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35-years-ago: A personal look at a tragic day in Prince George’s County, MD.

Regular readers know I try to avoid boring you with stories of my brief time as a firefighter and fire department dispatcher. But today is an exception. My friend John Harney sent a message out on Facebook this morning reminding us that on this day 35-years-ago two Prince George’s County Police officers, Rusty Claggett and Brian Swart, were gunned down in the police station where they worked.

I have had the unfortunate experience of being in the same building on two different occasions when police officers were shot and killed. One was on November 22, 1994 as I was covering a press conference in the roll call room at the DC Police Department’s headquarters. At the same time, around the corner on the same floor, my friend, Sgt. Hank Daly, and FBI Special Agents Martha Dixon and Michael Miller were shot and killed by a member of a drug gang.

Sixteen years earlier I was two floors above a Prince George’s County police station, working as a PGFD dispatcher, when Officers Claggett and Swart were shot. In 2008, on the 30th anniversary of their deaths, I wrote some of my recollections of that tragic morning. I have added a few thoughts and am sharing it with you again today.

Officer Albert Marshal Claggett IV (l) and Officer James Brian Swart.

On June 26, 1978, two police officers, Albert Marshal Claggett IV and James Brian Swart, were shot to death inside the Prince George’s County police station in Hyattsville, Maryland. They were killed by 15-year-old Terrence Johnson who had grabbed Officer Rusty Claggett’s gun in a small interrogation room.

The events of that morning are seared in my memory because I was asleep two floors above when the officers were shot. The police station was then in the basement of the County Services Building at 5012 Rhode Island Avenue. Prince George’s County Fire Communications was on the second floor.

Before you question why I was asleep, let me explain we were then working 10-hour days and 14-hour nights and had a bunk room. The department allowed half the shift to sleep during the overnight hours. A bell would wake us if we were needed on the dispatch floor.

The floor during much of the spring and summer of 1978 was downstairs and outside. We were working out of a former county bookmobile while our facility was being renovated.

Firefighter Jimmy Wilson, Captain Jim Mundy and I jumped up when we heard the bell ring at 2:43 AM. By the time we ran down to the bookmobile on the north side of the building, the rest of the crew told us we could go back to sleep. Our fellow dispatchers had thought there was a shooting downstairs in the police station, but they had just been given information it was actually in the Hyattsville City Police Station up the street. That information was wrong.

As Jimmy and I turned around and headed back up the outside steps, a woman came running down those same steps screaming and crying. She yelled, “He shot them”. Jimmy and I ran back into the first floor and down the interior stairwell to the basement.

Coming out of the stairwell door at the basement level, we were greeted by the sight of a police officer sprawled across the hallway, clearly wounded, and in cardiac arrest. I began mouth to mouth and Jimmy started compressions on Brian Swart as his fellow police officers stood over us.

As I recall from quick glances of the movement around me, Jim Mundy and Civilian Dispatcher Terry Lloyd were not far behind us. Later, Jim Mundy, who was one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked for, rightfully gave Jimmy and me hell for walking into that situation in just white t-shirts, blue pants and no identification. Mundy at least put on his uniform shirt.

Jim and Terry immediately went further into the police station and began working on Officer Claggett. Claggett was on the floor propped up against a wall and fading fast. Medic 1 was soon there with FF/PMs Bob Yatsuk and Richard Henderson. They split up, each taking over the care of one of the officers.

Much of the rest is a blur to me. Just a lot of images. One was a group of firefighters and cops lifting a stretcher up the basement stairs to the outside with Terry on top continuing compressions on Officer Swart.

The other was looking up to see a teenager stripped down to his shorts and handcuffed to the bench. He had a haunting, far off, glassy stare that I have never forgotten.

Two days later, Yatsuk and Henderson were kind enough to write some nice words about the help they received from “B” shift at the Bureau of Fire and Rescue Communications (click here). But to tell you the truth, we all felt pretty inadequate about our inability to change the outcome of a situation that happened so close to us.

Of all the controversies involving the Prince George’s County Police Department over many years, the Terrence Johnson case may have been the most controversial. Protests cropped up at the County Services Building and threats were received.

Because of those threats, an armed fire investigator was assigned to sit with us in the bookmobile. Plywood was added as a skirt around the bottom of the temporary dispatch center so no one could throw a firebomb underneath. Thankfully none of those threats materialized.

Terrence Johnson was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of Officer Claggett and not guilty by reason of insanity in the death of Officer Swart. The bitter feelings lingered on both sides for decades. I never covered the case as a reporter even though developments in the story had been assigned to me at various times through the 1980s and 90s. I always begged off citing my involvement the morning of the shootings.

