Snowy Owl Winter Irruption Not Expected To End Soon

A snowy owl is pictured at the Delaware Seashore State Park. Photo by Sharon Lynn

ASSATEAGUE — The frequency and volume of snowy owl sightings throughout the local area and across much of the northeast in recent weeks have not abated and the phenomena is now being considered a once in a lifetime event.

Through much of December and the early weeks of 2014, local residents and visitors to beaches in Maryland and Delaware have been treated to rare opportunities to see snowy owls up close and in person as the arctic visitors have flocked to the mid-Atlantic coastal areas. Their visit is called an “irruption” in scientific terms, and while irruptions are fairly common for many species of migratory birds, the ongoing irruption of snowy owls in the local area has been especially noteworthy and is being referred to now as a natural history event.

A couple months in, the snowy owl irruption has shown no signs of abating, according to Carrie Samis, education coordinator with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

“The irruption isn’t waning,” she said. “The birds are everywhere in record numbers. This is the biggest irruption in 40 to 50 years and likely the largest in our lifetime. While irruptions occur in other years, it’s never been of this magnitude.”

Samis said this week there is no indication the snowy owl irruption w until the magnificent birds are ready to continue their migration later this winter or early spring.

“It’s likely that we’ll continue to see snowy owls through February,” she said this week. “By March, they’ll probably start making their way back to the arctic.”

Scientists are seeking answers for the unusual irruption of snowy owls and are trying to gain a better understanding of the migration patterns of the large, majestic birds. To that end, an effort called Project SNOWstorm has been started to research the current irruption in the local area and across much of the U.S. Through Project SNOWstorm, some of the birds have been briefly captured and fitted with a solar-powered transmitter allowing scientists and bird-watching enthusiasts to track their movements. The first snow owl fitted with a transmitter was tagged on Assateague in December and the bird has traveled hundreds of miles since.

The first owl tagged in Maryland, appropriately named “Assateague,” has traveled great distances since being fitted with the first transmitter back on Dec. 17. “Assateague” left the barrier island two days after being fitted with the transmitter and flew north to Cape Henlopen where it hung around for a day. The owl then flew 38 miles across open water to reach the north shore of the Delaware Bay.

From there, the owl moved across the New Jersey coast to the town of Reed’s Beach, where he spent a week. Leaving Reed’s Beach, “Assateague” flew across southern New Jersey in the middle of the night and followed the Tuckahoe River toward the Jersey shore before flying up the coast to Atlantic City, where he spent some time on the famous Steel Pier. “Assateague” then continued up the Jersey coast to Brigantine, completing a journey of 100 straight-line miles or 150 flying miles from where he started on Assateague just 11 days earlier.

By contrast, a second snowy owl tagged under Project SNOWstorm in central Wisconsin on Dec. 23 has not shown the same wanderlust as his Assateague relative. Named “Buena Vista” for the area in Wisconsin where he was first observed and later tagged, that snowy owl has rarely ventured more than a mile or so from where the transmitter was first affixed.

“Assateague” has not been heard from for several days, but scientists are not overly concerned. Project SNOWstorm officials believe the owl has likely moved into an area with limited cell phone coverage, which will not impact the GPS data. The units continue to record locations around the clock, even if the owl moves out of cell tower range. Once “Assateague” moves back into transmitter range, a fresh pile of backlogged data showing his recent whereabouts will become available, according to Samis.

“Although ‘Assateague’ is out of range now, the transmitter is still collecting information, which will automatically download once the bird is back in range,” she said. “Assateague has traveled well over 250 miles since being fit with the transmitter, from here to Delaware to New Jersey. Already, we’re seeing differences in movement and behavior that could help us better understand these birds.”

From the outset, Project SNOWstorm set a fundraising goal of $20,000 for more transmitters to track the snowy owl irruption in the local area and across much of the eastern U.S. Less than two weeks into the fundraising effort conducted on Indiegogo, just over $19,000 has been raised. Samis said this week the $20,000 will be used specifically for transmitters, but the fundraising efforts will continue after the goal is reached and donations will continue to be accepted.

“Additional dollars will be used to fund more research, toxicology screenings, necropsies when dead birds are found, etc.” she said. “The more money they raise, the more research they can do, gleaning as much information as possible about this event. We really don’t know a lot about snowy owls and this is our big chance to learn a lot more.”

Later this month, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art at Salisbury University is hosting a panel discussion on the snowy owl irruption and the research it has inspired. Samis will be joined on the panel by ecologist David Brinker and state wildlife veterinarian Cindy Driscoll, both of Maryland DNR. The program is set for Wednesday, Jan. 20 from 4-6 p.m. at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art.

 

 

Surfrider Foundation Honors Citizen For Petition Effort

Ocean City resident Matt Landon is pictured with Ocean City Surfrider Foundation representative Shelly Dawson, left, and Mid-Atlantic Regional Manager John Weber.

OCEAN CITY — The local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation last week honored an Ocean City man with a Certificate of Appreciation for his efforts to derail a preliminary decision by the Mayor and Council this fall to consider allowing vehicles on the beach in certain areas during the offseason.
In September, the Ocean City Mayor and Council discussed the possibility of a one-year pilot program allowing vehicles on the beach in certain areas from Nov. 1 to March 31 to accommodate surf fishing and other activities in the hopes of stimulating the offseason. The town’s elected officials agreed to move forward with the pilot program contingent upon a Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) review and approval.
However, even the concept of allowing vehicles on the beaches in the resort caused a public outcry, eventually forcing the town’s elected officials to abandon the idea completely. The public uproar was driven largely by a petition drive engineered by Ocean City resident Matt Landon.
Landon created the petition on Change.org titled “Ocean City, Md. Council: Repeal the approval to drive on the beach from Nov. 1 to March 31.”
In a matter of days, the petition had garnered over 900 signatures of those opposed to the proposed program.
“Locals wait all summer long for clean, empty, tranquil beaches,” the petition read. “Now, with this drive-on approval by the Ocean City Mayor and Council, we can only envision walking over the dune crossing and seeking multiple trucks in the place where you would normally surf, practice yoga, run, exercise, let your dog run free or just come to relax. Local residents come out of hiding to enjoy the peacefulness of the Ocean City Beaches from October to April.”
The proposed pilot program would have allowed vehicles on the beaches between 27th Street and 94th Street in Ocean City from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. from November through March. Unlimited permits would have cost $75 each, but the permits would have to be tied to surf fishing.
In the petition, Landon appealed to the elected officials to reverse their perceived support for the pilot program to allow vehicles on the beach from November through March.
“Too many people use the mid-town beaches during the offseason,” the petition read. “Please take a step back and reconsider this. Myself and others strongly believe this is a poor decision made on the Council’s behalf and one that shows a lack of respect for the ocean and a lack of understanding of the area as a community.”
At their next meeting after the release of the petition and the associated public outcry, the Mayor and Council voted 6-1 to withdraw the application to the DNR to review the pilot program and create a plan to market it. Last week, the Ocean City Surfrider Foundation recognized Landon for his efforts with a Certificate of Appreciation.

