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Trooper stops wrong-way driver with skillful chase, last-second crash

A Maine State Trooper has won plaudits for a daring drive last month, using his cruiser to stop a wrong-way driver on a busy interstate thanks to some split-second timing — an event captured on the cruiser’s camera.

Trooper Douglas Cropper had stopped a semi truck on June 29 on I-295 outside Portland, Maine, when he saw a 2010 Toyota Corolla hurtling north in the southbound lanes across the freeway. Cropper got off the freeway to get ahead of the car — and was immediately blocked by construction on the on-ramp, forcing him to weave through traffic on sidestreets to get back on the freeway.

When he emerges, Cropper is just behind the Corolla, which you can see in the video above at the 1:21 mark moving against traffic on the other side of the highway. Cropper speeds ahead to an emergency turnaround and uses the nose of his Ford Crown Victoria cruiser as a battering ram to halt the Corolla.

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Maine State Police Awards Honors Citizens As Well As Law Enforcement

A new trooper of the year was crowned in Augusta Thursday. It was standing room only as Trooper Thomas Pappas was named Maine’s Trooper of the Year at the Maine State Police Awards in Augusta. Trooper Pappas patrols in Androscoggin County and according to his boss, Colonel Robert Williams Chief of the maine State Police, has been a key player in a number of drug arrests. Williams says Pappas has been involved in 800 calls in the past year. “Every single week he is one of the people who continually reoccurs in the weekly reports,” Colonel Williams told a packed house. “And I have to tell you when you’re out there working and you’re grinding away day after day call after call if you do the math on 800 calls divided by 215 work days it’s a lot of work.”

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Maine facing state trooper shortage

The Maine Department of Public Safety is scrambling to fill state police vacancies as a wave of troopers becomes eligible for retirement.

Col. Patrick Fleming, state police chief, says there are currently 27 openings, and another 40 troopers are expected to retire in the coming year. He say the state is working to recruit new troopers, but that there will continue to be a shortage because it takes time to them trained.

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Maine Police already using new law targeting driving while distracted

Ted Short, before becoming the town’s police chief five years ago, was a state trooper and once saw a man enjoying a haddock dinner, with all the fixings, as he barreled down the highway.

Short caught up with the driver, but couldn’t cite him for breaking the law because erratic driving in itself isn’t a violation.

“There really was nothing I could do other than say, ‘That’s dangerous, you shouldn’t be doing that,'” Short recalled.

A driver doing the same thing today, however, might be hit with a $119 fine for driving while distracted, as allowed by the state’s new “Failure to Maintain Control of a Motor Vehicle” law.

The law took effect Sept. 12 in an effort to tamp down the number of accidents caused by distracted drivers, whether they be talking on a cell phone, combing their hair, reaching for something in the back seat or, well, doing any number of things that divert one’s focus from the road.

“We’ve all seen the person eating, reading, shaving, applying makeup, texting — doing something other besides driving while they go down the road,” said Maine State Police Lt. Chris Grotton, commanding officer of the state’s traffic safety unit.

About a dozen states, including New Hampshire, have passed laws banning text messaging while driving, and many states and cities have targeted the making of cell phone calls while driving.

There have been efforts in Maine to follow suit, but they haven’t been successful, in part for the conflict raised by creating an exemption for public safety officials and commercial drivers, Grotton said.

Maine’s new law is particularly broad, placing all types of driver distraction under one statute. However, it doesn’t make distractions like using phones illegal directly. Under the law, motorists can’t be hit with a driving-while-distracted fine unless they’ve committed another driving offense, whether it be speeding, driving slow enough to impede traffic or weaving out of the traffic lane.

Police chiefs, officers and driving instructors say they welcome the law in hopes of making the roads safer. And they say the perils posed by distracted drivers is an issue they’re all too familiar with: Grotton said about 30 percent, or roughly 12,000 crashes, of all the crashes in the state are caused by distracted drivers.

Kittery police Officer Brian Cummer made use of the law just days after it went into effect after he had to get off the road to avoid colliding with a car that was headed the opposite way but “completely in my lane.”

“He barely missed me,” he said. “He looked up at the last minute and turned.”

Cummer pulled the driver over, asked what was going on, and learned the driver was looking for a cell phone to retrieve a call from his girlfriend.

“He was kind of apologetic, but I don’t think he understood the whole point of the ticket,” Cummer said.

Drivers who successfully contest the matter in court could see the fine eliminated or lowered to as little as $25. However, a judge also could opt to ratchet the fine up to $500.

Kittery Police Chief Edward Strong said he expects his officers to be issuing more of the tickets based on current trends.

“Years ago the biggest thing was turning the radio up or down,” he said, adding that today, technology has put cell phones into the mix, some with e-mail.

