It was a cold February night when an Aberdeen street dealer slid into the front seat of a 1977 Ford Mustang on Steven's Circle, bent on making a sale and smoking a marijuana joint.
Behind the steering wheel, the driver fidgeted. He had just bought an ounce of pot, and now he had to come up with a good lie why he didn't have time to hang around and get high.
Suddenly, the passenger popped open the glove box, saw a police radio and squealed, "What's that?"
"What do you think it is?" the driver said boldly. "Didn't you read in the paper last week about that cop's radio being stolen in Havre de Grace?"
"Oh, yeah, I remember readin' 'bout that," the dealer said.
The Mustang's driver, Cpl. Doug Verzi of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, breathed easier after the dealer fell for the lie and got out of his car that night in 1983.
The veteran undercover narcotics deputy recently put an end to such close calls.
Eleven years of working for the sheriff's office's narcotics unit and the Harford County Joint Narcotics Task Force was long enough.
In August, Corporal Verzi resigned from the task force, returning to the sheriff's Uniform Patrol Division. He left with no regrets and lots of experience.
Since 1983, Corporal Verzi has made more than 500 drug-related arrests, received several awards for valor and shared Maryland Deputy of the Year honors with Sgt. John Dennison of the Harford County Sheriff's Office in 1988 for his role in a 12-pound marijuana bust that led to the seizure of about $30 million in drugs, money and property confiscated from drug dealers between Harford and Brownsville, Texas.
From that one successful investigation, Corporal Verzi helped the county task force become financially self-supporting within six months after it began operation in 1988, said Capt. James Stonesifer, who heads the sheriff's Criminal Investigation Division.
It takes a special knack to work undercover, Captain Stonesifer said recently. "Doug Verzi has it. First, he wanted to work narcotics, and that's very important. But even more so, he can sell an icebox to an Eskimo."
At 36, Corporal Verzi looks 26. He said his boyish face is another reason he was able to move among unsuspecting street- and FTC high-level drug dealers longer than most of his task force peers.
Now, "It's time to get out while I can," he said.
"My daughter, Christiana, is 2 years old, and my wife, Linda, and I are expecting another child," he said. "I don't want to go to PTA meetings wearing a ponytail and earring."
Corporal Verzi, who is a 1977 graduate of North Harford High School, now sports short, neatly cropped hair and unadorned earlobes.
He has been assigned to the sheriff's new drug interdiction unit.
He's happy he can proudly park his sheriff's patrol car in his driveway for the first time.
"I don't know what my neighbors thought over the years -- my coming and going at all hours, often dressed like scum," he said.
Corporal Verzi still is reluctant to pose for a photographer, opting to pull down the brim of his blue Stetson uniform hat and hide behind reflective sunglasses.
"I've got a lot of bad guys out there that I arrested, and they haven't gone to court yet," he said. "They still don't know who I am."
Corporal Verzi said he learned not to hate the bad guys, just what they do.
That has enabled him to stay calm under pressure -- though he'll always remember the night he nearly blew his cover.
He was in Joppatowne to set up a drug buy, sitting in a house with some "bad guys" who were using "speed," or methamphetamines, as the 11 o'clock news came on the television Dec. 3, 1984, to report that a drug dealer had shot an undercover officer in Baltimore.
"I never knew the officer [Marcellus "Marty" Ward] and I was forced to laugh it up, pretending with everyone else that I was glad he got shot."
Corporal Verzi didn't blow his cover, but he hasn't quite forgiven himself,either.
=1 No night was ever colder, or longer, he said.