On February 27, 1997 I received a call from former Prince George’s County Police Chief Dave Mitchell who was then superintendent of the Maryland State Police. Dave, an old friend, had just learned that Terrence Johnson, who had been paroled two years earlier, shot and killed himself after police caught up with him following a bank robbery in Aberdeen, Maryland. That afternoon, for the first time during one of our newscasts, I shared my recollections of June 26, 1978.

That bookmobile was our dispatch center for a little more than three-months. Working in extremely tight quarters, we were put to the test by a number of major incidents. Just 11 days before the police officers were killed, Civilian Dispatcher Chip Norris and I were handling the overnight hours and had sent Engine 201 from the Marlboro Fire Department on a mutual aid call to adjacent Anne Arundel County. A short time later Maryland State Police called to tell us one of our fire trucks was overturned on Route 301. The crash killed Firefighter James M. O’Connor.

Today we remember Rusty Claggett and Brian Swart. While I worked with people who were quite close to them, I didn’t know either officer other than recognizing them from having passed them in the building a few times. But the memory of their deaths is one of those absolutely chilling moments that will always be with me.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • DJ

    Thanks for sharing Dave, lets us never forget those who gave the greatest sacrifice.

  • Crowbar

    Thanks for sharing that Dave.

  • Mack Seagrave

    “But to tell you the truth, we all felt pretty inadequate about our inability to change the outcome of a situation that happened so close to us.” This is an all too common feeling that we in the emergency services field experience. The fact is that you allowed your training and desire to help to kick in. You and your Brothers did everything humanly possible to save the wounded officers. You didn’t cause the emergency, you responded to it and did the best that could be done. Clearly the traumatic nature of that incident will never be erased from your mind, but rest easy knowing that you ‘did the right thing’. A job well done Dave.

    • dave statter

      Thank you. I really felt for those I worked with who knew these guys well. And like you I felt that a number of times in my short career.

  • Fire21

    I’m sorry you had to endure that then, and continue to do so today. I pray peace for you and everyone involved.

  • Dave Grooms

    Damn Dave I had no idea. We never talked about this. I was a Dist 1 investigator then. I truly appreciate the efforts of you and the others that morning.

    • dave statter

      Sorry I never mentioned it to you.

  • Greg Mutchler

    John and Dave,
    Thank you for sharing this. I remember it like it was yesterday. Brian was one of those guys that i idolized as a kid growing up in the heights. His murder had a profound effect on me and having known him helped to shape what I chose to do with my life. The fact that it occurred on my 15th birthday has imprinted it on my memory forever.

    Rest In Peace, Many of us will NEVER forget.

    • dave statter

      Thanks Greg.

  • Roscoe

    Dave, wow, I remember that day well, from MCPD, and working w/those guys from the Hyattsville Sta. on Co. line calls.
    YOU WERE @ MPDC Hdqts! I was watching ch-9 live, w/my dear friend Mike Buchanan doing the outside on-scene reporting, crying because he covered the Crime-Beat, and knew them to.
    My shift in SS was working when Lt. Donald Robertson was shot in the head in the basement of the station by one of the Hahn Shoe store robbery.
    Again working daywork SS when Cpt. Daly & Cpl. Frontzac were shot @ Montgomery Mall. I was dispatched to notify Mrs. Daly,(they lived near Holy Cross hosp.) and take her to Suburban. My nightmare is her saying as we ran code-3 on 495, “You know I always wanted Jim to take me on a “run” w/lights & siren goin’…but not like today”. We will never-nor should we ever forget. Ron Gaddis

    • dave statter

      I watched from the third floor window as Hank was being carried to the chopper. They kept us inside until Dep Chief Willie White lead us down a stairwell and out and then I joined Mike and Bruce Johnson at our live truck out front.

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  • Cappy

    A fitting remembrance to share with us Dave. Thanks

  • Roy Mesler

    I was working at Station 29 when this horrific incident happened. Only now do I know you, Jim Mundy, and Terry were the first ems responders on the scene. That does not surprise me because all of you are special people. Your right, Jim Mundy was one of the smartest people in the fire department.

    • dave statter

      And Jimmy Wilson was with us.

  • Ray Metler

    The details I forget, but sure remember the day. Tried to attend the funeral at St Bernard’s, but could not get near the parking lot. Rest in Peace.

  • Fargo

    Bobby Yatsuk is now Director of Security for all of Anne Arundel Schools.

  • Ray Slye

    Thank You for the remembrance and your actions that Horrific day Dave. Brian Swart and his family were my next door neighbors for years before that tragic day. Brian would always take my brother and I for rides in his cruiser and we would always end up at the firehouse. I can say that Brian is one of the reasons that I do what I do today. After several years into my Fire Dept. career, Brian’s parents gave me his Fire Helmet that he wore at the time of his death. It is still to this day the Centerpiece of my collection. Stay SAFE !!