The technology is increasingly ubiquitous — the state itself has used Twitter to let people retrieve, on their phones, real-time updates on road conditions.

Grotton said such use doesn’t conflict with the new law because it’s still legal to talk on the phone or use devices while driving so long as it doesn’t impact the flow of traffic.

Police said evidence such as operator and witness statements and physical evidence at the scene can be used in enforcing the new law.

Short said he did not think officers will experience “any more of a burden” than they already encounter in the process of policing roads.

The legislation’s fiscal note said the collection of additional fines will increase state revenue while state police may have to attend court more — on their days off, which entails overtime — if the tickets are challenged.

“We’re not looking to make revenue,” York Police Chief Douglas Bracy said. “It’s a tool to make people realize these accidents are happening and they’re causing us great concern.”

Bracy said his department has seen a rise in single-vehicle accidents caused by distraction.

Gary Boyd, who runs the Coastal Community Driving School in York, said the law’s “effectiveness will have a lot to do with how well it is advertised or brought to the public’s attention.”

Mike Aquilina, who plans to teach Maine students from his Dover, N.H., B-Safe Driving School, said young drivers encounter a plethora of distractions while driving.

At his school, he said, he tries to ram home a key point to deter distracted driving: “Dead is forever. There is no second chance.”

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‘Legendary’ trooper recalls life in the trenches

Hollis “Tom” Dixon stands outside his Masonic Lodge office on Congress Street in Portland on a sunny Friday afternoon, telling a story about a foggy day in 1970 when, in the midst of his career as a Maine state trooper, his life almost ended.

He grabs his left arm and pulls up his shirt sleeve, revealing a bumpy and swollen wrist that was damaged when an 18-wheeler struck his police cruiser, almost killing both him and his partner.

“We had pulled a car over who had passed us traveling at 85 miles per hour in a fog where you couldn’t see the hood of your car,” Dixon said. “While we were pulled over, a big rig came over the hill and struck the police cruiser. His tires left rubber on the backseat of the car and his tires slammed into Ormond Trask’s head, smashing his face into the steering wheel and breaking his nose.

“I was walking back to the car and the truck pushed the cruiser into me and I went flying through the passenger-side door window. I broke my left wrist, busted my knee and broke my ribs.”

While Dixon tells the story, he laughs in places. He chalks the experience up to just another day as a Maine state trooper.

It was events like that one coupled with a 25-year career as a state trooper that recently earned Dixon the title of legendary.

In late May, the Maine State Police bestowed its highest honor on the 73-year-old Dixon when it named him Legendary Trooper of the police force, an honor that recognizes an officer’s courage and exemplary public service in law enforcement.

Dixon, whom his friends describe as humble and warm, said he appreciates the award but it was his service to Maine that was his true reward.

“It means a great deal, because the state police was my primary career. I was extremely proud of being a state trooper,” said Dixon, who is also a former Scarborough police chief. “I felt very fortunate to even have been accepted. I feel I had a very good work ethic because of my family history and I tried very hard and I had a lot of success. I had a nice career.”

For as long as Dixon can remember, he wanted to be a state trooper. It wasn’t the power or the freedom of the job, but a feeling of respect that drew the Lewiston native and Scarborough resident to his chosen profession.

In 1958, Dixon became a trooper at age 22. He moved through the ranks, eventually becoming a captain in the late 1970s before retiring in 1983.

Born in Lewiston, he moved to South Portland when he was 6. That was during World War II, and he said he remembers two uncles who served during the war. He said their service and his respect for them led to his career.

“I had nothing but great respect for them,” Dixon said. “I’ve always had great respect for our military personnel and I knew that I wanted to serve our citizens in some capacity. I got interested in police work when I was in my 20s, and I never really considered joining any other department except the state police because I looked upon them as the elite.”

After graduating from the Maine State Police Academy in 1958, Dixon landed his first job at the Troop A barracks in Kittery. There he met one of the most influential people in his career. He was assigned to a training officer, a 12-year veteran and former Navy Seal named Chester Emmons.

Emmons showed him the ropes, groomed him for the job and also gave him his nickname.

“He’s what you called a tough trooper,” Dixon said. “First thing he said to me was, ‘What did they say your name was?’ I told him Hollis. He said that wouldn’t do. He said, ‘We’ll call you Tom,’ and I told him I didn’t want to be called that because I had a brother-in-law named Tom. He said, ‘Tom or Mary.’ ”

From then on, every police officer Dixon met called him Tom.

Dixon’s partner Trask remembers Dixon as a “great” officer, but recalls that day in 1970 that almost killed both of them as a defining moment in Dixon’s character.

