BEARING THE BURDEN OF HISTORY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every time he pins on his sheriff's badge, Robert Pepersack feels the weight of history.

He feels a sense of duty to the past. It's a sense, he says, that he carries on a heritage that can be traced fromthe High Sheriffs of Saxon England to the Gary Cooper-esque men who once ruled the West.

"I love history," Pepersack says, from behind his big desk at thecounty courthouse. "History tells me who I am . . . I feel like I'm the keeper of something that's been here for 1,000 years."

That historical perspective explains why Pepersack has clashed recently withCounty Executive Robert R. Neall and the County Council over the autonomy of his office. He says he's determined that 1,000 years of history are not going to be ruined under his stewardship.

Pepersack, like the state's attorney and clerk of the court, is an elected official whose authority derives from the state but whose money comes from the county.

He finds himself at odds with the county because he spent $140,000 he didn't have to fulfill his state-mandated duty to protect the Circuit and District courts. He also asked for another $64,000 for things he believed necessary to carry out his mission -- a newcomputer system, renovations to the Circuit Court lockup. "I gotta do it," he says, simply. "I can't not do my job."

In the past few weeks, as a result of his conflict with the county, Pepersack has heard himself called "arrogant," "insulting" and an "empire builder" for reasons he says he doesn't understand.

The son of an Northeast Baltimore rug salesman and grandson of Maryland's first state trooper, Pepersack sees himself as "a career professional law enforcement officer" and "a regular guy."

Married for the second time and the father of three grown children, Pepersack lives in Glen Burnie. At 50, he is a big man whose Germanic heritage shows in his fair complexion andblue eyes.

Pepersack loves hunting and fishing and flies his own small plane -- the closest he's come to fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot. He builds model airplanes and collectsantique Colt pistols and American coins. His favorite Western is "High Noon."

"There's a lawman," he says, referring to the Gary Cooper character. "That's the American spirit."

As a boy growing up in Gardenville, a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood, Pepersack says he and his older brother, Norman, were greatly influenced by his grandfather, Mathias Pepersack, "Badge No. 1" of the Maryland State Police. Mathias, he says, was a tough cop who carried a .44-caliber revolver instead of the usual .38 "because it hit harder."

The grandfather's experiences as the first state trooper were not all happy -- he was demoted from lieutenant to trooper after a dispute with his captain and eventually resigned, Pepersack says. Still, "The Maryland State Police was a big part of his life. I grew up listening to the tales he told. It was the adventure of it."

After graduating from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1959, Pepersack worked as a lab technician for five years before joining Norman -- now sheriff of Baltimore County -- at the state police.

For the next 20 years, Pepersack worked in barracks from Bel Air to Forestville, including assignments inGlen Burnie and Annapolis, before being named commander of firearms licensing in 1984. He held that post until he retired as a sergeant to run for sheriff.

Pepersack was known as blunt, sometimes brusqueand "very serious" about law enforcement, said Chuck Jackson, spokesman for the state police.

"Some people liked him and some people didn't," Jackson said. "There was no embellishment about Bob Pepersack. He was perceived as a very straightforward, candid person who wouldtell you exactly what was on his mind."

Those traits, coupled with the policeman's ingrained tendency toward authoritative action, probably account for most of Pepersack's current troubles, said Dan McAllister, sheriff of Worcester County and president of the Maryland Sheriff's Association.

"You take a cop and he runs for sheriff. Now he has to be not only a cop, but also a politician. That's hard for cops, especially those who have been on the outside of the sheriff's office," McAllister said. "They've never had to deal with budgets. They've never had to deal with county councils or go before the legislature.

"It's a whole new ballgame. Sometimes it's hard for a cop to learn how to bend a bit, how to talk nice so you get what you want. Most cops learn that you go after what you want. You want to arrest a guy, so you go out and get him."

Because he was responsible for testifying before the General Assembly on gun legislation, Pepersack wasmore familiar with the political realm than most cops. Still, he says, he never expected to have to tiptoe his way around the political process at his own peril.

"I guess I was naive," he says.

Last week, Pepersack became the first official in the county's charter history to be subpoenaed to appear before the County Council. The councilsubpoenaed him Monday night after Pepersack -- irked that a hearing on his budget was postponed until later that night -- walked out and never returned.

In Baltimore County, Norman Pepersack, elected in 1990 like his brother, also has had disputes with county government. His efforts to equip his deputies with emergency lights and sirens sparked a disagreement with the police chief, who saw it as an encroachment on his territory.

Norman Pepersack defends his brother. "He'saggressive and outspoken, and he may have rubbed the County Council and Bob Neall the wrong way. We're both of the same mold.

"But what you see down there is a flexing of muscle . . . What they forget isthat we're both elected officials. We're not appointed, and we're not department heads. We have a certain degree of autonomy."

They also have history on their side, Bob Pepersack says.

"The first recorded sheriff was under the Saxons in 992. That's a lot longer than the county executive's been here, and I'll bet we'll still be here in another 1,000 years."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
73°