town administrator and Harford County’s sheriff from 2006 to 2014, said Mr. Comes interviewed him and conducted the background check before Bane was hired by the Sheriff’s Office in the fall of 1972.

Bane, 69, of Fallston, remembers he had recently graduated from college, had applied to several law enforcement agencies and was “hoping something would come to fruition” in his job search.

“Getting a job in the Sheriff’s Office was not easy,” Bane said. “There were a lot of people... in the early years that applied for a job in that agency that were never accepted.”

Bane said he thinks Mr. Comes “took a chance on me,” saying “I owe him a debt of gratitude for the role he played in my being hired by the Harford County sheriff.”

Bane also recalled when Mr. Comes assigned him to spearhead the creation of the agency’s child support enforcement unit, part of the civil division, when Mr. Comes became sheriff in the early 1990s.

Bane said he was “a little reluctant” at first, as he had been hoping to return to the investigations unit, but he said Mr. Comes gave him all the resources he needed to form the child support unit.

“I found that to be one of the more rewarding assignments I ever had in my career, so for that reason I am thankful to him for that,” Bane said.

He described Mr. Comes as “a very likable person.”

“I don’t think I ever saw him angry, no matter how much stress he was under,” Bane said.

He said Mr. Comes had a good sense of humor and would tell stories about his early days in law enforcement.

“He had quite the personality,” Bane said. “He was a guy that you just had to like; I think that’s probably what made him a good commander.”

Bane said being sheriff is a “monumental task,” as they are responsible for law enforcement countywide, running the local jail and courthouse security.

“I think the citizens of Harford County are indebted to [Mr. Comes], not only for his service as sheriff, but also as a deputy sheriff,” Bane said.

Former Harford sheriff Dominick Mele worked with Mr. Comes for 25 years and the two had a good working relationship, even though the eventually became rivals for the county’s top law enforcement position.

“I’d always think of him as close as a brother could be... He was a good all-around fellow, he was a good guy, he was competent in what he did and approached his work as a professional,” Mele, 84, of Fallston, said.

“I’d rather see a man in the agency run against the incumbent than an outside person,” Mele said regarding Mr. Comes’ bid that unseated Mele in the 1990 Democratic primary. “It is unique because of the responsibility it carries and is involved with every phase of the criminal justice system — it’s not just a police department.”

Harford’s current sheriff, Jeffrey Gahler, said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” to learn of Mr. Comes’ passing. Gahler, who had a lengthy career with the Maryland State Police before he was elected sheriff in 2014, said he did not work with Mr. Comes, but he is “certainly aware of his dedication and love of the Harford County Sheriff's Office and the citizens of our county.”

“Those who did work under Sheriff Comes, including Chief Deputy Steve Bodway, reflected upon his kindness and his approachable leadership style,” Gahler said. “The entire Harford County Sheriff's Office family sends our deepest condolences to Carol and the entire Comes family.”

Mr. Comes is survived by his wife, Carol Lee Comes; children Robert E. Comes Jr. and Sandra L. Plummer; granddaughters Wendy Baldwin and Christina Comes; great-grandchildren Jacob Prim, Norey Comes, Hunter Baldwin, Paris Maye and Paige Baldwin; and his sister, Rose Morris, according to his obituary from McComas Funeral Homes.

He was preceded in death by his parents, John T. and Rose Comes, and his brother, John F. Comes, according to the obituary.

Visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday and 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at McComas Funeral Home, 1317 Cokesbury Road in Abingdon. A Mass of Christian burial will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at St. Ignatius, 533 E. Jarrettsville Road in Churchville, followed by a burial in Highview Memorial Gardens in Fallston, according to the McComas website.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman ordered the county flag lowered to half-staff through Mr. Comes’ interment.

“Harford County mourns the loss of our former sheriff,” Glassman said in a statement released Wednesday. “Sheriff Comes and I had a close working relationship when I served on the County Council, and he was always dedicated to protecting our citizens through local law enforcement.”

Contributions can be made to the Harford County Deputy Sheriff’s Union Benevolent Fund, P.O. Box 881, Bel Air, MD 21014.

Aegis news editor Allan Vought contributed to this report.

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