Bonded by Tragedy

The murder of policemen changes entire cities. It changed little Georgetown, too, but in a way no one ever expected.

Illustration by Dan ParkAt about 5 p.m. on September 1, 2009, a Georgetown police vehicle carrying Patrolman Chad Spicer and Corporal Shawn Brittingham sped down Bedford Street toward The Circle. A dispatch had directed them to look for a Chrysler Sebring with three suspects in a shooting at a McDonald’s on U.S. 113.

Brittingham and Spicer were not only partners, they were best friends. They had known each other since grade school, when they began to dream of being Georgetown police officers. They were also superb at their jobs. Spicer had spent three years as a cop in Bridgeville, where he had become an expert in drug interdiction. He had pulled thousands of dollars in drug money off of the streets.

As the two officers approached The Circle, the Sebring also approached. Brittingham followed the car, making a sharp right onto East Market Street, then a left onto King Street, toward Kimmeytown, a mostly Latino enclave east of The Circle.

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Spicer loved the neighborhood. Though he spoke no Spanish, he knew nearly every family by name. On slow days, he’d sometimes hop out of his patrol car to hit pop flies to the kids on the streets.

According to the police report, Brittingham watched the Sebring approach the corner of King and Rosa, then rammed the car to make it stop. The driver, Christopher Reeves, immediately ran away.

Police say Derrick Powell of Cumberland, Maryland, in the back seat, turned to face the patrol car, aimed a 9-millimeter semi-automatic handgun at Spicer, then fired.

“Shots fired, Suscom. My partner’s been shot. 908-3’s been shot. My partner’s shot.”

Georgetown Police Chief William Topping heard the words on his police radio. It’s Shawn, he thought.

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He sped toward the scene. By the time he arrived, 10 minutes later, Spicer and Brittingham, with a fragment of the bullet that hit Spicer in his neck, had been taken to Beebe Medical Center in Lewes.

Topping shut Kimmeytown down, then surveyed the scene. More than 100 police had come from all over Sussex and Kent.

Spicer’s mother, Ruth Ann, also arrived at the scene.

“She approached me and asked me if it was Chad,” Topping says. “I told her that it was.” Topping had a state trooper escort Mrs. Spicer to Beebe. Topping boarded a helicopter that circled over Kimmeytown, trying to find the suspects.

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The hospital called his cell: Doctors had a heartbeat on Spicer. Topping took another call: Police had apprehended the suspected shooter. A minute later, Beebe again: Patrolman Chad Ernest Spicer was dead.

The weather was overcast on Tuesday, September 8, the day Chad Spicer was buried. Red and white and blue balloons, tethered to mailboxes across Sussex County, flapped in a cool breeze that hinted at the coming of rain. There was a service at the Crossroads Community Church.

Police officers from more than 100 units in Delaware and across the nation had met at the Christiana Mall early in the day. Their cars and motorcycles formed a mile-long procession that headed south on Del. 1. Arriving in Georgetown two hours later, they escorted the white hearse that bore Spicer’s casket. The procession drove through Kimmeytown—a Last Watch—as families left their homes to salute the fallen officer. For nearly four miles of the Seashore Highway, officers stood in salute as the hearse made its way to the cemetery.

Nine months after Spicer was murdered, town manager Gene Dvornick flips through a large loose-leaf binder labeled “Funeral.” It contains reams of meeting notes and cryptically sketched maps of Georgetown, all written in the days after Spicer’s death.

When Dvornick isn’t overseeing the town, he is a deputy chief with the Milton Fire Department. On the night of September 1, he was one of two people Topping called for help. At about 9 p.m., Dvornick hastily wrote a brief statement on a sheet of yellow note paper, which he then read aloud at the Sussex County Emergency Operations Center, informing the media, the townspeople and the state of Delaware that Spicer had been pronounced dead.

In the wake of Spicer’s death, Dvornick and other Georgetown leaders braced for a backlash of anger and racist sentiment, given that Spicer was white and Powell was of mixed heritage. Indeed, a floodgate of emotion found its way onto Internet sites and at the trail end of online news reports.

“For what it’s worth, I’m enjoying seeing the cuts and bruises on this scumbag’s face,” read one comment. Said another, in all capital letters, “He killed a police officer doing his job. Whatever the hell happens to him is not good enough.” Someone else wrote, “The only thing missing is the bullet hole between his eyes.”

Yet the backlash town leaders had feared would rupture the town forever ended in cyberspace. Grief and mourning, it turned out, were color-blind. Everyone in Georgetown and beyond was, for the first time, bound by a common conversation, by the same tragedy. Lines in the pavement suddenly blurred. After years of polite but distinct separation, second- and third-generation white families were helping the families in Kimmeytown plant flowers and create murals to honor Spicer.

“The initial wave of numbness, the feeling of ‘Why, in of all places, did it happen here?’ was soon replaced by, ‘What needs to get done and how do we do it correctly and with everyone’s help?’” Dvornick says. “Rather than rage and anger, it was acceptance and revelation. It was as if the entire town understood that, yes, the event took place, and we cannot change what happened. But now we need to come together to show respect toward the event and change things for the better.”

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Brian Pettyjohn was installed as the mayor of Georgetown on May 26. Except for 10 years that he lived upstate, he has called the town his home since he was born.

When he was a boy, he would accompany his father on drives through the town, watch him wave to people on the sidewalk as he passed by them. “That feeling went away for a long time, but I’m starting to see it again,” Pettyjohn says. “From tragedy, you receive small gifts.”

He waved a hand in the direction of The Circle. “Here, you treat your neighbors as though they’re your family, and the Spicer family has always opened up their hearts to people,” he says. “When tragedy happens to people like that, it becomes natural for others to give back in that same capacity. I wish we could bottle that feeling and sell it.”

