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Navigating the pandemic: During ‘unusual year,’ Carroll County Sheriff’s Office adapted to deal with COVID-19, unrest and five murders

COVID-19 overshadowed all else in 2020, affecting every aspect of life in Carroll. This week, the Times is looking back at how five key sectors — business, education, government, health care and law enforcement — adapted and carried on amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sheriff Jim DeWees called 2020 a perfect storm.

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“It has been a very unusual year,” he said. “COVID hitting, the national attention put on law enforcement, defunding, and a very contentious presidential election.”

It made for a challenging year for the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, from changing protocols in order to keep everyone — from deputies to commanders to civilian personnel, to inmates at the detention center, to the general public — safe from COVID-19 during interactions to listening to what the community had to say about the national reckoning on social justice.

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Yet none of it, not the coronavirus, not protesters, not the widening political divide, seems to have had anything to do with the biggest outlier among the year-end crime statistics for Carroll County.

Five homicides.

“Typically, if we see one or two in Carroll County, that’s very unusual. We just don’t see this many,” DeWees said. “But that’s not to say that we can’t, based on what’s going on in an individual’s household. You just don’t know.”

While five homicides is more than what would typically be seen in Carroll, overall crime actually fell significantly in 2020. Most of that dip can be attributed to the second quarter of the year, from April 1 through June 30, when many businesses were closed and most citizens were sheltering in place, isolating, quarantining, trying to keep from catching COVID-19.

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Many experts across the nation had speculated that couples and families being stuck together like that would cause domestic crime to skyrocket.

“No. In fact it was the complete opposite,” DeWees said.

With BusPatrol CEO Jean Souliere, right, and CCPS Superintendent Steven Lockard, Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees introduces the BusPatrol advanced stop-arm enforcement technology at Winters Mill High School in Westminster Thursday, October 15, 2020. The BusPatrol technology will be installed on the school system's entire fleet of more than 300 buses.
With BusPatrol CEO Jean Souliere, right, and CCPS Superintendent Steven Lockard, Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees introduces the BusPatrol advanced stop-arm enforcement technology at Winters Mill High School in Westminster Thursday, October 15, 2020. The BusPatrol technology will be installed on the school system's entire fleet of more than 300 buses. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

He said his office tracked domestic assaults, other assaults, thefts, car crashes, suicides, and attempted suicides “every single day” and compared them year over year. Looking at the numbers, he said, it was obvious when people began staying in and it was equally obvious when people began going out again.

“When things started opening up, we started seeing the spike again,” he said. “It went back to the same levels that we had seen the year before.”

DeWees said he isn’t sure why domestic violence went down substantially during that time frame. He attributes the decline in overdoses at least partly to people being around family members holding them accountable, the decline in retail theft to big box stores condensing things to allow for one way in and one way out and the decline in daytime home theft to the simple fact that so many more residents were home during the day.

Year-end crime statistics are still being compiled and will be released early in 2021.

The sheriff said his office tried to retain as much normalcy as possible when the pandemic hit, but was proactive in terms of adjusting protocols for safety reasons.

He said they adjusted shift work, for example splitting up command shifts for captains, majors, colonels, and himself so in case of an outbreak, enough leaders would be healthy and able to continue working. For some crimes, incident reports are taken over the phone rather than in person. And when possible, civilians especially and other personnel have worked from home.

But, from the beginning, his biggest concern was the safety of everyone at the Carroll County Detention Center. It became obvious early in the pandemic that the virus spread freely to those living in close quarters, such as nursing homes. The jail has some 120 inmates at any given time and numerous correctional officers and other personnel going in and out on a daily basis.

“When COVID hit, that absolutely scared us to death. How do we keep it out of the jail?” DeWees recalled.

He said they were diligent from the beginning in terms of temperature-taking, disenfecting and sanitizing. He credited his office’s relationship with the Carroll County Health Department.

“We were absolutely joined at the hip with them,” DeWees said. “They have an infectious disease specialist that works with us on a daily basis, inspects the jail, makes sure we’re practicing what CDC requirements are.”

He said Sheriff’s Office personnel have come down with COVID-19, but for the most part it seems they have contracted it not from the jail or interactions during work time, but rather from community transmission.

While many protocols have been altered because of COVID-19, DeWees said his office’s policy is that deputies aren’t wearing masks during traffic stops. He says he receives some complaints about that policy and knows there are those who will criticize it publicly.

“But those people have never made traffic stops. They’ve never stood on the side of the road, maybe wearing glasses with the mask, and not been able to see what they need to see,” he said, noting that the deputy making the stop is standing outside in the open air and that masks during some other interactions with the public. “A traffic stop is very stressful, not only for the person being stopped but the deputy that’s making the traffic stop. And under stress people tend to lose their hearing. That’s the sense that they lose the quickest. And so it’s important that verbally we can communicate.”

