Special state police unit goes full time in July

April 28, 1997


Staff Writer

Trooper 1st Class Daniel Weaver lay on the ground Jan. 13, his weapon trained on a man who had led police on a high-speed chase across two counties.

Now, after his car spun out on the median of Interstate 70 near Hancock, the man had barricaded himself with a gun and threatened to kill himself.

As the sniper, it was Weaver's job to keep a close watch on the man about 50 yards away and, if it became necessary, to shoot him.


In practice, though, it was his job to wait.

And wait.

For nearly eight hours, in temperatures that fell as low as 10 degrees, Weaver, 25, waited while hostage negotiators tried to convince Donald V. Wheeler to lay down his gun. The standoff ended with the man killing himself.

Even with an observer, Weaver admitted the physical - not to mention mental - demands were overwhelming.

"You just have to be conditioned to do such a job," Weaver said.

Few are as conditioned. But Weaver is one of a handful of elite, specially-trained Maryland State Police troopers that form the Special Tactical Assault Team Element (STATE) team. It is the equivalent of the Navy SEALS or the Green Berets.

"The dedication and pride is incredible," said Capt. Tom Rose, who commands the unit. "They were out there for hours. They never made one sound of complaint."

Since forming in 1979, the troopers that make up the STATE team have split their duties between stints of being on call and their regular duties as state troopers.

On July 1, that will change. Three of the four seven-man teams, including Weaver and two other troopers who work out of the Hagerstown barracks, will become part of a full-time special operations unit based in Jessup, Md.

First Sgt. William Lucas, who also serves out of the Hagerstown barrack, is a liaison between the STATE team and local police agencies that answer emergency calls.

The special forces division will comprise other specially trained units such as a motorcycle unit and a canine unit.

Officials said the switch will allow members even more training. Combining all the special forces operations under one division, Rose said, will greatly improve efficiency.

"We will be a one-stop shop for specially-trained individuals in Maryland," he said.

STATE team members serve in barracks around the state and converge on an emergency anywhere in Maryland when called into action.

The members carry advanced firepower, including submachine guns, and are highly trained in a wide variety of skills.

Team members, in turn, train other police agencies.

Other assignments range from hostage situations to drug raids to high-risk warrant services. The teams also provide security for high-ranking officials, foreign dignitaries and world-class athletes.

Weaver even went to Atlanta last summer when Gov. Parris Glendening offered the STATE team to assist the FBI after the Olympic Park bombing.

`Go in softly'

Maryland launched its first STATE team in 1979 in response to a growing need for a special forces unit, Rose said. A few months later, a young state trooper decided he wanted to join the elite unit. After seven years as a road patrolman, he said he wanted more.

That man, Sgt. Steven Jessee, today is one of the team leaders. He also serves out of the Hagerstown barrack.

"I enjoy the challenge of accomplishing something that maybe not everybody would be able to accomplish," he said. "It certainly is not the same thing every day."

Jessee, 45, said he has participated in hundreds of drug raids and dozens of barricade situations over the years.

Hooked as a cadet

Weaver, a 1990 Clear Spring High School graduate, said he was hooked as a cadet when he watched the STATE team in action during an operation while he directed traffic.

"It took awhile, but everything went methodically and professionally," said Weaver, who was accepted in 1994.

Last year, STATE teams responded to 12 barricade situations, conducted 36 raids and served 21 high-risk warrants, Rose said. Despite the heightened danger, he said no team member has ever been killed in the line of duty.

Among the trickiest assignments are convincing holed-up gunmen to surrender, team members said. Jessee said they are taught to build trust with armed assailants and cooperate with hostage negotiators.

"You're playing off them," he said. "You listen to what they're trying to say, or not say."

Although they are heavily armed and exceptionally skilled, team members paradoxically project a low-key image. Rose said it is vital to resist the instinct to charge into a situation.

"In most cases, it is the best tactic to wait and let things progress slowly," he said. "We try to go in as softly as possible."

Even in the best-executed operation, though, the result is not always gratifying. For example, the I-70 standoff in January ended in a suicide.

"It was an ideal, letter-perfect operation, until, unfortunately, we lost him," Jessee said. "Sometimes you can respond the exact same way to two similar circumstances and one will end successfully and the other won't."

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