Perhaps at no other time had Pettyjohn felt the gravity of his position than on Friday, September 4, 2009, when a candlelight vigil, sponsored by the Georgetown chapter of HOLA, was held on The Circle. Hundreds of people attended, holding candles that HOLA had donated. Surrounded by Secret Service, Joe Biden told the masses in attendance that he came to the service not as the vice president of the United States, but as a citizen of Delaware.

“Because of us, because we ask men and women to strap on a sidearm and put on a badge to protect us, we, the people of Georgetown, of this county, we owe you. There are no words to heal us tonight, anyone who has lost a child, a loved one, someone you were in love with. There are never appropriate words to fill that void.”

He then walked up to Aubrey, Spicer’s 2-year-old daughter and with his right hand, he touched her left cheek. He then returned to his seat, dropped his head into his hands, and wept.

“On the night of the candlelight vigil, I remember thinking to myself, ‘I am so proud of my town,’” says town council member Sue Barlow. Her two sons Michael and Matthew serve on the Georgetown police force. “Wards of this town that don’t generally mix had begun to form a checkerboard cloth of unity. Strangers began to go up to strangers. However tragic this event was, it has changed the entire palette of our community.”

“Chad loved the people of Kimmeytown and the entire Hispanic community of Georgetown,” Pettyjohn says. “They knew that he would do anything they needed of him. That night, they repaid him.”

On the wall of Chief Topping’s office at the Georgetown Police Department on Pepper and Race streets, there are two photographs that show that true grit and compassion can coexist in the same person. On one end, a sepia-toned John Wayne wears a cowboy hat and wields a pistol. On the other end, high on the shelf, there is a framed color photo of Ruth Ann and Norman Spicer, Chad’s parents, holding their granddaughter, Aubrey.

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On September 1, Topping was in a heightened state of awareness and concentration, laser-focused on finding two suspects. On the morning of September 2, he was calling an attorney to establish a trust fund for Aubrey. A year later, the weight of Spicer’s loss remains an albatross in not only Topping’s life, but in that of his police force. He asks himself questions: What if I had installed bulletproof windshields in each of the vehicles? What if I had just sent more than one cop car on the night of September 1?

Topping is not alone. One police officer who was vacationing with his wife is still wracked with guilt that he wasn’t there for Spicer. “I lost an officer,” he says. “I lost a friend. This was a man I was responsible for. While I wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger, I feel a great sense of responsibility as to what happened to Chad.”

One of Topping’s key initiatives over the past year has been to steer his force away from the would’a, could’a, should’a of self-blame.

“Will we ever be able to get back to where we were? No,” he says. “But are we able to function again as a unit? Yes. We’ve reached a point where we need to carry on, because we’ve got a community to protect and lives to live, but we can’t forget about Chad and his family. The old saying goes that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

During times of severe crisis, it is not uncommon for police forces to cave into the stress of holding entire towns together, pressure that leads some to resign. In the nine months following the murder of their colleague, all 21 members of the Georgetown Police Department have remained.

“At the funeral, Ruth Ann Spicer told me, ‘This is the end. This is the last tribute,’” Topping says. “I told her, ‘Oh, no. It’s far from over. As long as a Georgetown police officer continues to draw breath, it will not be over.’ Out of everything that’s happened in the last year, the one thing that’s been constant is that we do not want to forget Chad.”

Few others are forgetting, either. What began as hundreds of people holding small white candles on a quiet evening last September has now, a year after Spicer’s death, become a small militia of support for his family.

The Tour de Force, a national philanthropic organization that raises funds for the families of fallen police officers, presented a check for $5,000 to Spicer’s parents and Topping. Pettyjohn says the town is looking to raise funds to build a monument in The Circle that will serve as a tribute to Spicer and Harvey Gregg, a Georgetown police officer who suffered a heart attack while on duty several decades ago.

In May a Delaware Law Enforcement Memorial on Legislative Mall was dedicated in Dover, where a black granite wall with the statue of a kneeling policeman honors the 36 Delaware officers who have died in the line of duty. At the ceremony, each of the names of the officers was read. When Spicer’s name was read, Aubrey placed a single rose on the monument.

A week later, a memorial service hosted by Police Unity Tour Chapter II of New Jersey took place in The Circle, which included dozens of bicyclists, police motorcycle units and a presentation to the Spicer family. In June a memorial golf tournament was held at the Heritage Shores Golf Club. It raised thousands in support of Aubrey.

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Last November, a grand jury returned a 14-count indictment against Powell, charging him with first-degree murder in Spicer’s death, second-degree assault for firing the shot that injured Brittingham, and other offenses.

The trial, scheduled to begin next month, is likely to be a death penalty case. The defense team for Powell made a motion in April to move the trial from the Sussex County Courthouse, on The Circle in Georgetown, to Kent or New Castle County, due to the highly anticipated degree of public sentiment in Spicer’s favor. Superior Court Judge T. Henley Graves ruled that the trial will remain in Georgetown.

Just west of Georgetown, down the Seashore Highway and across the street from the Cokesbury Church, there is a small cemetery where Chad Spicer lay buried. Several bouquets of synthetic flowers garnish the edges of the plot. Small American flags protrude from the ground, one from a black cowboy hat that displays a police badge on its front crest. Someone has left a six-pack of Bud Light beside a marker. The likeness of two photographs have been chiseled into the black marble of the grave, one of Spicer and his parents, the other of Spicer and Aubrey smiling over a birthday cake. Carved into the stone are the words “My family and my friends and my career are the number one things in my life.”

These gifts were what Chad Spicer lived for. Perhaps they were also what he died for.

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