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Years after Baltimore County officer was killed, remarried widow fights to keep pension benefits

Baltimore County Police Officer Jason Schneider was shot to death in 2013 while trying to serve a warrant at a home in Catonsville. His survivors included a widow and a young son from an earlier marriage. Now the widow is in a dispute with county officials over which one should receive the officer's $74,721 annual pension.

When Baltimore County Police Officer Jason Schneider was killed in the line of duty nearly five years ago, his survivors included a widow and a young son from an earlier marriage.

Now the widow is in a dispute with county officials over which one should receive his annual pension.

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Officials say Ericka Schneider Barnes gave up the pension when she remarried after Schneider’s death. Schneider Barnes says new county pension rules mean she should continue to receive the benefit.

At stake is hundreds of thousands of dollars. A hearing before the county Board of Appeals is scheduled for Feb. 14.

Schneider, a 36-year-old tactical officer, was shot to death in August 2013 while trying to serve a warrant at a home in Catonsville.

That October, the officer’s widow and his first wife signed an agreement with county officials. The widow, Ericka Schneider Barnes, would begin receiving the $74,721 annual pension. But if she remarried before Schneider’s son turned 18, the payments would shift to the son, at least for a while.

The boy would receive the pension until he turned 18, or, if he stayed in school, for up to five more years.

Two years after Schneider’s death, the Baltimore County Council revised the pension rules to allow the spouse of an officer killed in the line of duty to continue collecting pension benefits even after remarrying.

The legislation, which was sponsored by all seven council members, is now a key issue in the dispute.

Schneider Barnes remarried in October 2016, “based on the change in the law,” her lawyer wrote in filings with the appeals board.

But county officials say the 2015 change was not retroactive, and does not affect their previous agreement. County budget director Keith Dorsey wrote to Schneider Barnes in November 2016 saying the pension benefits would now be paid to the son. The boy is now 15.

In the letter, Dorsey said that given the change in law, the county had determined that once the son is no longer eligible to receive the pension, the benefit would shift back to Schneider Barnes and continue for the rest of her life.

Attorneys for Schneider Barnes and for Schneider’s son declined to comment.

David Rose, second vice president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said the union had pushed for the change in pension rules for years. When the effort went before the council, Jason Schneider’s parents and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger wrote letters in support.

The council vote was unanimous.

“We didn’t want younger widows to be penalized and not be able to remarried for the rest of their life,” said Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat. “They had a spouse that paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

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Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said there had been talk of changing the law for some time, but the idea didn’t gain traction until several new council members took office in December 2014.

Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, called the current dispute “unfortunate.”

“If she prevails, then the kid doesn’t get the money,” he said. “It’s only one pot of money.”

An attorney for Schneider Barnes wrote in legal filings that Dorsey did not have the authority to stop paying the benefits to Schneider Barnes.

Attorney Michael Paul Smith wrote that the board of trustees for the county retirement system is “the only political body with the authority to decide pension benefits.”

“This is a case of a public official attempting to exercise authority it did not have to terminate the pension benefits being paid to the surviving spouse of a police officer shot and killed in the line of duty,” Smith wrote in filings with the Board of Appeals.

Dorsey declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. A county spokeswoman said officials are acting in the interest of Schneider’s son.

“From the beginning — when we executed the contract — until now, the County’s only interest has been the protection of the child of a fallen officer,” spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said in a statement.

Jason Schneider’s father said spouses of fallen officers shouldn’t be penalized for remarrying.

“It does not negate what she went through, that trauma,” Charles Schneider said. “Their death is permanent. It doesn’t emotionally change anything for the surviving spouse.”

Schneider said his son would have wanted his wife and son to benefit. He said he hoped the county would consider a percentage split.

“Ericka is an equal partner,” Schneider said. “They loved each other. I’m on Jason’s side. He loved both.

“What would Jason do? He would say, ‘Let’s split this.’ ”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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