“We shouldn’t be alive,” said Trask, who temporarily went blind 30 years later as a result of his head injuries. “I don’t know how we survived, especially Tom, because he got hurt worse than I did.”

Trask said Dixon never stewed over the accident and when he was ready to return to work, he did so with aplomb.

“He is just that kind of man,” Trask said. “He was a wonderful man to work for, but he was an even better person to be a friend of.”

Another memorable on-the-job experience for Dixon involved a run-in with organized crime.

During Labor Day in 1962, Dixon met with a man who said the Mafia had a contract out on him and was trying to kill him. Dixon asked him to wait in the station while he called the head of the criminal division in Augusta to verify the man’s story.

“He said he couldn’t tell me how he knew the Mafia was after him,” Dixon said. “I knew the Massachusetts State Police had a detail that tracked the Mafia, and I asked our criminal division if they knew this Anthony Staphapopolous. They called me back about five or 10 minutes later and asked if I still had that guy there. They told me to hold onto him because he was a key witness in a Mafia hit case.”

Earlier in the day the Mafia had tried to kill Staphapopolous in the woods in Scarborough, but he noticed the black car with four men inside and took off, Dixon said.

Dixon said he was going to transport Staphapopolous to the New Hampshire line so their state police could turn him over to the Massachusetts State Police, but a warning came in before he left for the detail.

“The dispatcher called the barracks in Scarborough and said I probably wanted to know there was a black car going back and forth with four men in it,” Dixon said. “I said ‘Holy cow.’ I had a few officers wait and they later verified the scene was clear. I got another trooper to ride with me and I took every damn back road all the way there.”

Dixon almost swerved from his trooper ambitions when a love for art took hold of him in his late teens. After graduating from South Portland High School, he received a scholarship to the School of Fine and Applied Arts, now Maine College of Art, in Portland.

“I went to that school and I completed three years at that school and got three scholarships,” Dixon said. “I got to the point where I didn’t really know if I wanted to continue that career path, and that’s when I turned my interest to police work and applied to the academy and got accepted to the state police.”

Dixon said he enjoys painting watercolors and oil paintings, but now focuses on calligraphy. He doesn’t have as much time for art these days, because he is Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Masons, which means he oversees the 24 secretaries of the 187 lodges in Maine.

“It definitely keeps me busy,” he said.

Those who know Dixon know that slowing down is not in his nature, said Corey Center, his stepdaughter. “He was a wonderful stepdad to have, because he is always involved with something,” Center said.

After Dixon retired from the state police in 1983, he became Scarborough’s police chief, a post he held until 1999.

“It was tough sometimes having your stepfather as the police chief in the town (where) you attended high school,” Center said. “You couldn’t get away with anything.”

It had its perks, however, Center said. She remembers going to see the Blue Angels, and also meeting George W. Bush, even before he was governor of Texas, in the late 1980s. “That’s not a childhood a lot of people got to experience,” she said.

In the past year, Dixon has written a book intended for his family. He has a son and a daughter from a previous marriage and has been married for the past 28 years to Sandra Dixon, who had two daughters from a previous marriage. There are several grandchildren now.

While he relishes his stories, he said he has no intentions of making his book public.

“I had a great life as a trooper and I have a lot of stories to tell,” he said. “There are some stories, however, that are a bit more personal and I want to leave those for my family, because those are who they’re for.”

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Detective Jason Andrews of Lincolnville named trooper of the year

Detective Jason Andrews of Lincolnville has been named Trooper of the Year. Andrews joined the Maine State Police in 2001 and patrolled in Waldo and Knox counties as a member of Troop D, until he was promoted late last year to detective and transferred to the central criminal division. Prior to joining the Maine State Police, Andrews was an elementary school teacher in Massachusetts. He is a native of Bristol, R.I.detjasonandrews

“Detective Andrews is a quiet, hard-working, dedicated member of the State Police and I am proud to name him the 44th recipient of this honor,” said Col. Patrick Fleming.

Andrews’ award will be one of the highlights of the annual Maine State Police awards ceremony on Wednesday, May 20. Andrews and his wife, Jessica, are the parents of a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. In addition to being named Trooper of the Year, Andrews will receive a Maine State Police Meritorious Service Award for his role Oct. 31. 2008, responding to a situation wherein a gunman took students hostage inside Stockton Springs Elementary School. Several others will also be honored for their roles in that incident. The Trooper of the Year award was established in 1964 by the Maine State Police to honor Trooper Charles Black, who was shot and killed that year during a bank robbery in South Berwick.

