Calm voice describes horror

Sun Reporter

The public face of a tragedy is often not the bereaved relative or the hapless killer, but rather the official who steps before the microphones and brings the event into focus.

After the killings of five Amish schoolgirls in rural Pennsylvania on Monday, that state's 43-year-old police commissioner, Col. Jeffrey B. Miller, has emerged as the tragedy's messenger.

Over two days, Miller, using calm, measured tones, has described for the world the murderous siege of an Amish classroom and the demons that evidently drove Charles C. Roberts IV to open fire on defenseless children.

Miller, who joined the Pennsylvania State Police in 1984 and became the agency's top official in 2003, spoke before a large assemblage of reporters yesterday, describing in grim detail the tools Roberts had brought with him to the schoolhouse, including flexible plastic ties, eyebolts and lubricating jelly. Miller said it appeared that the 32-year-old milk truck driver intended to abuse the schoolgirls before killing them.

On Monday, after the extent of the bloodshed had become clear, Miller called the shootings "a horrendous, horrific incident" for the Amish community.

"They're good people," Miller said, his voice halting. "They don't deserve -- no one deserves this."

Wearing a gold-bedecked hat and a sharply pressed uniform, Miller held up a suicide note from the killer and said it was clear that Roberts was "angry at life; he was angry at God."

Miller's deliberate demeanor amid a media whirlwind recalled other officials propelled into the spotlight by calamities, such as Charles A. Moose, who was the Montgomery County police chief in 2002, when two snipers were loose in the area, and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the mayor of New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Serenity under fire is not necessarily something you can train for.

"It would come naturally," said Kevin Cartwright, a battalion chief with the Baltimore Fire Department who acts as its spokesman. "It's in the personal makeup of the individual as to how calm they are."

Above all, he said, it is best not to become emotional, no matter how tragic the circumstances.

"It can impact one's ability to take complete control," Cartwright said. "You'd have to be focused and observe the big picture."

Cartwright recalled the water taxi accident in March 2004 in Baltimore's Inner Harbor that killed five people and brought considerable attention to the city. He described Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who answered innumerable questions with assurance, as having shown "a great deal of empathy as well as maintaining control of the scene."

In the case of the sniper shootings in 2002, Moose became "the most recognizable face in the search for a killer on the loose," said an article in Time magazine, which named him Person of the Week in early October that year. The story said he sometimes met with the media four or five times a day during 20-hour shifts

When one of the snipers' victims turned out to be a 13-year-old boy, Moose was visibly upset. "I guess it's getting to be really, really personal now," Moose said, tears filling his eyes.

Moose found out, as have others in similar positions, that the attention sometimes brings unwelcome scrutiny. He was widely accused of bungling the sniper investigation and resigned because Montgomery County's ethics rules forbade him from profiting from the book he had begun writing about the case. Later, Moose applied unsuccessfully to become the Minneapolis police chief.

In July 2002, when 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was abducted and murdered in Stanton, Calif., Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona looked at the TV cameras and delivered a message to the killer: "Don't sleep. Don't eat. Because we're coming after you. We will take every resource that's available to us to bring you to justice."

Police arrested Alejandro Avila, 30, a factory worker, who was convicted by a jury of killing Samantha.

In April this year, OC Weekly reported that Carona had socialized with Rick Rizzolo, identified by the FBI as an underworld crime figure; that several women had filed sexual harassment complaints against the sheriff; and that the attorney general's office was investigating his questionable use of $130,000 in campaign funds.

Such instances are rare.

In March 2000, Baltimore County police were called upon to put an end to an extended crime spree by Joseph C. Palczynski. After a 10-day manhunt, SWAT team members shot him to death in the living room of a Dundalk rowhouse where he had been holding three hostages.

"During that whole time, everyone was a nervous wreck, and it was up to the police to try to maintain some sense of stability and control," said Bill Toohey, the county police department's spokesman, whose face Palczynski had been watching on television in the rowhouse.

"People had to look at us and say, 'They're working on it. They're in control, and eventually it will be OK.' We had to convey a sense of confidence."

Toohey, a civilian employee who joined the department in 1996, said a spokesman in the spotlight must remember his ultimate audience, particularly in a case as closely watched as the Palczynski episode.

"When I was talking, I was not talking to the media," he said. "I was talking to the public. You can't express frustration with the reporters. People are watching, and they want to know what's going on."

In addition, he said, people don't want displays of emotion.

"Tears blur your vision," he said. "When the public is looking at the face of the people in charge, if that face begins to crack, it's going to create anxiety."

In Pennsylvania, Miller seems able to be informative and empathetic. His departmental spokesman, Jack J. Lewis, said yesterday that his boss -- who oversees a budget of more than $670 million and commands 4,300 state troopers -- is "completely comfortable" dealing with the news media.

"He is responsive to requests for interviews, often returning calls to reporters within minutes after they've made the request," Lewis said of Miller, who lives in Harrisburg with his wife, Andrea, and their two daughters.

"He believes it's always better to give a reporter more information rather than less. He also believes in telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may."

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