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Four Cecil County firefighters injured battling intentionally set blaze

NORTH EAST — Investigators have concluded that an arsonist, or arsonists, is responsible for a fire at a vacant mobile home near North East that resulted in four volunteer firefighters suffering burns early Wednesday morning while battling the deliberately-set blaze, according to the Maryland Office of the State Fire Marshal.

“We have confirmed that this fire was intentionally set. The person or people doused the front porch with ignitable liquid, which we suspect is gasoline, and also circled the house with it and then ignited it. This is an arson,” Sr. Deputy State Fire Marshal Oliver J. Alkire, an agency detective and spokesman, told the Cecil Whig on Thursday afternoon.

Alkire reported that a specially-trained scent dog, K9 Katrina, “alerted multiple times” to the presence of accelerant during an aftermath, fire-scene investigation on the property in the 100 block of Superior Court in Lakeside Mobile Home Park.

“We also collected multiple pieces of evidence, and it has been sent to the Maryland State Police Crime Lab for analysis,” Alkire said, declining to specify the gathered evidence in an effort to preserve the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

Anyone with information that might help detectives investigating this intentionally-set blaze, which occurred in the 100 block of Superior Court less than one hour after midnight on Wednesday, is asked to call the Maryland Office of the State Fire Marshal arson hotline at 410-386-3050.

Maryland State Police helicopter crews flew two Charlestown Volunteer Fire Company firefighters from the fire scene to the Bayview Burn Center in Baltimore, where, as of Thursday, they continued to receive treatment for burns to their upper bodies, according to Alkire, who noted that the burns covered 20 percent of their bodies.

Downgraded from “serious but stable” condition to “stable condition,” one of those firefighters is expected to be discharged from that hospital on Friday, Alkire reported.

An ambulance crew transported a third CVFC firefighter from the scene to that same burn center, Alkire said. That firefighter, who suffered burns to his hands, was discharged from the hospital on Thursday.

In addition, an ambulance crew drove a North East Volunteer Fire Company firefighter from the scene to Union Hospital in Elkton, where he was treated for burns to his upper body and then released, according to Alkire.

Those four were among approximately 40 firefighters with several area volunteer fire companies that responded when a neighbor called 911 at 12:42 a.m. Wednesday, after discovering the burning, unoccupied mobile home in the 100 block of Superior Court, fire officials reported.

Cecil County Sheriff’s Office deputies and MSP troopers arrived at the scene first, according to Alkire. “A deputy tried to breach the door with a sledgehammer, believing that someone was inside the burning building,” Alkire commented.

NEVFC, which served as the on-scene command unit, arrived there moments later and, seconds after that, CVFC reached the site, fire officials reported.

With smoke and fire showing inside the vacant mobile home, four volunteer firefighters — three with CVFC and one with NEVFC — entered the burning building through the front door to attack the blaze from inside the structure, which is a common practice, according to Alkire.

“They made a left, once they were inside the trailer, and, within seconds, the conditions deteriorated. The fire flashed within the house and it spread very quickly. They could no longer exit through the door they had used to enter,” Alkire outlined, further reporting that a “mayday” was called, which he likened to an “all-hands-on-deck” situation, and a signal sounded for firefighters inside the building to evacuate.

The four firefighters escaped from the burning building through a window, with the assistance of MSP troopers and CCSO deputies, fire officials reported. “They (troopers and deputies) ran up to the window and pulled the firefighters out,” Alkire explained.

After receiving initial medical attention at the scene, the four injured firefighters were transported to their respective hospitals.

It took firefighters approximately 30 minutes to bring the blaze under control, according to Alkire.

The blaze destroyed the vacant, single-wide mobile home, which is owned by Lakeside Sales, LLC., Alkire reported.

“It appears that this mobile home has a history of being used by homeless people,” Alkire said.

MOSFM investigators concluded that the fire was intentionally set by an unknown person or people and that it started on the rear exterior of the empty mobile home, Alkire said. The deliberately-set blaze then “breached into the interior,” he added.

As of Thursday, investigators still were trying to determine the reason for the rapid spread of the flames after the four firefighters had entered the mobile home, according to Alkire.