A Massachusetts man was seriously burned last weekend in a fire that destroyed his camp in Newport. The State Fire Marshal’s Office said Thomas Fitzgerald, 47, is being treated at Mass General in Boston for burns to more than half his body. The burned man drove himself from his camp on the Durham Ridge Road to the Irving Convenience Store in Newport to seek help. An ambulance initially took Fitzgerald to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor; he was later transferred to Boston. Fire investigators think a candle started the fire. A thunderstorm had knocked out power and Fitzgerald told investigators he had been burning candles. Fitzgerald has been transferred out of the hospital’s intensive care unit.

Gov. Baldacci paid tribute to Maine’s fallen police officers Thursday during a ceremony at the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Augusta. “The work of police officers is never easy,” Baldacci said. “The risks are many and the thank-yous are too seldom heard.” The service included reading the 82 names etched on the Memorial. More than 40 Maine State Police troopers attended the ceremony, which was on the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the officers on the memorial. Westbrook Police Chief Pierre Harnois was shot to death May 14, 1959, in Limerick, in a five-hour gun battle with a man inside a house. Two other state troopers wounded that day recovered from their injuries. Maine State Police Pipes and Drums led the officers to the memorial observance.

Fire marshals said a house that burned to the ground last week in Knox was a case of arson. The fire destroyed Dan Labree’s home on the Aborn Hill Road. Labree was reportedly away at the time of the fire. Labree is the son of deceased Maine State Police Detective Otis Labree, the department’s first detective in 1955, who in 1999 was named Legendary Trooper.

Nearly 70 Maine police agencies will utilize federal funding for additional seat belt enforcement as part of the nationwide “Click It or Ticket” campaign. The Maine Bureau of Highway Safety is coordinating the May 18-31 effort. During last year’s campaign, police issued 3,471 seatbelt citations and 2,257 warnings. Local agencies taking part are: Lincolnville Police, $2,000; Searsport Police, $1,960; and Maine State Police, $15,000. The grand statewide total awarded was $144,060.

Maine State Police continue to investigate a Cornish crash last weekend which left a woman in critical condition. Trooper Benjamin Smith said Brenda Lea Simino, 46, of Parsonsfield, is being treated at Maine Medical Center in Portland after she was struck by a pickup truck. Smith said Simino was attempting to cross Route 25 at 11:30 p.m. May 9 when she was struck by the truck operated by Matthew Hutchins, 24, of Steep Falls. Hutchins was not injured.

The speeder of the week was an 18-year-old who reportedly passed an unmarked Maine State Police detective’s car at 106 mph. Detective Michael Zabarsky pulled over the teen on the Maine Turnpike in Auburn. In addition to a court date, the teen’s mother, who owns the car, was contacted.

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Maine State Police train for, train others on school safety

Last week’s school hostage incident at Stockton Springs Elementary School was the second time in 12 years that a gunman has entered a Maine school.

In 1996, a student fired a rifle inside Gardiner Area High School and took two students hostage before surrendering. Since 1977, more than 100 people in the United States have been killed in school shootings.

The Maine State Police and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy have participated in and offered extensive training regarding school violence. The Maine State Police Tactical Team has trained with local police departments at several schools and team members teach an eight-hour block of instruction to every new police officer at the academy.

Earlier this year, Maine State Police hosted two training sessions featuring experts on school violence. In April, Lt. Col. David Grossman, spoke for six hours on violent crime and school shootings, and in August, John Giduck from the Archangel Group, detailed a 2004 school takeover in Beslan, Russia, where more than 300 people were killed.

A Maine State Police Trooper saved a woman’s life in October after he stopped her for speeding on the Maine Turnpike. Trooper Richard Maguire pulled over the 60-year-old woman in Litchfield. As he was speaking with her, she began choking on crackers. Maguire administrated the Heimlich maneuver and the woman began breathing and drove home.

The Bureau of Highway Safety reported that thus far in 2008, 135 people have been killed in traffic crashes, compared to 158 a year ago. In October, 10 people were killed on Maine roads.

A 16-year-old boy faces a court date after passing a marked Maine State Police cruiser on Interstate 295 in Cumberland. Trooper Larry Rose said the teen, who had received his driver’s license weeks earlier, passed his cruiser at 97 mph. The boy reportedly had two teenage friends with him, which is in violation of his new license restrictions. In addition to his day in court, the teen will face an automatic suspension of his new license.

The Maine State Police continue to investigate last week’s violent sexual assault of a woman in Passadumkeag. The attack took place in the early morning after a male intruder broke into the house. The woman was treated and released from the hospital. Detectives gathered evidence, which is being processed at the crime lab.

John Fraser of Augusta was recently honored for his service to the Maine State Police and commercial vehicle safety in Maine. Fraser recently retired after 22 years of dedicated service as the supervisor of the Maine State Police’s motor carrier inspectors.

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