Worcester Prep Students Rally For Community’s Needy

Worcester1BERLIN — The spirit of giving was on full display this week at Worcester Preparatory School as students began organizing seemingly endless stacks of food for distribution to the less fortunate in the community during the holiday season.
On Wednesday, students at Worcester Prep started to organize and prepare the massive amounts of canned goods and other non-perishable food items they have been collecting since Thanksgiving for the annual Student Government Association (SGA) Food Drive. On tables in the school’s dining hall were  stacks of food the students were organizing by type in preparation for distribution to six area churches and support organizations, which will, in turn, distribute to those most in need in the community this holiday season.
Each year, Worcester Prep’s SGA organizes the annual holiday food drive, which includes contributions from each and every one of the school’s 550 or so students. Each student is asked to donate at least $3 and as many canned goods or other non-perishable food items for the drive.
“It’s an annual thing Worcester Prep and the SGA has been doing for as long as I can remember,” said SGA President Lucas Baier. “Every kid donates $3 and brings as many canned goods as they possibly can. The food is then organized and distributed to six different churches or support organizations throughout the area.”
Baier said the $3 donations from each student this year brought the total to around $2,000. That money is then used by the SGA to purchase hams to go along with the endless baskets of food collected and distributed to the local organizations. In the past, the SGA would take the money and buy as many hams as they could from area grocery stores, but the volume of donations this year had the students looking for a new source.
“At over $2,000, this is the most we’ve collected in any year,” said Baier. “We used to go around to local stores and buy as many hams as we could, but with the volume of the donations this year, we made a deal with Sysco to get as many as we could with what we collected.”
Worcester2The SGA Food Drive distributes the massive amounts of food collected to various churches and support agencies in the area across different geographic, secular and religious borders. Among the recipients this year are the First Baptist Church, St. Paul’s in Berlin, the Stevenson United Methodist Church’s Spirit Kitchen, Diakonia in West Ocean City, the Atlantic Methodist Church in Ocean City and the Joseph House in Salisbury.
With the food stacked and organized in the school’s dining hall, the students were ready to split it up evenly and distribute it to the recipients. Baier said parents with minivans or trucks would help transport the holiday food packages to the churches and other organizations.
In addition, earlier this month, the Lower School students each wrapped a present to be collected by the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office for distribution to the needy in the community during the holiday season.
Baier said the amount of food and monetary donations collected were commensurate with the tough economic times.
“This year and last year, the churches and organizations called us and came to us seeking donations because the demand is stronger than ever with the economy and so many still struggling in the community,” he said. “We’ve collected more this year than ever and I’m very proud of our students for rallying for their community.”

Thunderbirds Returning To Ocean City Next June

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, pictured in 2012, will headline the 2014 OC Air Show followed by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels in 2015. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY – The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds this week officially announced the jet team will be returning to appear in the Ocean City Air Show in June 2014 after being grounded along with other military demonstration teams last year due to sequestration and federal budget cuts.
The Thunderbirds will headline the June 14-15 event over the skies of the resort. The Thunderbirds formally announced their 2014 performance schedule this week following the International Council of Air Shows Convention in Las Vegas last week. The Thunderbirds last performed at the Ocean City Air Show in 2012 and were scheduled to appear again last June before all military demonstration teams were grounded due to sequestration and federal budget cuts.
This fall, the Pentagon announced it was reinstating the Thunderbirds, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and other military demonstration units following the one-year hiatus. With the grounding orders lifted, the demonstration teams met in Las Vegas last week to begin patching together performance schedules for 2014 and beyond and the Thunderbirds included the Ocean City Air Show on its tour for 2014. The Ocean City Air Show in June will mark the Thunderbirds’ only performance in the mid-Atlantic region in 2014.
“We’re glad to be back,” said Thunderbirds Commander and lead pilot Lt. Col. Greg Moseley this week. “Right now, we’re focused on training. While we’re excited to know we’ll be able to tell the Air Force story on the road, we’re completely focused on ensuring we have a safe show season.”
The Thunderbirds’ announcement this week comes just one week after the Blue Angels confirmed an Ocean City Air Show stop on its schedule for 2015. The Blue Angels plan their air show stops and other appearances in a two-year cycle and the last cycle was completed in 2012, meaning their plans for 2013 and 2014 were already in the books. The Blue Angels were set to appear this June before the federal government cancelled their season.
The Thunderbirds will headline a full line-up of some of the nation’s top military and civilian performers at the Ocean City Air Show in June. Other performers already confirmed are the U.S. Army Silver Wings parachute team and the GEICO Skytypers. The rest of the line-up will be announced in the months leading up to the event.
“The OC Air Show keeps getting bigger and better thanks to the support of the town of Ocean City and the hundreds of thousands of spectators who come out to make it a success, some from as far away as New York, Ohio and the Carolinas,” said OC Air Show President Bryan Lilley this week. “We’re absolutely delighted to have both of our nation’s military jet demonstration teams committed to fly over OC over the next two years.”
The announcement of the Thunderbirds’ schedule this week, and the Blue Angels similar announcement last week, confirms the Defense Department’s renewed commitment to supporting community engagement following the shutdown. In an internal memo to military service chiefs last October, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed a continuing need to reinstate and maintain the military demonstration teams.
“Community and public outreach is a crucial departmental activity that reinforces trust and confidence in the U.S. military and in its most important asset-people,” said Hagel. “It is our obligation to sustain that trust well into the future.”