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School Board discusses 45% grade floor policy

ELKTON — At Wednesday’s Cecil County School Board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Carolyn Teigland went over the findings of the Student Support Task Force on how to better support parents and students in a virtual environment. The task force found that schools need to have better communication with families, increased student engagement, and increased academic support.

CCPS recently changed their secondary school grading policy, so the lowest score a student can receive on an assignment is now 45%. Teigland said that the policy was necessary to boost student morale.

“Our kids who were getting zeros were just hopeless,” said Teigland. “Once they started seeing those zeroes populate the grade book, they gave up.”

Teigland said that the floor will only exist as a short term measure.

“It’s going to reset back to the old practices and regulations when we get to the normal school year,” said Teigland. “But for now, to keep kids hopeful and engaged, we’ve tweaked some of those practices.”

Some parents, however, are concerned that the grade floor takes responsibility away from students.

“As a parent, I think it wrongly relieves responsibility off of our children by just giving everybody a 45% to help their grade point average,” said Stacy Onizuk, the co-chair of the Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee, in an interview before the meeting.

Teigland said communication should be tailored for specific families, using phone calls for some, internet for others. Teigland found teachers were not organizing their virtual platforms in the same way, which made it harder for students to be engaged in the coursework. For academic support, Teigland focused on the importance of CCPS’s summer school program and the need for teacher’s to be available for students who need extra support.

The board discussed at length two pieces of Maryland statewide legislation that could have an enormous impact on Cecil County schools. House Bill 496, also called the Counselors not Cops act, would shift $10 million of state funding from law enforcement coverage, in the form of School Resource Officers (SROS), toward psychological services. Board member Christie Stephens, board President William Malesh, and Superintendent Jeffery Lawson expressed opposition to the bill. Malesh said that SRO’s do not overly discipline students; instead, they serve as protection. Malesh also claimed that the legislation does not make financial sense.

“Mental health is part of our federal funding,” said Malesh. “The concept of taking officers out of there and putting the money toward mental health is a nice concept, but mental health is already a paramount concern of ours.”

The other bill brought up was the Blueprint for America’s Future, a multi-billion dollar education reform effort, based on a report by the Kirwan Commission. The bill calls for increased resources for special needs students, tutoring for struggling learners, mental health support, and expanded pre-k among other changes. The bill passed through the legislature before being vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan. The Maryland house has already overridden the governor’s veto.

“They identified these areas of critical needs before the pandemic started, and the pandemic just highlighted the needs for these things,” said Lori Hrinko, the Cecil County Classroom Teachers Association president, in support of the bill.

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County Council interviews ethics commission appointees

ELKTON — The Cecil County Council spent an hour Tuesday getting to know the five appointees to the Cecil County Ethics Commission after originally voting to reject them in January. The appointees are up for consideration at the council’s February 16 meeting.

In introducing the five appointees, County Administrator Dan Schneckenburger noted that pursuant to the county charter, the five members had been appointed to staggered terms. Appointee Janet Pope’s term would end in Oct. 2021, Andrew Goins’ term would end Aug. 2022, Joseph Graf’s term in Dec. 2023, Charles Kelso’s term in March 2024 and Heather O’Rourke’s term in July 2024.

O’Rourke, a registered Democrat who serves as logistics manager at NorthBay, was the first to speak to the council members. O’Rourke said she initially heard about the opening on the ethics commission through County Executive Danielle Hornberger’s Facebook page, which prompted O’Rourke to reach out to Hornberger about the position.

O’Rourke said she had been looking for an opportunity to serve the community and felt the position was a good fit for her background, due to her work as a social worker.

“The profession (social work) is really built on ethics, not only do we have a national code, but we also have to follow state codes, the state code of ethics as well, so I thought it was a good fit for what I do and serving the community,” O’Rourke said.

In response to two question from Council President Bob Meffley (R-District 1), O’Rourke responded that she has never served on an ethics board before and that she would uphold the county’s charter, even if she disagreed with some provisions of the charter.

