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Persistent detective among Md. honored

Matt Zapotosky

The first time Prince George’s County Police Detective Jordan Swonger locked up the teenage robbery and carjacking suspect, he thought he had him dead to rights.

After all, Swonger said, Markje Johnson had confessed to the December 2008 robbery -- on tape, no less.

But Johnson was less than 16 years old, Swonger said, and on the tape, he apparently didn’t come off as being smart enough to understand what was going on. A Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge ruled Johnson couldn’t knowingly and voluntarily confess, and eventually let him go, Swonger said.

That was frustrating. Then it happened again after the teen was arrested again in 2009 and processed as a juvenile, Swonger said.

This time Swonger begged the judge to hold Johnson as long as he could, knowing the uptick in crime that could follow his release. The judge did, for a while, Swonger said.

When Swonger finally arrested Johnson a third time -- having rounded up victims who could identify him in four separate carjacking and robbery cases -- the teenager was older than 16 and thus old enough to be tried as an adult.

In April Johnson, now 17, pleaded guilty to armed carjacking, attempted armed carjacking and using a handgun in the commission of a violent felony, court records show. According to Swonger, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Swonger was among the more than 100 civilians and police officers honored Tuesday at the Prince George’s County police’s quarterly awards ceremony. Among the others honored: a community policing officer who helped crack a murder case; the group of detectives and officers who cracked the case of the Craigslist rapist; and the group of detectives and officers who worked on the case of a homeless, pregnant woman who was abducted and attacked by someone who wanted her baby.

But Swonger’s case — though it was not as high profile as some of the others — drew some of the most interesting reactions from the police department commanders assembled on stage and in the audience.

Maj. Andrew Ellis, a top police spokesman, praised Swonger's persistence in prepared remarks, noting that he even pitched the case to Prince George's County prosecutors to make sure Johnson was not released a third time. Police Chief Roberto Hylton himself furrowed his brow and seemed to inquire about the case as he shook Swonger’s hand.

Swonger said in an interview afterward that he is still frustrated by the loopholes in the justice system that let Johnson repeatedly return to the street, but he is happy to have finally figured out a way to put him behind bars.

“It’s not a kid smashing mailboxes," he said. "This is a young man sticking a gun in people’s faces every day. We catch him, he gets turned back loose. What does that say to him?”

Also of note was a chief’s award given to every member of the police department’s homicide unit, which boasted a 79 percent closure rate for homicide cases last year. Hylton and Ellis said in interviews after the ceremony that they could not recall a similar award being given out, but they also could not remember a closure rate so high.

This year’s rate, for example, stands at about 51 percent, though that is about where it was at the same point last year, said Lt. William Rayle, a homicide commander.

Rayle said the award was a nice gesture for the homicide detectives, who often spend entire days away from their families poring over cases. In the investigation into the slaying of Maryland State Trooper Wesley Brown, for example, detectives worked for nearly three days straight, he said.

“It’s great for the guys,” Rayle said, “because they sacrificed so much.”

-- Matt Zapotosky

By Matt Zapotosky  |  June 23, 2010; 8:13 AM ET
Categories:  Heroes , Matt Zapotosky , Pr. George's  
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