Mathias Seeking Third State Senate Term

State Senator Jim Mathias is pictured signing his re-election papers. Submitted Photo

OCEAN CITY — As expected, incumbent State Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) filed for re-election this week, setting the stage for what promises to be a spirited campaign against Republican challenger and current Delegate Mike McDermott for the seat.
Mathias, the popular incumbent state senator, whose District 38 includes Ocean City, Worcester County and much of the Lower Shore, officially filed for re-election on Wednesday. He said shortly thereafter he is ready, willing and able to continue to represent the Lower Shore in Annapolis.
“When I wake up every morning, my number one priority is doing everything I can to help the people I was elected to serve,” he said. “By working together, we have been able to make sure that the voices and the needs of the citizens of the Lower Shore have been heard in Annapolis.”
After serving as mayor of Ocean City for 10 years from 1996 to 2006, Mathias entered state politics when he was chosen to serve out the term of the late Delegate Bennett Bozman. Mathias was re-elected to the House 38B seat in 2006, narrowly beating Republican challenger and Ocean City hotelier Michael James. It was a situation that repeated itself in 2010 when Mathias edged James for the District 38 Senate seat. Now four years later, Mathias is seeking a new term as the Lower Shore’s senator in Annapolis and will be challenged by McDermott, who filed for the District 38 Senate seat in September, and possibly other candidates.
With his announcement on Wednesday, Mathias pointed to some of his proudest accomplishments over the last four years in the Senate. Among the accomplishments he listed is being a strong advocate for veteran issues on the Eastern Shore and across the state. For example, he co-sponsored legislation to make it easier for small businesses to hire veterans and was the lead sponsor on legislation making it easier for veterans to get the benefits they deserve by adding their veteran status to their driver’s licenses.
“A few weeks ago, I was asked by some fellow veterans ‘are we going to send Mathias back to Annapolis?’ and without hesitation, I replied you betcha,” said Sarge Garlitz of American Legion Post 166 in Ocean City. “I worked with Jim to expand slot machines into veterans clubs in Worcester County. Since that bill passed, over three quarters of a million dollars have been given to local charities. Senator Mathias worked tirelessly to allow veterans to display their military status on their driver’s licenses, making it easier for them to get the benefits they have earned. Our military men and women serve this country faithfully and admirably and it’s comforting to know that we have someone like Jim Mathias fighting for us.”
Mathias has also been a strong advocate for agriculture and the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore and in his largely rural district, an effort not lost on his colleagues in county government.
“In the last six months, the poultry and farming industry on the Eastern Shore has been under attack with proposed regulations that, if implemented, would be devastating to our industry,” said Worcester County Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “Jim has been at the forefront of fighting alongside the farming community against these regulations. He truly understands that agriculture is the economic engine of the Eastern Shore.”
While agriculture is certainly a driving force for the Lower Shore economy, tourism is another major piston in that economic engine and Mathias has been an advocate for tourism in and around the resort area. For example, he took the lead on the current effort to move the start of the school year back after Labor Day and has worked to secure state funding for the expansion and renovation of the Ocean City Convention Center. He also spearheaded the effort to expedite the process of allowing county business owners to purchase alcoholic beverages on the free market. His work on behalf of the county business community has not gone unrecognized.
“I’ve watched Jim Mathias effectively work for his constituents with his whole heart and soul,” said Seacrets owner Leighton Moore this week. “As a business owner, I tremendously appreciate Jim’s eagerness to work with everybody, regardless of their party affiliation, in his work to get things done for us here on the Lower Shore.”
A Democrat, Mathias has shown a willingness to break ranks on several key issues deemed important to his Lower Shore constituents. For example, he voted against the state’s gas tax hike and increases in the sales tax, income tax, alcohol tax and other taxes. He also voted against the gun bill and the repeal of the death penalty and voted for harsher penalties for sexual predators.
“We were able to accomplish these goals through team-building to make sure that my colleagues and state leadership in Annapolis understood our needs and were willing to work with us,” he said. “While we weren’t able to win every fight, I made sure that all members of the Maryland General Assembly knew what was important to the citizens of the Lower Shore.”
With much work yet to be done, Mathias said this week he is eager serve another term as the District 38 Senator.
“Working together, we have made great strides for the families of the Lower Shore, but there is still more to do and I look forward to continuing to work for you for the next four years,” he said.

Church Burn Victim Reflects On Surviving Blaze; ‘I Fought My Way By Him’ … ‘I Got Outside And That’s How I Survived It’

Submitted Photo

OCEAN CITY — About two weeks after the fatal fire at a historic downtown church that claimed the lives of two individuals, including the church pastor, the local woman critically injured in the blaze could soon be returning home in a remarkable story of determination.

The investigation into the Nov. 26 fire at the St. Paul’s by the Sea Episcopal Church on Baltimore Ave. at 3rd Street revealed a suspect, later identified as John Raymond Sterner, 56, of Ocean City, purchased gasoline at a nearby Shell station at the foot of the Route 50 bridge, walked several blocks to Baltimore Avenue, doused himself in gasoline, set himself on fire and then entered an area of the church rectory known as the Shepherd’s Crook.

Sterner was found deceased inside the building by first-arriving firefighters. During a search of the second floor of the structure, firefighters found the church pastor, Rev. David Dingwall, who was unconscious. Dingwall was quickly removed from the building and treated briefly at the scene by Ocean City paramedics before being transported to Atlantic General Hospital, where he later succumbed to his injuries. Last week, the Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office ruled Sterner’s death a suicide and Dingwall’s death a homicide, but the survivor’s version of the events is a story of fortitude and courage highlighted by a will to live.