DeWees said some of the changes they have made to their operations will remain in place long after the pandemic has abated. Others will not. He said he looks forward to once again being able to see people’s faces during interactions because nonverbal communication also has a lot to do with easing situations.

One of the main issues across the country in 2020 was social justice, which particularly went to the forefront after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “That’s not law enforcement,” DeWees said at the time. He and Westminster Police Chief Thomas Ledwell took the lead on forming a work group to look into addressing use of force policies across Carroll County.

“As leaders, we have to listen to what the community is saying and adjust to that,” DeWees said. “It doesn’t mean we let crime run rampant or open the doors to the jail and let everybody out, but it’s our responsibility to understand expectations.”

Protests and rallies in support of racial justice spread across the nation, including to places like Westminster and Taneytown. DeWees has said they were remarkably peaceful and free of incidents here.

Regarding the contentious election season, while political signs were stolen and social media ramped up to inflammatory levels, only one arrest for a violent crime in Carroll County related to campaigns, the presidential election or its aftermath.

The most violent of crimes appeared to have nothing to do with COVID-19, social justice or politics.

The murders of three Carroll countians and the arrest of four others from the county will not be counted in local police statistics because they occurred in West Virginia, but they shocked residents nonetheless.

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David R. Sanford Jr., 26, of Westminster, John W. Black III, of Taneytown, and Monroe Merrell, 22, of Westminster were arrested and charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping in connection with the killing of Taneytown resident Jonathan Riddle, who was found stabbed to death and his body burned in Rippon, West Virginia in March. Westminster resident Heather Grogg, 33, and Taneytown resident Danielle Tyler, 18, were allegedly killed because they knew what happened to Riddle. Jeffrey C. Smith Jr., 22, of Westminster, is among those facing related murder charges.

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Five homicides, or incidents being investigated as homicides, did happen within Carroll.

Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees briefs reporters at the scene of a double shooting in the 7900 block of Bennett Branch Road in Mount Airy Thursday, April 2, 2020. According to Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees, two people were killed in the shooting and the alleged shooter later killed himself after a brief standoff with police in Montgomery County.
Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees briefs reporters at the scene of a double shooting in the 7900 block of Bennett Branch Road in Mount Airy Thursday, April 2, 2020. According to Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees, two people were killed in the shooting and the alleged shooter later killed himself after a brief standoff with police in Montgomery County. (Dylan Slagle)

On April 2, 18-year-old Noah Homayouni, a student at South Carroll High School, and 36-year old Heather Zujkowski were killed in a shooting in Mount Airy. The alleged shooter, Zujkowski’s estranged husband, Joseph Zujkowski, 35, of Gaithersburg, opened fire on Heather Zujkowski with a rifle and then shot Homayouni, a neighbor who was outside at the time, according to police. Three young children at home at the time were uninjured. Joseph Zujkowski later shot and killed himself after a brief standoff with Montgomery County police.

A 23-year-old man died after being stabbed in Westminster on Oct. 24, according to the Westminster Police Department. Devin G. Raney of Baltimore County, was identified as the victim, who walked into Carroll Hospital’s emergency room with a stab wound to his chest, according to a WPD news release, and died of his injuries after being flown to University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. No arrest has been made.

Jeffrey McQuay Caples, 59, of Hampstead, is charged with the first-degree murder of his wife, Kelly Ann Caples, bludgeoned and stabbed to death on Dec. 3. He is being held without bail after allegedly confessing. Kelly Caples was found at the couple’s home in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in close proximity to a hammer and a 7-inch knife, according to charging documents. Jeffrey Caples has a preliminary hearing scheduled for Jan. 6.

And on Dec. 12, 21-year-old Lucas Hartman, of Westminster, was arrested and subsequently charged with the first-degree murder of his father, Stephen Hartman, who was found with multiple gunshot wounds. Lucas Hartman is being held without bail. He has a preliminary hearing scheduled for Jan. 13.

While the number of homicides was unusually high, the circumstances surrounding them were not unusual. DeWees said a typical homicide involves family members or someone who got caught up in the middle of a family squabble.

“When a murder takes place in Carroll County, the suspect or the assailant is almost always known to the individual who was murdered,” he said. “Randomness is very, very, very rare. It just doesn’t happen that way.”

Whether it was dealing with the pandemic, social or political unrest or the atypical number of murder investigations, DeWees said he leaned on advice from a mentor.

“I had a very wise man I worked for for a number of years who would say, ‘Things are not good, but we have to improvise, adapt and overcome,’” he said. “In law enforcement, we have. We improvised, adapted and overcame. We didn’t have a choice.”

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