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Hope and honor

January 28, 2006|By PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN -

As dusk faded to night Friday, about 200 people - mostly correctional officers and retirees - stared somberly at the windows of Washington County Hospital, holding candles and holding out hope for their fellow officer, who was fighting for his life inside.

Roxbury Correctional Institution Correctional Officer Jeffery Alan Wroten, 44, of Martinsburg, W.Va., remained in critical condition Friday night at the hospital. Wroten was shot in the face by an inmate he was guarding there Thursday.

Wroten's family watched the vigil, organized early Friday, through a waiting room window. The group gathered on a curb, beneath a tree at the farthest side of the hospital's drop-off and pickup loop, and looked toward the main entrance. Drivers circling the loop sometimes stuttered, seemingly unsure if they should break their stare.

Roxbury Chaplain Bob Lashinsky led the group in The Lord's Prayer. Shortly afterward, the group quietly began singing "Amazing Grace."

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They fell silent and then a few spoke up.

Maryland Correctional Training Center Lt. J. Keplinger, who sent out an e-mail on Friday about 8 a.m. to try to start getting a vigil organized, expressed his thanks to those who came out.

"I betcha them people in that room are just tickled to death that you're here," Keplinger said, addressing the group and motioning to the window. "In one day, not even 24 hours, you're here. That says a lot for us."

Retired Maryland Correctional Training Center Officer Mike Keifer spoke out and told the crowd that the retirees are supporting them and are not afraid to speak up, saying that problems with officer safety need to be fixed. Another officer, Roxbury Lt. Ray Boyd, told the group that they can't "be losing our cool."

"We're a family. It's tough. It's a tough job, it really is," he said.

Many of those who attended the vigil Friday didn't personally know Wroten. For the correctional officers, staff and families, he was their brother just the same.

"It's a bond that you get once you're in a jail environment," said Steve Dickey, a retired Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown correctional officer who attended the vigil out of respect. "It's always in you."

Both Dickey and retired MCI-Hagerstown officer Chris Evans, 43, had worked the hospital post during their time at the prison. Evans said that over the years, he thought about the possibility something bad could happen, but could not talk Friday when he began to recall what he imagined Wroten, a man he didn't know personally, faced.

"That could have been me," he said. "I hope he pulls through."

Dorman Steele, 31, an MCI-Hagerstown correctional officer, said he doesn't know Wroten, either, but he knows his job well. He was out to show his support as a member of his correctional officer family, knowing that Wroten has a family of his own.

"I know he can feel the support of us being in the room with him because your spirit is still conscious," he said.

Tim Weber came out Friday to pay his respects, too. The 21-year-old Myersville, Md., man, however, has "no affiliation" with the prisons or with Wroten,

Holding a candle Friday night, Weber said, "It's just sad. It just shouldn't come to that: An officer shot just doing his job."

Others at the vigil knew Wroten well.

Cheryl Obitts works as a clerk at Roxbury. Many mornings when Wroten was assigned to the prison's front desk, he greeted her and went through her things, a routine check for contraband that Wroten made less than routine for staff.

On a recent morning, he told Obitts he hoped it would snow hard so he could go home and play with his children, she said.

Most days, Roxbury Clerk Vikki Brown said, Wroten would make jokes about their lunches and ask if they would share the good stuff.

"He always knew when we were dieting," she said and began to tear up.

Lt. John Beair, a public information officer at Roxbury, said Keplinger sent out an e-mail about 8 a.m. to see if anyone would be interested in gathering for a vigil and "the longer the day went on, the faster it picked up momentum."

"I realized something needed to be done to bring the group together to pay respects to the family," Keplinger said.

News of the planned vigil was posted Friday near time clocks at the prisons in the Hagerstown complex. A few correctional officers from Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Md., made the trip, too.

Officers walked down the hill from the hospital after the vigil. Many didn't snuff out their candles until they reached the bottom.

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