Shortly after setting himself on fire and entering the Shepherd’s Crook, Sterner came into contact with an adult female, later confirmed to be Dana Truitt, 42, of Ocean City, who was working as a volunteer at the church on that fateful Tuesday morning.

In a telephone interview with The Dispatch on Monday from her hospital room at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Truitt recounted the events just prior to and after the blaze.

“I volunteer at the church on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and on that day I was helping with the Thanksgiving dinners,” she said. “When I looked outside, I saw the guy set himself on fire. He came in and said to me ‘you’re not getting outside’ and ‘you’re not leaving and you’re not getting out of here alive.’ I said ‘yes, I am’ and I fought my way by him. I got outside and that’s how I survived it.”

Truitt said Sterner attempted to prevent her from fleeing, but she was able to force her way past him. However, she was not able to get by the burning man before he came into contact with her and caught her on fire as well.

“He was able to grab my right side,” she said. “He grabbed me and said ‘you’re not going anywhere’ and I said ‘you watch me.’ That’s what I did. I pushed by him and I got back outside and the first thing I did was start to take my clothes off because I knew I wouldn’t live and I didn’t have any choice but to take my clothes off.”

So, Truitt was outside and on fire and attempting to take her burning clothes off when help arrived.

“I was outside and I started to take my clothes off when the fire company finally showed up,” she said. “They said ‘come on, get in the ambulance’ and I walked to the ambulance and that’s when they started cutting the rest of my clothes off. They said ‘Dana, we don’t know how you’re doing it honey, but you’re talking and can you tell us what happened and everything. I was telling them what was going on.”

Truitt said the incident happened without warning on a random quiet Tuesday morning at the church where she volunteered. She said she didn’t know Sterner personally, but was familiar with him as a regular at the Shepherd’s Crook.

“I had seen him before, but I didn’t really know him,” she said. “The one thing everybody around there knew about him was that he was a bad, bad alcoholic.”

Truitt said she was conscious during her transport via ambulance from the church fire to Berlin, but remembers little after that point.

“I remember being awake and alert as far as Berlin, but that’s when I think they gave me some medicine, because I started hurting real bad,” she said. “I was hurting from the beginning, but I must have been in shock because I really didn’t start hurting real bad until then. After that, I don’t remember anything until I got up here.”

Truitt said a couple of days past before she came around and woke up at Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

“They said I should be able to go home in about two weeks,” she said. “That’s what they’re saying now.

Truitt said in the weeks since, she has had good days and bad days, but it appears she has turned a corner.

“Right now, they’re not letting me have anything to drink,” she said. “I’m getting fluids intravenously. I’m just so thirsty.”

Truitt certainly has a long road to recovery, but under the circumstances, she is happy to be alive and awaits the opportunity to return to her resort home.

“They said for somebody that has third-degree burns like I got, they said I’m healing up real good,” she said. “They’ve said they have never seen anything like it before. That’s good news I guess.”

Truitt has worked for resort property owner Spiro Buas for the last few years and her fiancé has worked for Buas for 14 years or so. Already, Buas is organizing a fundraising effort for Truitt to help her with mounting medical costs and other expenses. An account has been opened in her name at the Bank of Ocean City titled the Dana Truitt Donation Fund. Donations can be made at any Bank of Ocean City branch or by mail to the Dana Truitt Donation Fund, C/O Bank of Ocean City, P.O. Box 150, Ocean City, Md. 21843.

It’s important for donors to specify the Dana Truitt Donation Fund as the Bank of Ocean City has other funds established in relation to the fire. In addition, donations can be made to the fund through www.ocrooms.com through the website’s donation link on the main page. The method of payment on the website is through PayPal.

The Dispatch will have more information about additional fundraising efforts for Truitt when they become available.

‘There Is No Indication Of Motivation And We May Never Know His True Intent’

OC Fire Marshal David Hartley and OCPD Captain Michael Colbert at this morning's press conference. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — One week after the fatal fire at a historic downtown church, more details have emerged, including the death of the beloved pastor being ruled a homicide and the death of the perpetrator a suicide.

Around 9:25 a.m. last Tuesday, Ocean City Communications received a call in reference to a fire at the St. Paul’s by the Sea Episcopal Church on Baltimore Ave. at 3rd Street. The Ocean City Fire Department responded and first-arriving units found fire coming from the church rectory. Preliminary findings by investigators indicated a suspect, later identified as John Raymond Sterner, 56, of Ocean City, entered the building with a significant amount of fire on and about his person, which quickly spread to the structure.

Sterner was found deceased inside the building by first-arriving firefighters. According to Ocean City Fire Marshal David Hartley on Tuesday, fire crews entered the first floor of the area of the church rectory known as the Shepherd’s Crook and came into contact with Sterner, who had suffered “injuries incompatible with life,” and who was determined to be deceased at the scene.

After the fire was brought under control, firefighters then began a search of the second floor of the structure and found the church pastor, Reverend David Dingwall, amid heavy smoke and heat conditions. Dingwall, who was unconscious at the time, was quickly removed from the building and treated briefly at the scene by Ocean City paramedics before being transported to Atlantic General Hospital, where he later succumbed to his injuries.

A female victim, identified this week as Dana Truitt, 42, of Ocean City, also sustained serious injuries while attempting to exit the Shepherd’s Crook facility during the fire. Truitt was reportedly working at the Shepherd’s Crook facility as a volunteer at the time of the blaze. She was treated on scene by Ocean City paramedics and was ultimately transported to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore this week where she remains in critical, but stable condition.

At a joint press conference outside the Public Safety Building on Tuesday, Hartley said the investigation identified Sterner as the individual who started the fire. The Fire Marshal’s Office worked closely with the OCPD Criminal Investigation Division on the investigation, which included interviewing several witnesses and collecting surveillance video that clearly showed Sterner purchasing gasoline in a container at the Shell station at the foot of the Route 50 bridge a few blocks away from the church just about 20 minutes before the blaze.

