Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) called his time with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office “a long, strange trip, but mostly good.”
Cameron, who will complete his fourth — and according to him, his last — term in office at the end of next year, was the guest speaker for the St. Mary’s County Historical Society’s “History on Tap” series on Oct. 28 at The Rex restaurant and bar in Leonardtown.
“Being sheriff was never on my radar,” Cameron said. “If it was mentioned to me a year before I ran [in 2006], I would’ve laughed.”
The worst day in the history of the county, in his opinion, was March 20, 2018, when 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey and 14-year-old Desmond Barnes were shot at Great Mills High School, and Willey later died. The shooter, 17-year-old Austin Wyatt Rollins, was then involved in a shooting with Deputy Blaine Gaskill and died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police.
Cameron said that as he was driving down to Great Mills that day, he thought about shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the month prior, where police officers didn’t immediately engage. He called that “a failure of leadership.”
Upon arrival at Great Mills High, Cameron said he saw “cars everywhere with the doors open,” noting deputies arrived in such a hurry they didn’t bother to close their doors.
He called Gaskill, who was the school resource officer at the school, “a very quiet guy” who was “a bright and shining light.”
Sometime later, Charlie Wharton, who served as a chaplain for the sheriff’s office, walked into Cameron’s office and asked if he needed anything. “Can you talk to your boss and see if he can make it snow?” Cameron said, noting that “it worked for [Gen. Patton] ... It snowed and school was canceled the next day,” Cameron said.
Right before the Great Mills High School shootings, Cameron referenced an event at Leonardtown High School. “We took 30 guns out of a house when they said there was none,” he said.
Some infamous unsolved “cold case” crimes from St. Mary’s include the deaths of Ida Mae Kirk, 73, and a “Mrs. Gibson” on Jan. 9, 1933, when a bomb planted under Kirk’s car exploded on Route 238 near Chaptico.
Henrietta Ragan, 44, was found dead in her bed in Leonardtown on Dec. 5, 1959. Evidence may have been lost when friends of the socialite flocked to the crime scene, according to a Guide to St. Mary’s published by The Enterprise in 2001. The sheriff at the time said political interests interfered with his investigation, which led to no arrests.
A cold case that Cameron can’t let go of involves the beheading of two black Labrador retrievers in Mechanicsville in July 2019, noting that he occasionally asks his detectives about it. “I can’t believe something hasn’t materialized,” he said.
Cameron spoke of “The Flattop Rapist,” which involved a stakeout that resulted in him sitting in a closet in the days before hand-held radios. A man was arrested that night at a different house and got life in prison for one of the rape charges, Cameron said.
He also recalled a Capt. Jackson who bought a one-way bus ticket from Fort Bliss, Texas, to St. Mary’s and killed himself and his ex-wife’s new husband after the state police induced gas into a hostage situation.
Heroin, school shootings and a pandemic
“Who saw heroin coming?” Cameron said. “What took it off the front page? School shootings. What knocked that off? A pandemic.”
Cameron said his toughest decision has been whether or not to put a dog down.
During a question-and-answer session, Charlie Breck, a former dispatcher, said he came on board in 1980 about a month before Cameron began working for the sheriff’s office as a deputy.
“From day one, he was one of the best people I’ve ever worked with,” Breck said.
He recalled one night, probably in the mid-1990s, when a woman called from a Mechanicsville motel and said two guys were wrestling with two other guys. One guy said he was a police officer and asked her to “send help quick,” Breck said.
He said a Charles County deputy rolled in and helped Cameron and Deputy John Rhodes subdue the other two men. If the Charles deputy hadn’t showed up, Cameron and Rhodes wouldn’t be here right now, Breck said. Rhodes is retired and lives in Breton Bay west of Leonardtown, Breck said.
“We walked into the middle of a sale of an ounce of cocaine,” Cameron said, noting it was 97% pure. The two men “felt no pain” because of the effect of the narcotic, the sheriff said. “I walked in [to the motel] with a gun to the guy’s head and said to the woman, ‘Would you please call the police?’”
The culture of the sheriff’s office has changed over the years, he said, noting he fired a number of people in his early years as sheriff.
The culture has shifted from being a “warrior” to being a “guardian,” he said. This involves doing everything you can not to use force. Now, “the rank and file takes care of themselves,” he said, adding they don’t tolerate excessive force.
Cameron noted that two books about the history of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office are on sale at the St. Mary’s County Historical Society, which is located in Tudor Hall in downtown Leonardtown at 41680 Tudor Place.