Council Member Al Miller (R-District 3) later asked O’Rourke a question he would ask each of the appointees, specifically whether O’Rourke was concerned that as a new member, with four other new members, that it would be hard to move forward in the position?

Schneckenburger challenged Miller’s question saying that it did not correspond to O’Rourke’s qualifications to serve on the ethics board, but Meffley allowed the question.

O’Rourke responded that she definitely couldn’t compete with the experience level of the prior commission members, but noted that appointees had to start somewhere and that her experience falls in line with the job requirements.

Later, O’Rourke said that as one of two Democrats appointed to the committee she was sure she would represent a “different side” of issues.

Council Member George Patchell (R-District 4) then asked O’Rourke if she would be able to provide an unbiased ethics opinion despite any possible political pressure and how she would handle stressful situations.

O’Rourke stated that based upon her professional experiences she has had to take a stand on positions that were different from the majority’s opinion and that she is not someone who backs down from her stance on issues.

Goins, who was second to appear before the council, said that as a pastor, father and husband, he has extensive experience serving Cecil County in a variety of positions. He specifically referenced his work as chaplain of the Rising Sun Police Department and his work serving with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in a variety of functions. He has also served in various capacities with North East Middle School and Rising Sun Elementary School, he stated.

Goins, a registered Republican, is an ordained minister and associate pastor at Pleasant View Baptist Church.

In response to Patchell’s question regarding providing an unbiased opinion free from politics, Goins pointed to his time serving as pastor in Ohio, noting that he worked with a variety of different people from different backgrounds and political persuasions and that he worked hand in hand with those people for the betterment of his church and community.

In response to a question from Council Member Bill Coutz (R-District 2) regarding Goins’ perceived role on the board, Goins said he saw himself simply as a member of the board faithfully executing the ethics laws.

“I don’t have any major ambition to become any standalone individual at all, but I think that just providing my base of knowledge and years of experience,” Goins said.

Coutz then asked Goins about comments Goins had made during prior council work sessions and on social media. Previously, Goins had voiced concerns about the council rejecting appointees without giving the appointees an opportunity to be heard or interviewed in the matter. Goins said he stood by his previous statements.

Meffley then asked Goins to define his understanding of the term ethics, to which Goins referenced the concept that discipline is doing what is right when no one is around to see you. Goins said he believed ethics closely mirrors that definition.

In response to Meffley’s question regarding following the charter, Goins said he has no problem applying the charter even if he disagrees with certain aspects. He said if there was something extremely unethical within the charter itself he believed the commission should seek legal advice regarding the matter.

Pope, a registered Democrat, was the next candidate to be interviewed. She is a senior recruiter at United States Commercial Real Estate Services.

Pope told the council members that she has over 30 years of experience in human resources including a significant amount of training regarding ethics.

In response to Miller’s question regarding the challenge of having five new members on the commission. Pope responded that the whole process had been “far more concerning than anticipated.”

She noted that a brand new commission could be at a disadvantage, but added that she believed there were resources available to the county to support and help the new committee.

In response to Patchell’s question regarding being influenced by politics in making a decision, Pope noted that ethics is about principles and she wasn’t sure how it could be influenced by politics.

In response to Meffley’s question regarding following the charter, Pope noted that the rules are the rules and should be upheld whether you like them or not.

The next appointee to be interviewed was Kelso, a Republican who has an extensive law enforcement background, having served 20 years with the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

In response to Patchell’s question regarding providing an unbiased opinion, Kelso said in his time serving as a police office he dealt with many stressful situations in which he always tried to provide a response that was appropriate to the situation.

In response to a question by Council Vice-President Jackie Gregory (R-District 5) regarding his background, Kelso referenced his lengthy career in law enforcement, noting the majority of that time was sent in Cecil County. He said a friend of his actually called him up to nominate him to the commission and that he initially did not have any ambition to be a commission member. After reading about the opportunity, he decided to submit his name and resume to Hornberger for consideration, he said.

In response to Miller’s question regarding being concerned about an entirely new commission, Kelso, who had been listening to the interviews of the other nominees, said that after hearing from them he was less concerned. He added that he though everyone was going into the situation with the right frame of mind to do the job.