“He purchased gasoline from the Shell station and transported it to an area near the church where he doused himself and ignited the fire in front of the Shepherd’s Crook,” said Hartley on Tuesday. “He then walked into the Shepherd’s Crook, fully engulfed in fire, and came into contact with the adult female victim. Three others safely made it out. We conducted numerous interviews and collected evidence indicating Sterner, using the gasoline as an accelerant, ignited the fire and entered the building with a significant amount of fire on and about his person.”

OCPD Captain Michael Colbert said at Tuesday’s press conference the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has ruled the manner of Dingwall’s death a homicide caused by smoke inhalation. The medical examiner’s office has also ruled Sterner’s manner of death as suicide by way of thermal burns and smoke inhalation.

Colbert said the investigation remains open and new details would be provided as they become available.

“We’re still going through the process, and we’ve exhausted most of our witness interviews, but there is still one more victim we need to interview and the investigation remains open until such as time as we can interview the other victim,” he said.

Colbert said the investigation did not include any evidence of Sterner’s intention in the incident, only that it appears he attempted, and succeeded, at killing himself.

“There is no indication he was trying to single anybody out, nor is there any evidence he acted with malice toward the church,” he said. “There is no indication of motivation and we may never know his true intent. We are fairly certain he intended to take his own life, but there is no evidence of intent as far as the church or any individual.”

Colbert said the investigation is being treated as a homicide.

“The investigation remains open and we’re treating it as a homicide,” he said. “Once we’ve concluded our investigation, we will forward all of the information to the State’s Attorney’s Office for review.”

Hartley addressed the issue of the possible relationship between Sterner and the female victim.

“At some point after he ignited himself, he did come into contact with the female victim, but to what extent we do not know,” said Hartley. “There has been no indication thus far of any relationships between Sterner and the victims. There is no indication, positive or negative, of a relationship between Sterner and the victims.”

Hartley and Colbert said their agencies were not formally prepared to release any information on the female victim.

“She is the victim of a serious crime,” said Colbert. “We’re not going to reference her name or any details on her condition, just as we wouldn’t do in any criminal investigation.”

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan spoke at Tuesday’s press conference and referenced the grief experienced by the St. Paul’s parish and the entire Ocean City community.

“I’m no stranger to press conferences, but this is certainly a rare one involving an incident so shocking that it has devastated our entire community,” he said. “On behalf of the town of Ocean City, I want to express sympathy for the female volunteer and our sincere condolences and prayers for the Dingwall family. Our community as a whole mourns the loss of Father David and all of our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family during this very sad time. He will be forever remembered for making Ocean City a better place.”

 

Man Hit By Car On Route 611; Elderly Woman Initially Fled, Then Contacted Police

Man Hit

WEST OCEAN CITY — The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office has confirmed the person of interest identified in connection with a hit-and-run accident involving a pedestrian on Route 611 last Saturday evening was a 92-year-old Berlin woman who contacted police about the collision on Monday.
Around 5:45 p.m. on Saturday, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office responded to the area of Route 611 near Frontier Town for a reported pedestrian struck by a vehicle. Upon arrival, sheriff’s deputies located the victim, who had been able to get himself off the roadway and call 911.
The victim told police he was walking north on the shoulder of Route 611 when he was struck from behind by a vehicle. The victim was unable to provide any further information about the vehicle, except that it continued north on Route 611. There were no other witnesses to the incident.
From evidence collected at the scene, sheriff’s deputies were able to determine the suspect vehicle was a dark red GM passenger car that would be missing passenger side mirror and would have possible passenger side damage. The victim was transported to the hospital for treatment of injuries received during the collision, but no update of his condition has been made public. However, The Dispatch learned this week the victim’s leg injuries were severe enough for him to be transferred from PRMC in Salisbury to Shock Trauma in Baltimore.
The driver fled the scene, touching off an investigation into the damaged vehicle’s whereabouts. On Monday afternoon, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office announced it had identified and located a person of interest. On Wednesday, the sheriff’s office reported the person of interest had been identified as Dolores Jean Miles, 92, of Berlin.
Miles contacted police on Monday in reference to being involved in an accident last Saturday evening on Route 611 near Frontier Town. Worcester County Sheriff’s deputies were then able to match evidence recovered at the scene to Miles’ vehicle, a 2009 maroon Pontiac passenger car. No charges have been filed against Miles and the investigation is ongoing.
Meanwhile, last Saturday’s incident continues a disturbing trend of vehicle collisions involving pedestrians, including three fatal accidents, on northern Worcester County roads over the last few weeks and this fall.
On Friday, Nov. 8, a Maryland State Police trooper on routine patrol in an unmarked car was headed north on Route 113 approaching Bay Street when he collided with two local teenage brothers attempting to cross the highway.
One of the brothers, Tymeir D. Dennis, 16, of Berlin, a Stephen Decatur High School junior, died of injuries sustained in the crash. Dennis’ brother Tyheym Bowen, 19, suffered serious injuries in the collision. The trooper, identified as Nicholas Hager, 21, a one-year veteran assigned to the MSP Berlin barrack, attempted to take evasive action, but was unable to avoid striking the two teens. The accident has spurred a renewed interest in improving pedestrian safety along the stretch of Route 113 through Berlin.
On Sunday, Oct. 27, a 38-year-old New Jersey man was struck and killed by a vehicle on Route 50 near Route 589. The investigation revealed a 2005 Jeep Wrangler was traveling east on Route 50 when it struck a pedestrian later identified as Stephen Bird, 38, of Madison, N.J. Bird was walking from south to north across the eastbound lanes of Route 50 when he was struck by the Jeep at about 2:20 a.m.
The driver and his passenger were returning to their West Ocean City residence from the Casino at Ocean Downs, according to police reports. The Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office met with investigators and no charges were filed against the driver. Alcohol was not a factor in that incident, according to police reports.
On Sept. 20, a West Ocean City resident and Boardwalk store owner was struck and killed in a hit-and-run accident on Route 50 near its intersection at Elm Street in an incident for which the suspect has not been identified nor has the vehicle involved been located.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on Sept. 20, Jerold Sharoff, 58, died on Route 50 when he was struck walking across the roadway almost directly in front of Starbucks and opposite the Outback Steakhouse.
Witnesses reported the vehicle that struck Sharoff was a full-sized red Ford pick-up truck that has not been located, nor has a suspect been identified. The pick-up truck continued east on Route 50 toward Ocean City after striking Sharoff before witnesses lost sight of it. Law enforcement agencies immediately searched the area for the truck to no avail and the search continued in the weeks following the incident. However, more than two months later, no suspect has been identified nor has the truck been located.

