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Berkeley boasts mounted reserves

October 16, 1997

By DON AINES

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - "He loves police work and I love horses, so we thought, `Let's combine them,'" Marian Ortiz said as she sat atop Raven on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

During the day, Marian is an X-ray technologist at the center and her husband Nelson is a federal police officer there. When called upon, however, he is Capt. Ortiz of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Reserve Search and Rescue/Mounted Patrol, with his wife serving as a lieutenant.

They are two of the 10 members of what Marian said is the only mounted law enforcement unit in West Virginia. They and three other members of the volunteer team took advantage of the employees' appreciation picnic Thursday to do some drilling.

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Nelson said they formed the unit about a year ago with half a dozen other horsemen and women interested in doing some public service.

"If you've got horses, why not use them for something that counts?" said Gary Murphy, another team member and a repair supervisor at Maryland Paper Co. in Williamsport.

To some extent, the team is a family affair. In addition to the Ortizes, Murphy and his wife Patricia are members, along with Dr. Mike Stacey and his wife, Tamara, a nurse at City Hospital in Martinsburg. Patricia Murphy's brother, Raymond Smith of Hagerstown, also rides with the unit when not working as a repairman for the Independent Cement Co.

"I've got a pretty understanding company," Smith said, explaining that his employers know he may be called for an emergency. Nelson Ortiz said the VA Center has also been supportive of the program.

Most of the unit's duties have been at special events, such as the Berkeley County Youth Fair. Chief Robert Masters, who heads up the 49-member deputy reserves, recently noted there were no thefts from automobiles at the fair this summer, compared to more than 20 the year before.

On Saturday, Oct. 25, members will assist at a band festival at Musselman High School.

The Murphys and Smith worked the recent re-enactment of Battle of Antietam. Smith recalled having to go out in the middle of a mock battle to get an amateur photographer who had run between the battle lines for a shot. Another time, "I had to get between two guys who were about to duke it out," he said.

Gary Murphy anticipates there will be more search and rescue work for lost children, hikers and campers as the area's population grows.

The horses come in handy for several reasons. Mounted deputies has a much greater field of view than officers on foot. They can also cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, particularly with a retired thoroughbred like Simo, Patricia Murphy's horse.

"He won a race a year ago," she said of the 5-year-old.

Horses also have their own set of keen senses.

"They pick up stuff real quick. They have great eyesight," Gary Murphy said.

A horse's sense of smell is also quite acute, which can help alert both horse and rider to possible danger.

The horses can also get through terrain that would daunt a searcher on foot. Last winter during a search for a missing man who was eventually found dead, Nelson Ortiz said, "We went through stuff they wouldn't even walk through."

The unit has a variety of steeds, including Morgans, quarterhorses, thoroughbreds and Tennessee walkers. In addition to diverse personal backgrounds, the human members of the unit come from Berkeley and Morgan counties in West Virginia, Hagerstown and Winchester, Va.

Stacey, a physician at the VA Center, said the members of the unit pool their knowledge to sharpen each other's skills.

"Nelson taught us law enforcement. I taught first aid and map reading," Stacey said.

Marian Ortiz has been riding since she was 10, but her husband didn't begin riding until about five years ago. She wants to attend a course in Florida to become a certified mounted patrol instructor.

Ortiz said all one needs to become a member is a clean police record and a desire to serve the public.

And a horse.

The sheriff's office does provide the unit with support in terms of uniforms, helmets and personal liability and property damage insurance. Otherwise, members have to provide the mounts, saddles and other equipment, along with transportation.

"You have to be willing to put in some money, because all of these guys have put in at least $400" for equipment and other costs, Nelson Ortiz said. That doesn't include the day-to-day costs of maintaining an animal that eats hay by the bale and oats by the bucket. And don't forget veterinary bills.

"This costs us a lot more than we'll ever get," Gary Murphy said.

Since they are unarmed and unpaid volunteers, Smith said their real payoff is "just the satisfaction of being able to help people when they need it."

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