Police chief's ouster rattles quiet Salisbury Ripple effect felt in political, business circles around town


SALISBURY -- The suspension of Police Chief Coulbourn Dykes this week by this town's new mayor has opened a lot of old wounds here.

In a town of just 20,000 -- one still small enough that everyone seems to know everyone, especially around City Hall and the Wicomico County office building -- the political infighting has been fast and furious.

The finger-pointing has almost overshadowed allegations of mismanagement and possible criminal misconduct by a regional drug task force -- charges leveled this week against the city's top police officer by Mayor Barrie Parsons Tilghman, who took office last month.

The charges partly involve allegations that cars confiscated by the task force were sold by the police at a fraction of their value. But the political angles of the affair are threatening to shake Salisbury's normally solid power structure to its foundation.

On the brick walkways of the downtown business district, the offices of the barristers, bankers, brokers, bureaucrats and developers who run a place that bills itself as "Delmarva's Crossroads" are within easy walking distance of each other. They form the economic heart of the Lower Shore, and it's usually a cozy, calm existence.

But at Page Kelly's downtown barbershop -- a one-man, two-chair business that has been a downtown fixture for 48 years -- the chief's problems have been dominating the conversation this week, just as they have been hogging columns in the local paper.

And for the most part, customers such as Ron Thomas think Dykes is getting a raw deal.

"It's political witch-hunting," Thomas says while getting a trim.

A few blocks away on Business Route 13, Brenda Cox also backs her old friend, the chief.

"How can a mayor with two weeks' experience judge a man with 28 years' experience?" Cox asks.

In Salisbury, political and business careers are so interwoven that most local leaders have some connection to the case. So Tilghman on Thursday asked for the state prosecutor's office to take a look at the charges.

Among the potential conflicts for local officials:

Acting Police Chief Col. Edward L. Guthrie is a 20-year veteran who has worked for Dykes much of his career.

State's Attorney Davis R. Ruark, the son of a former mayor, sits on the six-member oversight board of the Wicomico County Narcotics Task Force, the panel involved in the allegations.

Sheriff R. Hunter Nelms, another member of the task force, has known about irregularities in the sale of cars seized in drug cases, an undercover agent's report says. Nelms denies that.

Former City Council President Carolyn Hall, who lost a close race for mayor to Tilghman last month, frequently touted her relationship with the police during her campaign. Tilghman says the agent's report alleging wrongdoing by Dykes was presented to Hall a week before the election and she kept it quiet. Hall refuses to comment.

Dykes, who could not be reached at his home near Hebron, has not commented on the allegations. No criminal charges have been filed, but the mayor suspended Dykes without pay from his $69,000-a-year job for "neglect of duty, inefficiency and disreputable conduct."

City Council members have said they support Tilghman's ouster of Dykes.

But they howled in protest when the mayor also fired the city solicitor because he is a friend of Dykes'.

And then Tilghman brought on more criticism by appointing her closest political adviser -- Robin R. Cockey, a former mayoral candidate and former City Council president -- to represent the city in a hearing this month on whether the council will end Dykes' police career.

Tilghman bristles at the criticism.

"I didn't make these charges up," she says.

The flap began with a public leak of a confidential report to the council that had been prepared by an undercover police officer who investigated the drug task force.

All five council members have pledged they didn't leak the report. They also voted unanimously Wednesday to reinstate City Solicitor Robert Eaton. He is temporarily back in office.

But the council has not resolved the dispute about who will handle the Dykes case, said Council President O. Palmer Gillis III.

Pub Date: 6/06/98

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