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Trooper is honored

July 22, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Maryland State Police Trooper 1st Class Charles Stanford passes two crosses every day as he drives to work from Smithsburg.

The two crosses on Md. 64 near Old Georgetown Road represent two lives taken in an auto accident nearly a year ago. For Stanford, they're a daily reminder of the pain and suffering one drunken driver can cause, and the man he helped put behind bars.

On Friday, Stanford received the Commander's Award at the Hagerstown barracks for exemplary work on the accident investigation that sent Donald Lee Curfman to prison. But the award is a bittersweet prize, Stanford said.

On Aug. 22, Stanford had gone to his house to grab lunch, he said last week. No sooner had he left than he was caught in a traffic jam.

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"Basically, there were some cars in front of me that were stopped," he said.

He got out and saw steam rising from a Pontiac and a Buick that had collided while traveling in opposite directions. Fluids from the cars were spilled over the roadway.

"It was substantial, heavy damage. Right from the beginning, I knew it was going to be serious, or even fatal," Stanford said.

"The thing that went through my head the most that day was my daughter, who's 19 now, had an accident on the same spot," he said. "It could have been them that day."

Stanford called to the barracks to get emergency crews to the scene.

Grace Ann Best, 61, had been driving the Buick with Mary Jane Bittner, 84, a passenger. Officials declared Bittner dead at the scene, and Best died later at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Curfman had been driving the Pontiac. Stanford said once the things had quieted down, witnesses made themselves available, and Smithsburg emergency workers told him they smelled alcohol on Curfman when they attended to him.

Stanford called a state police barracks near Shock Trauma: He wanted a blood-alcohol content reading. He questioned the flight paramedic and took notes about Curfman's odor and demeanor, which later would be used in court.

With Stanford's work combined with an accident reconstruction by Cpl. Richard Poffenberger the Washington County State's Attorney's Office was able to indict Curfman. On Nov. 4, Curfman was charged with two sets of charges - one for Best and one for Bittner. They included vehicular manslaughter and alcohol and other traffic-related charges.

On Jan. 13, Curfman pleaded guilty in Washington County Circuit Court to two counts of negligent homicide while intoxicated. He was sentenced to five years in prison and five years probation.

Stanford said that while he thought the sentence was fair, and he was glad his work paid off, the award isn't something he can take much pride in.

"I've seen a lot of nasty stuff," Stanford said. When he gets to a fatal accident scene, he said, "I look at it and say, 'This was a person, and now it's a shell of person. ... Is he going to heaven, or is he going to hell?'"

Lt. Greg Johnston, who was the barracks commander at the time of the investigation, said while Stanford's "did an excellent job, his reaction is typical.

"No one feels good about these cases, obviously. They're very traumatic, and this is the part of life that we don't want to see," Johnston said.

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