Later, Coutz asked Kelso what he thought the greatest challenge would be in the new position, to which Kelso replied that he felt the greatest challenge would be simply learning something new.

Meffley also asked Kelso the same question he asked other candidates, namely how Kelso would apply the charter even if he disagreed with portions of the document. Kelso noted that as a law enforcement officer he regularly enforced laws he had issues with and that he would do the same thing on the ethics commission.

Graf, a registered Republican who currently serves as assistant principal with Kent County Middle School, said in response to Miller’s question regarding a new commission that anything new is going to be a challenge and that while there will be a learning curve, it will be the responsibility of the group to become familiar with how things need to be done.

In response to Patchell’s question regarding making ethical decisions, Graf said decisions shouldn’t be made on politics.

“It should be made (by) what is best and in following the rules,” he said.

During his interview, Graf referenced his experience in education and how many of the skills he has gained as an educator directly correspond with what his anticipated duties would be as a member of the ethics commission.

If you live in Cecil County and have a collection of interesting junk contact Cineflix at 1-855-OLD-RUST. The crew will be here in April.

American Pickers ISO places to explore in Cecil County

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Police: Burglar made himself at home inside Elkton apartment

ELKTON — A man is facing several charges after a couple walked into their Elkton apartment and found him — a stranger — eating the alleged victims’ vanilla wafers while relaxing on their living room couch, according to Cecil County District Court records.

Elkton Police Department officers arrested the suspect, Brendon Lee Bennett, 29, of the unit block of Buttonbush Court in Elkton, on that property moments later, after the suspect purportedly fled from the second-floor apartment through a window and jumped off the roof, police reported.

EPD officers responded to the apartment in the 100 block of East Stockton Street on Wednesday, after receiving a a complaint regarding a burglar who was caught eating food on a sofa, before fleeing through a window, court records show.

“When I arrived on scene, (EPD) Ofc. Smith had the suspect, Brendon Bennett, on the ground outside of the residence and was immediately detained . . . Ofc. Smith advised that when he arrived on scene, he observed Bennett exit through the side window and jump off the roof,” EPD Ofc. Miodzianowski, lead investigator, outlines in his written statement of probable cause in court records.

During a pat-down search, Miodzianowski confiscated a hypodermic syringe after finding it inside one of Bennett’s pockets, police said, adding that investigators know through their training and experience that syringes “are used to inject certain controlled dangerous substances (illegal drugs) into the human body.”

EPD Cpl. Pirritano interviewed the alleged victims, who reported that something seemed amiss when they returned home from work on Wednesday, according to police. The deadbolt to the front door was locked, which was unusual because the couple always leaves the deadbolt unlocked, police reported.

After unlocking the deadbolt, the couple walked up the steps to the residence, court records show.

“They looked into the living room and observed Bennett sitting on the couch, eating vanilla wafers. (The male resident) immediately entered the kitchen and grabbed a knife to defend himself in case Bennett intended to do to him or (his wife) harm. Bennett immediately opened the side window and then jumped off the roof to flee the area,” court records allege.

Court records indicate that the female resident called 911 within seconds after she and her husband discovered Bennett inside their apartment.

The couple told investigators that “Bennett had never resided at the residence, was not a friend or family member and had no reason to be in the residence,” according to charging documents.

They also told investigators that the vanilla wafers that Bennett allegedly had been eating belonged to them and that the cookies had an approximate value of $2, police reported.

Bennett is charged with first-degree burglary and third-degree burglary, both of which are felonies that are punishable by up to 20 years and 10 years in prison respectively, according to court records. He also is charged with misdemeanor counts of fourth-degree burglary, theft of less than $100 and possession of drug paraphernalia, court records show.

Scheduled for a March 12 preliminary hearing, Bennett remained in the Cecil County Detention Center without bond on Thursday morning, before a bail review hearing set for later that day, according to court records.

Virginia Kennedy, pictured here in her classroom before the COVID-19 pandemic, said she is a teacher at heart — a perspective she brought to her latest role as West Nottingham Academy’s Head of School.