40 years later, ex-cop supports once-notorious felon's release

Sgt. Michael P. May is down on the sidewalk with a broken ankle after pursuing Wendell M. Beard out a station window in 1975.
Sgt. Michael P. May is down on the sidewalk with a broken ankle after pursuing Wendell M. Beard out a station window in 1975. (CLARENCE GARRETT / Baltimore Sun)

Forty years ago, Wendell Beard achieved considerable notoriety in our part of the world. Baltimore police knew him first and knew him best; they arrested Beard 36 times, once for manslaughter, before his 18th birthday.

An exasperated police commander, seeking action from juvenile authorities, declared the teenage Beard a "plague." Beard made news as an escape artist in the years before he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was 24 at the time, and he already had spent half his life in some form of confinement.


The Baltimore Sun published many stories about Beard. One, in 1980, explored how he got to be so bad so early in life. Several people were quoted in the story, including Beard's sad and frustrated mother, Mildred.

"He just needed a male figure to care for him," she said through tears. "A father to say, 'Come on, son, let's go to a baseball game.'"

Beard's father was not available for that; he had been in and out of prison a good part of his life, too.

Beard's mother said she had asked several agencies for help when her son was 9 and 10 years old. But she failed to find a way to keep him out of trouble.

"I blame myself," she told The Sun. "I'm just struggling, trying to do the best I can."

Beard was 12 when police arrested him for the first time. As the years went by, he was charged with auto theft, larceny and escape. At 17, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of another teenage boy during an argument.

Seven years later, a jury convicted Beard of first-degree murder for his role in the robbery and fatal shooting of a Pikesville real estate man, Beryl Friedrick, near Druid Hill Park. Judge James W. Murphy sent Beard away for life in March 1980, and he disappeared from the headlines.

But among those who never forgot him is Michael P. May. May, an attorney with a general law practice in Parkville, was a 28-year-old Baltimore detective sergeant in 1975, when Beard pulled off one of his daring escapes.

While being questioned inside the old Central District police station, then located on the Fallsway, Beard managed to slip out of handcuffs and jump through a window. He landed on the sidewalk, 14 feet below, and took off. May followed Beard out the window, but shattered his right ankle and broke his left heel.

After medical leave, May returned to work and went on light duty for a while. But the leg wasn't the same. He took a disability pension.

"Had I stayed," he says, "I was going to get myself or one of my detectives hurt."

Instead, he went to law school at the University of Baltimore. And he gave Beard no further thought.

Until a few months ago.

May decided to look Beard up. He found him in Western Maryland, at the North Branch Correctional Institution near Cumberland. He wrote Beard a letter.


"I suggested that, at his age, perhaps he might be able to exert a positive influence on the younger inmates," May says. "I spoke to him by phone shortly after that. He asked me if I knew about the Unger case."

That's a reference to a 2012 Court of Appeals ruling that found a serious flaw in the instructions that judges had been giving to Maryland juries for decades. The ruling opened the way for Beard and dozens of other inmates from before December 1980, when the instructions were corrected, to ask for new trials.

Since then, more than 100 offenders have been released. None of them have committed any new offenses, according to Michael Millemann, the University of Maryland law professor who represented some of the Unger inmates.

Last week, a judge in Baltimore resentenced Wendell Beard to time served. Mike May was there to support his release.

Neither the state nor public defender had been able to locate relatives of Beard's victim before Monday's court hearing. While May could be said to have been a victim, having sustained a career-ending injury in that jump 40 years ago, he doesn't see it that way.

"After all," he says, "Wendell was trying to get away from me, not hurt me. I decided to jump out of the window. My leg still bothers me, but at least some of that has to do with my age."

May will be 68 next month. Beard is 60.

"I thought Wendell had been punished enough and should be released," May says. "The notion that it benefits society to lock people away forever baffles me. I don't get it. I understand punishment's a component of sentencing, but … we incarcerate more people than any country in the Western world, and what has it gotten us?"

May asked if I could help Beard find a job and gave me his number. I called it a couple of times, left messages, but Beard did not get back to me. When he's ready, I hope he will.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.