Gary Sommers (left) and his partner Sgt. Mark Murphy in the 1980s.
Gary Sommers (left) and his partner Sgt. Mark Murphy in the 1980s. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Twenty-seven years have passed since the police officer accidentally shot and killed his partner, then traveled a long path out from under the crushing guilt.

On Sunday night, the department from which Gary Sommers retired long ago asked him to return and show another officer that path.

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Sommers, 63, said he returned to Prince George's County and made a promise to the young officer who mistakenly shot and killed Detective Jacai Colson on Sunday.

"You're not alone," Sommers said he told the officer, who has not been identified publicly. "You can't beat yourself up over it so bad that you lose all your self-esteem and want to swallow your [gun] barrel."

Prince George's County police said Colson was shot and killed when he returned to the Landover police station amid a chaotic shootout between officers and a gunman firing in the street. Officials have confirmed that Colson was shot accidentally by a fellow officer.

Sommers said he was invited to counsel that officer Monday, as he's done for others since that day, Aug. 31, 1988.

"An accident can happen to a perfectly correct policeman," he said.

The partners were nicknamed "Frick and Frack," Gary Sommers and Mark Murphy, both 35 and officers in the special operations division of Prince George's County Police. They entered team sniper competitions and lifted weights together. On vacations, they went scuba diving together in Key West, Fla. They wore the same watches and when Murphy planned to propose marriage to his girlfriend, he told Sommers first.

They had entered more than 200 doors before Murphy's death, Sommers said.

"It time-stamps your life," he said. "When I think of my previous years, it's that was before the accident, that was after the accident."

Sommers was the cover man, Murphy the point man. Murphy entered low with the shield; Sommers was trained to shoot over him.

In August 1988, they prepared to enter another door during a drug raid in Riverdale Park. Inside were suspected armed drug dealers known for barricading doors, Sommers said.

Murphy started the hydraulic jaws to force open the door. Sommers was beside him and ready — then a surprise.

The door swung open.

Murphy wasn't ready with the shield. Sommers saw the suspect and shot, he said. Murphy rose into the bullet; he wore no helmet.

A month earlier, Mark Murphy had married. Sommers made the phone call to his young wife.

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"It had been my job to protect him and now I had to live day-to-day with the fact that I killed him," Sommers told Congress in 1991. "I hated myself."

He testified before lawmakers about the importance of counseling for police, saying the devastation followed him home. His 5-year-old son, Kyle, was closest to Murphy.

"At one point, he wouldn't let me give him a bath and screamed angrily, 'Don't touch me. I want Mommy,'" Sommers testified.

His 3-year-old daughter asked, "Daddy, why did you kill Mr. Mark?"

Sommers thought about suicide.

The Police Department psychologist counseled him to go back through the shooting, to review it step by step in his mind and to talk it out. He saw it all again, and again, and he began to understand. He began to crawl out from under the guilt.

Sommers left the special operations division and became a police instructor.

"That was my recovery. I could use my training. I still had my self-esteem," he said. "I didn't feel like I was negligent or useless to where I should be thrown away."

He retired from the Prince George's County force as a sergeant in 1994. He moved west of Frederick and now teaches shooting as a civilian to Montgomery County police.

His story became a case study of "blue-on-blue" shootings, those few incidents when an officer accidentally shoots another.

There have been fewer than 30 known "blue-on-blue" shootings in the past decade, according to FBI statistics.

"It's such a tough situation," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina who has researched such shootings. "It's not an issue that anyone wants to have on his or her conscience, but that's part of police work — some people have to live with it."

The shootout Sunday in which Colson was killed is unprecedented, Alpert said. Blue-on-blue shootings mostly occur during raids.

"Imagine these officers trying to figure out why they didn't recognize him and why they didn't know," he said. "That's going to be a horrible experience."

The shootout began about 4:30 p.m. with Michael Ford, 22, firing outside the Landover station at passing cars and an ambulance, police said. Ford's younger brothers, 21-year-old Malik and 18-year-old Elijah, watched and filmed as officers fired back, police said.

Investigators recovered video of Michael Ford dictating his will. He intended to die in a gunfight with officers, police said.

Michael Ford was shot and is expected to recover, police said. All three brothers are in custody and charged with second-degree murder, according to online court records.

Colson, a plainclothes detective, arrived in an unmarked car amid the shooting, police said. Officials have not identified the officer who fired the fatal shot.

"He's a young officer. I think he's going to be good," Sommers said. "They'll get him psychological help and take care of him."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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