Driver of car that hit, killed officer reported over speed limit

The Baltimore Sun

The driver of the car that struck and killed a police officer on a Howard County highway last year was traveling 16 mph over the speed limit at the time of the accident and swerved at the last moment.

Those were among the new details released yesterday by Howard County police, who also identified the driver as Stephanie Latoya Grissom, 25, of Columbia.

Police Chief William J. McMahon said Grissom was traveling 71 mph in the 2007 Nissan Sentra that hit Cpl. Scott Wheeler that June afternoon. The speed limit at the site of the accident - Route 32 near Interstate 95 - is 55 mph.

Grissom was served traffic citations for negligent driving and speeding, with each carrying a fine of up to $500, after Wednesday's decision by a county grand jury not to indict her on manslaughter charges.

"Obviously, we are very disappointed in that decision, but we respect it," McMahon said.

A grand jury must find "gross negligence" to hand down an automobile manslaughter conviction, said county Assistant State's Attorney Danielle Duclaux.

"It has to be somewhat outrageous conduct," Duclaux said.

McMahon said that the department believed that the investigation had determined gross negligence. "We felt we had met that burden of proof. ... Unfortunately, the grand jury disagreed," he said.

In a written statement, Wheeler's widow, Tracy, said: "We are disappointed that the grand jury chose not to indict the driver who struck Scott on manslaughter charges. While we knew this was possible, it is difficult to accept. But with the support of our extended family in the Police Department, we will do our best to move forward."

At the address in Columbia listed to Grissom, a young woman answered the door yesterday but declined to identify herself or comment on the police announcement.

"I can't answer any questions for you," she said. "I'm just going to go about my day as normal."

Wheeler, 31, was conducting speed enforcement on eastbound Route 32 between I-95 and U.S. 1 about 2 p.m. June 16 when he stepped into the road and summoned Grissom to pull over. The car struck the officer, who died two days later of head injuries.

McMahon also said yesterday that the department will permanently cease using the "step-out" method on roadways with a speed limit higher than 35 mph.

Wheeler was a six-year veteran of the department and the first Howard County officer to die in the line of duty in almost 50 years. He was part of a three-officer "stop team" that used a long-range laser to catch speeders, stepping out into the road to direct them to the shoulder.

Other police agencies in Maryland, including the state police, also stopped using the "step-out" method on high-speed roadways.

"This tragedy and the other incidences that have occurred ... really underscore the dangers our personnel face each and every day out on the road," said McMahon, who added that all department members who must walk into traffic, including crossing guards, will take part in a new training program this month.

McMahon said Wheeler had worked 65 to 70 similar operations. "We're confident that his actions were appropriate here," the police chief said.

Although the department will cease the method for safety reasons, McMahon said he knows it works. The number of speeding citations written on the roadways where the method was used has decreased 40 percent to 50 percent since it was suspended.

Tracy Wheeler is working with the Howard County Police Officers' Association to "carry on Scott's legacy," said the president of the union, Dan Besseck. The efforts include establishing a memorial foundation in his honor.

In October, two brown road signs were placed in the median of Route 32 where Wheeler was hit to remind drivers of the tragedy. Tracy Wheeler and her husband's parents attended the unveiling ceremony for the signs.

The signs are inscribed with the words: "Dedicated to Cpl. Scott A. Wheeler."

Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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