Shelter Director Says ‘I’m Not Retiring, I Am Being Forced Out’; Board Responds, ‘The Shelter Needs To Be Rescued’

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WEST OCEAN CITY — With the clock ticking on the formal date of her resignation on Nov. 30, Worcester County Humane Society Director Kenille Davies this week shed more light on the events that led to her alleged forced departure after leading the facility for the last 37 years.

Two weeks ago, Davies announced at an annual fundraising dinner that she was stepping down as director of the Worcester County Humane Society after founding the organization in 1977 and serving as its director ever since. She made it clear she was being forced out by select members of the organization’s 11-member Board of Directors.

Up until Wednesday’s interview, Davies has provided little in the way of details of the events leading up to her retirement, preferring instead to wait until after it became official on Nov. 30. However, with information and allegations swirling in the court of public opinion, Davies told The Dispatch she was not resigning of her own volition, but rather was stepping down in an attempt to shield some members of the Board of Directors, many of whom have been long-time friends and volunteers at the shelter, from a protracted and expensive legal battle.

“They wanted me to stand up and say I was just retiring,” she said. “Well, I’m not retiring. I am being forced out. The reason I am being forced out is because I didn’t want to see all of the people involved hurt be threats of lawsuits and intimidation and court orders and losing money.”

While a majority of the board voted to accept Davies’ resignation, the long-time director said this week a handful of board members, maybe as few as three of the 11-member board, had orchestrated her forced resignation. While the lines of communication between Davies and her supporters and the some of the board members had started disintegrating as early as last spring, the issue came to a head with a meeting in July and a subsequent request for her resignation.

Davies said the effort to get her to step down after 37 years on the job was couched at first as a friendly attempt to get her to ease back and enjoy life and her family, but quickly turned to intimidation and aggression in the form of a threatening letter.

“On July 10, I was told, not asked, to come up front,” she said. “That’s how they were treating me by then, like I was told to go to the principal’s office.”

According to Davies, the conversation with one of the board members opened with a discussion about how long Davies had been with the Humane Society and if she was ready to take some time off, maybe step back and spend some time with her family.

“I looked at her and wondered why she was saying that,” said Davies. “She went on and on about it and I said if I want to do something, I’ll do it. I’m so used to working that it’s part of my life. She then said, ‘well, I’ll get to the point. I’d like you to resign.’ I was so shocked. I thought a second and then said I’m not resigning. She said ‘well then, I have a letter to give you and it’s going to be a hard read.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Davies said she took the sealed letter in a blank envelop and didn’t open it immediately. She told the board member she would take it home and read it later. She never asked who it was from or where it came from.

“I sat down and I didn’t know what I was going to look at or what was going to happen, but I read it and it was very disturbing,” she said. “There was not one nice thing in the seven pages. I didn’t know what to do. There was no heading on it and no signature, no letter head, nothing. I just assumed it came from those three board members.”

Davies said the letter outlined an alleged long pattern of mismanagement, hints of fiscal malfeasance and even itemized lists of incidents involving animals.

“The content was just malicious,” she said. “You did this, or you didn’t do that. It was full of petty stuff. There were charges of me being cruel to animals, which anyone who knows me knows I’m not. It said I wasn’t a good manager and that I just took the money and spent it really quick.”

Ironically, Davies said around the same time the Worcester County Humane Society was in the middle of a regularly planned audit and the organization’s financials appeared to be in order.

“We were in the middle of being audited and everything was going well,” she said. “The auditor said everything looked good. The only thing he said was we had to replace the money that was taken from the restricted fund.”

The restricted fund mentioned by the auditor was part of a trust dedicated to the Worcester County Humane Society by a private donor several years ago. The principal was restricted, but the endowment generated as much as $50,000 a year in interest when the economy was going strong. The interest revenue was used by the Humane Society for wide variety of operating funds from food and supplies to vet bills.

When the recession hit and the economy slowed, that source of income from the interest on the endowment dried up. The board then decided to use some of the CDs they had set up through the endowment to pay for bills and other operating costs for the shelter.

“We had put so much into the CDs and we took it out of the CDs and paid the vet bills and everything else that had to be paid,” she said. “We cleared our debt, which is what happened. They knew I had gone to get the CD out.”

Davies suggested the board members were well aware of the need to use some of the funds in the CDs to pay the shelter’s bills and used that as a catalyst for preparing her demise as director.

“I think it was a railroading,” she said. “I think they were after this for a while and I’m very saddened by it because I really thought they were friends.”

Davies said it was around that time that Silvia and Bob Winegard started to appear in the picture. The Winegards are Humane Society members who occasionally made contributions to the shelter. Davies said this week she believes the Winegards have a desire to take over the shelter and the three board members were doing their bidding.

She said the content of the letter and its sudden appearance without a letterhead or a signature suggested the Winegards were the origin of the document. Shortly after the letter was delivered, some of the board members seeking Davies’ resignation all attained the services of attorneys.

There was a five-hour meeting with the various parties during which it came to light that Bethesda attorney James Hammerschmidt, who represents the Winegards, was the author of the letter. Davies suggested the allegations spelled out in the letter authored by Hammerschmidt on behalf of the Winegards were unfounded because she had never met the attorney and barely knew the Winegards. Instead, she suggested the three board members who were seeking her resignation were behind the inflammatory document.

“When I found out who was behind the letter, I was just totally shocked,” she said. “At that meeting, I was told they wanted to pay for an employee to run the shelter, but only as long as I was out of the picture. I was not to be involved whatsoever. After 37 years with the Humane Society, they wanted to just wipe me out. I don’t know who that person is they want to replace me with, but I think it’s just a front.

For their part, the Weingards released a statement on the matter earlier this month.

