SNOW HILL – One young life had been taken, another seriously damaged and a third hung in the balance early Wednesday morning, but in the end, Michael Ryan, who started the fight on a tragic night in May 2008 that ultimately led to the beating death of Michael Mitchell, got a second chance at a promising life and career.
Ryan, 32, now of Amarillo, Texas, appeared in Worcester County Circuit Court on Wednesday to face second-degree assault, obstructing and hindering and making a false statement to an officer charges for his role in the May 29, 2008 fight during an impromptu party at his residence in Berlin that ended tragically with the beating death of Mitchell, 19. In a pre-arranged agreement, Ryan pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and faced as many as 10 years in jail, but was granted probation before judgment.
According to the facts of the case, Ryan punched Dominic Canale, 22, of Ocean City, several times after what started as verbal altercation at an early morning party at his soon-to-be residence in the Decatur Farms community in Berlin, touching off a larger fight that escalated across the yard to the street and the car in which Canale and his friends had arrived. During the melee, the keys to the vehicle were produced, a baseball bat was taken from the trunk and Canale swung wildly at the approaching crowd, striking Mitchell and causing the injuries that claimed his life.
After an emotional three-day trial last fall, Canale was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. During the trial, it was Ryan who was described as the aggressor in the fight and the catalyst for the events that led to Mitchell’s death. At Ryan’s plea hearing on Wednesday, those facts were still not in dispute, but the court could only consider a fistfight between two drunken individuals.
“This is simply a second-degree assault between two drunk individuals on a porch at a party,” defense attorney Kathleen Smith said. “Normally, this would be a District Court case. There were no injuries to Dominic Canale, no swelling, no bruises and no cuts.”
While what happened next was certainly not normal, Judge Thomas C. Groton somewhat agreed the only thing under consideration on Wednesday was the initial altercation between Ryan and Canale on the porch and not the spiraling events that followed.
“Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and what occurred subsequently lies just under the surface,” he said. “What is below the water is not to be considered today by the court. What has been presented is what I have to consider. According to the facts, this was a brief encounter after an argument at a drunken party.”
According to the facts of the case, Ryan invited a large group of young people at a party on Libertytown Rd. in Berlin back to his residence at Decatur Farms to party. When Canale and his group of friends arrived, words were exchanged and Ryan, who had not yet moved into the house, attempted to get the group to leave. According to witness testimony, Canale said about Ryan, “we’ve got a funny guy here,” at which point Ryan punched Canale anywhere from two to five times, according to witnesses. Witnesses also said Ryan took his shirt off at that point and told Canale to “square up.”
On Wednesday, Deputy State’s Attorney Mike Farlow began describing what happened next, including the pushing and shoving match that continued across the yard toward the car and the fateful baseball bat when defense attorney E. Scott Collins objected, pointing out the issue at hand related only to the initial fight between Ryan and Canale.
“The statement is supposed to be limited to the incident on the porch,” he said. “My understanding of our agreement is that is where it is going to end.”
Groton sustained the objection, and the defense asked for probation before judgment, pointing out Ryan was a distinguished firefighter and paramedic.
Ryan began with the Berlin Fire Company in 1996 as a Firefighter I and attained the equivalent of paramedic a year later. In 2002, he attained the status of EMT I, a nationally registered rating that took him four years to attain. His EMT I rating qualified Ryan as a rescue technician, fire inspector, aerial operator, which certified him to operate ladder trucks, and a weapons of mass destruction certification.
While his various certifications and ratings are impressive, it was Ryan’s record in the field and the awards and commendations that came along with it, that held the most sway when it came to sentencing on Wednesday. For example, Smith pointed out in 2004, Ryan entered a burning building and found a passed out individual by feeling around in the dark, smoke-filled room and carried him to safety. In another example, Ryan responded to a fire at the Quail Run apartments in Berlin when he heard the call for trapped individuals, possibly children. According to Smith, Ryan entered the smoke-filled building and rescued a 4-year-old boy hiding in a closet and began carrying the child out when he fell down the steps. He instinctively rolled to avoid falling on the child and tore a ligament in his knee in the process, but went back for a second child.
In another example, a witness, James Carron, who grew up with Ryan and worked with him on a fire and ambulance crew, told the story of how his partner saved his life. Carron said he and Ryan entered a burning building on Germantown Rd. in Berlin when he knocked to the ground by a hose and broke his leg. Carron said he could not move, but Ryan found him in the dark and carried him out of the building.
“We had hundreds of serious calls, maybe thousands, and he always rolled up his sleeves and was the first one in the door,” he said. “He saved my life and he saved many more. All those commendations and medals are important, but they mean nothing compared to friendship.”
In the wake of the incident in May 2008, Smith said Ryan was suspended by Ocean City Fire-EMS but located similar employment in Amarillo, Texas as a probationary employee. In September, he married a girl from Amarillo who he met at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City in March 2008 and has been starting life anew in the Lone Star state, far removed from the tragedy in Berlin that still hangs over his head.
Ryan has also come to grips with his problem with alcohol, which contributed to the events in May 2008.
“That night, I made a very bad decision because of alcohol that caused me to be here today,” Ryan told Groton on Wednesday. “I can’t believe with the way I was raised that I’m standing here convicted of this crime. I’m here admitting my mistake. I did assault Dominic Canale and I allowed a spontaneous party to happen. … The verbal altercation turned physical on my part. I had no intention to get into a fight that night and I wish I had never put my hands on him. What happened next has been hanging over my head like a cloud for 17 months, and I know it’s been hanging over other people’s heads.”
With that said, Smith urged Groton to consider probation before judgment, a sentence that would allow Ryan to continue his remarkable career in public service.
“All I want to ask of you is to be treated like any other first-time offender who made a stupid mistake,” Ryan said. “I’d like to return to Texas and start my life there- a second chance. If you grant probation, you or any other judge will never see me in a courtroom again.”
Groton then agreed to strike the finding of guilt, placed Ryan on two years of supervised probation, ordered alcohol counseling and 100 hours of community service and fined him $500.
“Probation before judgment is warranted because Mr. Ryan presents a contributing member of society who has saved a number of lives,” he said, while admonishing the defendant. “You got your one bite out of the apple. Sometimes you get one bite, sometimes you don’t.”