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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