“The well-being of the animals at the Worcester County Humane Society should be and is the paramount concern of the WCHS,” the statement reads. “Several board members tried for months to exercise their fiduciary right within the organization. They viewed the financial and managerial questioning not only their right but also their fiduciary responsibility. The total years these Ocean City board members have voluntarily serviced the board and cared for the animals total 50 years combined. They were not going to stand by and watch the financial collapse of the shelter that provides such a valuable service to the community and cares for the animals that are dear to their hearts. They looked forward to the difficult work ahead of getting their financial house in order as well as other necessary management improvements including the hiring of a new director.”
The Winegards statement characterizes the decision to accept Davies’ resignation as a move in a new direction.
“The continuing effort cannot succeed at a no-kill shelter without proper management and appropriate institutional controls,” the Winegards’ statement reads “It is our hope that the mission of the WCHS, to continue to operate the WCHS shelter as a no-kill shelter, is not derailed by the inaccurate and imprudent comments of the uninformed who appear to be placing themselves before the mission of the society. Our primary interest has always been that the shelter operate for many years to come, and we hope that the community lends its support to do what is right for animals.

While she didn’t release the entire letter, Davies this week read aloud one particularly intimidating section.

“In the interest of all of the shelter’s constituents, we hope the transition can be done smoothly and without the need for formal action or court intervention,” the letter reads. “In particular, we demand that you do not destroy or remove any shelter property including the animals, or retaliate against or attempt to intimidate any of the shelter volunteers, board of directors, employees or members or harm any of the animals. We request that you submit a resignation letter to the board within five days of the date of this letter.”

Davies said the shelter’s fiscal situation has always been transparent and there were no hints of any financial malfeasance. She also said the very board members who have led the effort to oust her were privy to all of the organization’s financial information.

“These people have been to my house on numerous occasions and they’ve helped file things and helped look at the bills,” she said. “Then they hand me this letter out of the clear blue sky. I don’t think I’ll ever get over this letter. I think they have tried so hard to destroy what I have done and taken away my whole life.”

Another allegation is that Davies ran the shelter autonomously without input from the board. The letter suggests there were never official board meetings held. While she acknowledges there were rarely board meetings officially called to order with minutes taken and Robert’s Rules followed, the board members frequently conducted informal meetings.

“The three other board members could have said let’s have a board meeting,” she said. “We always considered working together a board meeting. All of us worked together in the same building and if we had a problem, maybe there was a sick cat or a sick dog or something like that, we’d discuss it there. At least half the board was there all the time and we considered those discussions board meetings.”

Davies said this week she has concerns over what will become of the shelter she helped create and has developed and nurtured for the last 37 years.

“We have no idea what’s going on in there now or what’s going to happen when I’m not there after a couple of weeks,” she said. “The truth is, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel comfortable about the animals in there. We are no-kill and it’s been that way since the beginning. It’s just a shame that strangers can walk in and take over. They really have no idea what goes on there day in and day out.”

She said what hurts the most, perhaps, is the apparent discounting of her efforts on behalf of the shelter for over three decades. She also defended the shelter’s current financial situation.

“I’m taking the blame and that’s fine, but I’m the one who loves those animals,” she said. “Whether they like that or not, that’s the only reason I was ever there. They act like I never did a single thing right or that we’re broke. Apparently I did something right. They’re not broke. I never failed to pay the bills and we never failed to keep on going. I hope they’re all real proud of themselves.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the board of directors on Thursday released their own formal statement on the situation. The statement appears to reflect the opinions of the three board members who have led the effort to remove Davies, including Kelly Austin, Sandra Mitchell and Beverly Sweitzer, although it is headed as a statement on behalf of the entire board.

“We do not believe that a public airing of any grievances or concerns regarding the departure of Ms. Davies will advance the needs of the shelter, nor serve Ms. Davies’ reputation,” the statement reads. “As has been noted in the media and other public forums, there were clear reasons based on objective evidence regarding the management of the shelter, particularly with respect to financial matters, that led to Ms. Davies’ resignation. The shelter needs to be rescued.”

The statement continues, “Of paramount importance is that the shelter be enabled to operate efficiently and in a fiscally-sound manner as we move forward,” the statement reads. “For this reason, we choose to refrain at this time from publically detailing the factors that precipitated Ms. Davies’ resignation. We would hope that after November 30, Ms. Davies discontinues carrying on a public diatribe about the many transgressions that led to her resignation. It only hurts the animals and the shelter she professes to love. The members of the shelter that advocated for the resignation respect and admire Ms. Davies’ many years of devotion and service, but for the good of the shelter, the animals and the community it serves, feel the time is right to turn the page with new management and a renewed focus on serving the animals and the community of Ocean City and Worcester County.”

 

Fatality Triggers Call For Route 113 Intersection Changes; State To Hear Short-Term Requests

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BERLIN — Just days after a serious accident on Route 113 at Bay Street that claimed the life of one Berlin teen and left his brother with serious injuries, town officials and concerned citizens rallied during Tuesday’s Mayor and Council meeting with a concerted effort to affect major changes at the dangerous intersection.

Last Friday evening, a Maryland State Police trooper in an unmarked patrol car struck two Berlin teenage brothers attempting to cross Route 113 near the intersection with Bay Street, claiming the life of one and sending the other to Shock Trauma in Baltimore where he continues to battle major injuries. While the investigation is ongoing, town officials and a groundswell of public support are already asking, even demanding, the State Highway Administration (SHA) make significant changes at the intersection and all along the dangerous stretch of Route 113.

Before dozens of concerned residents could present their case at Tuesday’s meeting, however, town officials announced they were already taking proactive actions to present their case to SHA. Council Vice President Elroy Brittingham read to the assembled crowd an official statement on behalf of absent Mayor Gee Williams.

“The town of Berlin will be making a formal request to the State Highway Administration to study the intersection of U.S. 113 and Bay Street to ask them to determine if either additional highway lighting or a pedestrian countdown signal and related markings are warranted as a result of Friday evening’s tragic accident,” the statement reads. “It will also include a request to see if additional lighting is warranted at the crossover on U.S. 113 just south of Bay Street that serves as the main entrance to Decatur Farm.”