  • bert shaffner

    dave
    It was a very tragic event, you brought back a lot of memories about the event and the events that happened afterwards. You were right on about Jim mundy he is the smartest peron

    • dave statter

      Yes but I worked with a few other real smart staff operations officers too. A couple who always took care of us very well at communications.

  • Kevin Morison

    Heartfelt and beautifully written. Thanks, Dave.

  • Bill (Billy) Poole

    I worked and kidded with both of them, such a waste of life. They were truly good kids back then. I couldn’t imagine what Buck and Blanche Claggett went through. I think about all of the good guys I knew that were taken from us, to many in my time as an Officer.

  • Gerry Speck

    Thanks for posting this, Dave. I was working that night and on my way home I backed up the traffic stop with the two brothers. I asked Brian if he needed any help and he said no, “it was just routine”. That comment still haunts me. Thanks for remembering.

    • dave statter

      Wow. I imagine it does. Never head that. Thanks for writing Gerry.

  • Sharppointy1

    Dave thanks for sharing this this beautifully written tribute. Now the rest of us wil remember Officers Claggett and Swart. Along the way, incidents imprint upon us, some for the good, some for the bad. May you take pride in your efforts to save lives that day. Hugs, Barb

  • Lester Bethel

    I was a Police Cadet with both Rusty and Brian. Rusty and I graduated from the Police Academy together. I am still deeply sadden by their untimely deaths at the hands of a utterly EVIL person. I am also utterly amazed by the lengths at which those who are opposed to JUSTICE will go to intimidate and obstruct those involved in the Judicial Process.

  • Terry Lloyd

    Thanks Dave for telling the story again, yes, it is one day that I will never forget, and only wish we could have had a better outcome for Brian and Rusty. So many memories, more good than bad, from those days.

    • dave statter

      We did have some good times despite lousy ones like that. And you still make fun of me. See you soon Terry.

  • ukfbbuff

    Dave, thanks for sharing your story.

  • tom brown #1064

    Dave, thank you I grew up with both Brian and Rusty. I still miss both of them to this day, and I will never get over that fateful morning when I received the call at home. 35 years and it still seems like yesterday.

  • Gary Lewis

    Well Done, Dave. I served as cadet at Hyattsville station in 1974, where I met both fine officers. Brian was always willing to share his knowledge and assist anyone who needed his help. At the time of this tragic incident I was assigned
    as a patrol officer in Seat Pleasant, where we all were in a state of shock. That shock hit hard again when the verdict
    of the trial was announced. Brian and Rusty may be gone, but they are not forgotten!

  • Tina

    Hi Dave,
    Will it be possible for you to do a story or followup with the officers’ families and the killer’s family and see how this horrific event changed everyone’s life?!? Hopefully, you can do a documentary on this tragic story. Thanks for this!! I, too, remember this story and will never forget the fallen. God Bless!

    • dave statter

      Hi Tina,

      Thanks for your kinds words.

      I am no longer a reporter so it probably would not be me doing it. I imagine, because it’s so long ago you would have a tough time getting local TV news to do it. Even on the day Terrence Johnson shot himself I called up the newsroom, had about 6 pr 7 people on the line (assignment, producer, management) and when I told them Terrence Johnson shot himself after a bank robbery all of them said “Who?’ except one woman who had been around for a while and she gasped.

  • S.K.

    Dave, so much tradgedy. This story transcends any documentary I’ve seen. The impact on all lives, families, loved ones and the profound impact on the State of Maryland people and Justice system cannot fade away in history. This story is so profound! It needs to be told!! There are many many people this affected in so many ways. The levels are deep including every element you could think of in a case where ultimately 3 men died. It divided Maryland. Just ask.

  • nancy dietz stebbing

    My father was a dispatcher at hyattsville. His name ws Richard Dietz. I have a couple pics on a film strip of the firebourd. I remember all this.

  • Lynn

    Thanks for the article, my husband was best friends with Jimmy M. O'conner, Mike as he knew him, he was the fireman you mentioned who was killed on RT301, a false alarm.

  • Raretee

    As a friend of Terry Johnson’s, I can say it truly was a tragic event, but the tragedy lay in the fact that it was caused by the officers. They lost their lives that day; and so did Terry.

  • cezzwho

    As someone who had no firsthand knowledge of any of the victims but knew students who went to school with Terrance Johnson, he was a punk who slashed tires of his teachers, etc. The saddest thing is he always got away with whatever he did wrong. His friends pressured people to not be “snitches” and that pretty much continued until he was cornered in a robbery and took his own life. He dragged his own younger brother into this life of crime after his Pastor and other community leaders talked about what a “good” person he was. Had he, like OJ have been forced to face his crime, he might still be alive today. You can’t coddle a criminal in his sin and expect any other result. He let down and exposed his every defender for the frauds they were. I hope his little brother doesn’t have the same “defenders. “