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Robot's navigator calls machine a lifesaver


The robot that helped police end a siege at a Linthicum motel Tuesday afternoon probably saved the life of the man who Anne Arundel County police believed had a bomb in his room.

The suspect was huddled under a sink in the bathroom. C. Mark Van Baalen, the deputy state fire marshal who operated the robot, could see him -- courtesy of two video cameras attached to the robot and a 9-inch television screen in front of him.

"He reached up and grabbed something off the sink and then got back under the blankets," said Mr. Van Baalen, a balding, red-haired man of 35.

When the suspect pointed the object toward the door, tactical police assumed the worst: that it was a gun. Had they stormed the room, they may have shot the suspect, Mr. Van Baalen said.

But they didn't have to go in first. They had the robot, the one Mr. Van Baalen urged the state fire marshal's office to buy five years ago. The robot went in, yanked the blanket off the suspect and knocked him off balance and into the arms of the tactical police squad. Chalk up another victory for Mr. Van Baalen and the robot.

Mr. Van Baalen received his training in Army bomb squad during an eight-year stint in the service. He was trained in Indian Head in Charles County and stationed in Aberdeen for five years.

During his time in the Army, Mr. Van Baalen served with a unit assigned to help the Secret Service guard presidential candidates. In 1984, he was assigned to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's campaign. He said he spent so much time on the campaign trail that "I used to joke that I knew Jesse's speech better than he did."

When he was discharged from the Army in 1985, he got a job with the state fire marshal's office.

Deputy Fire Marshal Michael D. Bond, 50, appreciates the work of Mr. Van Baalen and the other bomb squad members. After joking that "the robot has more hair than [Van Baalen's] got," he became serious in his praise.

"I don't know what we'd do without them," said Mr. Bond. "Their knowledge, expertise and professionalism are outstanding."

Tuesday was not the robot's first taste of duty, said Mr. Van Baalen, one of nine fire marshals assigned to the bomb squad. On Thanksgiving Day in 1992, the robot took a pipe bomb from one section of a Pasadena park to a safer location, where the marshals dismantled the explosive. Without the robot, one of the bomb squad members would have had to carry the bomb. The squad handles 400 incidents annually.

"That's where [the robot] comes in handy -- keeping somebody from carrying that bomb," said Mr. Van Baalen.

The man Mr. Van Baalen and his robot partner caught Tuesday is in the Anne Arundel County Detention Center, according to police spokesman Officer Randy Bell. Marvin Eli Kirsh, 45, was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. No bail has been set, Officer Bell said.

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