Route 113, a major north-south corridor, divides much of Berlin’s historic downtown area, shopping, medical facilities and schools from densely populated neighborhoods on the east side of town. As a result, the highway presents a major barrier to the town’s progressive efforts to encourage walking and biking for its citizens and visitors. Councilmember Lisa Hall said Friday’s tragic accident is a grim reminder of how far the town has to go on the initiative.

“We talk about walkable-bikeable Berlin, yet we have a major highway going through the middle of town,” she said. “I don’t think State Highway wants pedestrians on this highway. Nothing has been done with foot traffic. I’m going to make it a priority to be heard. That’s a very dark stretch of road and it’s very concerning.”

Hall suggested several short- and long-term solutions from pedestrian markings and countdown clocks to better lighting and possible speed limit reductions in the section of the highway that runs through town.

“Simply reducing the speed limit to 40 mph from Boomer’s to the overpass at Route 50 near the hospital would be an immediate help,” she said. “We shouldn’t stop until something is done.”

Brittingham said the town’s request for action from SHA would be a challenge, but vowed to continue to press the issues until the desired changes are affected.

“We know how hard it is working with the state,” he said. “It took a long time to get just a blinking yellow light at Germantown Road. We’ll do everything we can to get something done.”

Brittingham said SHA often responds to requests for changes after a pattern of serious and sometimes fatal accidents. He pointed to a recent battle in Snow Hill for a traffic signal at the intersection of Routes 113 and 12 as an example.

“When you look at 113 in Snow Hill, it took a lot of lives lost before something got done,” he said. “I’m afraid to say it, but that’s how they determine these things.”

When the public got their opportunity to voice their concerns and make their requests, de facto mouthpiece Patricia Dufendach took the lead. Dufendach, who has been outspoken about the need for change along the busy highway in the past, opened with a brief statement before a point presentation identifying the problems and offering solutions.

“This is not only a loss to the family, but it’s a loss for our entire community,” she said. “I’ve spoken to the council several times before, but tonight I’m stepping up my game. This recent tragedy has added a sense of urgency to my cause.”

Dufenback said the highway was engineered and designed long before Berlin blossomed over the last decade or so with rapid residential and commercial development changing the municipal landscape.

“Route 113 is still using 1970s engineering for a 21st century problem,” she said. “A major highway divides Berlin and the town has done a good job with sidewalks, but the sidewalks stop abruptly at 113. AGH and the healthcare facilities lack pedestrian access.”

Dufendach pointed out the Shore Transit bus stops are often on the opposite side of the highway from the people who use it. She suggested Berlin and SHA attempt to emulate some of the successes in Ocean City and West Ocean City, where pedestrian crosswalks and countdown clocks have recently been installed at some of the major intersections. She also recommended adopting some of the elements of Ocean City’s successful Walk Smart program.

She suggested a petition drive could be forthcoming and called for a public meeting within 10 days at the Multi-Purpose building on the east side of Route 113 with town and county elected officials, SHA representatives and concerned citizens. In the meantime, Dufendach suggested there were things that could be done immediately to relieve some of the problems.

“Until that happens, I would like to see temporary emergency notification signs be placed on the highway north and south warning motorists they are entering an area where pedestrians cross,” she said. “That’s something that can be done tomorrow with little effort and little expense.”

Dufendach also requested action on the long-awaited light at Germantown Rd. at the south entrance point to the Berlin downtown area along Route 113. Town officials have long fought for a fixed traffic signal at the intersection and were placated somewhat a few years back with a flashing yellow signal, but town officials and concerned citizens feel the time is now right to make it a full-fledged traffic signal.

“I’m asking the town to demand a long-awaited traffic signal at Germantown Rd.,” she said. “Let the north-south traffic know a town is coming up. Place a policeman at Bay Street during the upcoming parade and encourage all people to enjoy Berlin.”

Berlin resident Gabe Purnell agreed Germantown Rd. was another trouble spot along Route 113 further south of Bay Street.

“Germantown Rd. is very dangerous,” he said. “I don’t even go that way anymore. The traffic gets on you so quick it’s scary.”

Purnell urged the entire community to voice their concerns and demand changes along the dangerous stretch of Route 113.

“The whole community needs to be involved,” he said. “When the whole community gets involved, good things will happen.”

Purnell likened Berlin’s situation to the similar effort in Snow Hill to get a traffic signal at the intersection of Routes 113 and 12 earlier this year. The intersection was the site of several serious accidents including a few fatal accidents and SHA responded with more signage, rumble strips and ultimately J-turns. Only after constant pressure from the community did SHA agree to install a traffic signal at the deadly intersection.

“People got involved and the whole community got involved,” he said. “People came out in numbers and they got their light.”

In addition to physical changes to the intersection at Bay Street and all along the section of Route 113 that runs through Berlin, town officials and concerned citizens said a concerted public education effort needs to be implemented. Some suggested pedestrian safety and awareness should be taught in the schools. Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing agreed, but said the education and awareness campaign had to go beyond school lessons.

“Education is going to be a very big thing,” he said. “That goes for adults and children. We need to preach awareness to drivers and pedestrians.”

Downing said there had been 63 accidents at the intersection of Route 113 and Bay Street since 2000. He said pressuring SHA to make a significant change at the intersection caused a reduction in the frequency and severity of the accidents and urged town officials and the public to push for more changes.

“Those numbers were dramatically reduced when left turn signals were added there,” he said. “We need to come up with ideas, write them down, email them in and do whatever it takes. We can come up with a lot of ideas and real answers and real solutions.”

Downing said he planned to email SHA Deputy District Engineer Ken Cimino before leaving on Tuesday night with some of the suggestions and demands, both short-term and long-term, which were brought forth during the meeting.

“There are things that can be done almost right away and things that will likely take some time,” he said. “In the short term, I’m going to ask to temporary message signs at either end of town on 113 saying watch out for pedestrians. Further down the road, we need to ask for a speed limit reduction, the light at Germantown Rd., countdown clocks and other markings at pedestrian crossings.”