Crime Story

Shortly after Mike Sofelkanik graduated from IUP in 1988, he joined the police force of Maryland’s Montgomery County, just outside Washington. Since then, he has made four recruiting trips to campus and this past spring was accompanied by fellow officers Dave Aaron ’87 and Mark McCoy ’92.

Mark McCoy, Mike Sofelkanik, and Dave Aaron

Left to right: Mark McCoy, Mike Sofelkanik, and Dave Aaron

At a career fair in the Hadley Union Building, the three talked up opportunities offered by the Montgomery County Police. Those who’ve already heeded the siren call include, by Sofelkanik’s estimate, “roughly a hundred from IUP.”

“Some of them are in supervisory positions,” he said, “and some are in various specialized units. A few are retiring now.”

Montgomery County is a magnet not only for law enforcement alumni but also for others. “Nurses, teachers, and police,” Sofelkanik said. “You’re always running into someone from IUP or from Western Pennsylvania. People from this area are different. They have a good work ethic. They’re traditional and well rounded.”

Originally from Level Green, Sofelkanik was an IUP wrestler the last two years the university fielded a squad. He and his wife, Erika Dyroff Sofelkanik ’95, have a son and are expecting another child. In Maryland, he is currently assigned to the Germantown detective unit.

McCoy is a detective on the same squad. He started with Montgomery County in 1995 and is also married to an IUP alumna, Kristine Ault McCoy ’91. They have a son and a daughter.

Aaron, who’s from Delmont, was recruited at an IUP job fair for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency but switched to the Montgomery County force in 1988. He is currently on uniformed patrol. Aaron and his wife, Joan Fitzpatrick Aaron ’88, have a son and a daughter.

The evening before the career fair, the officers talked to the student Criminology Association about the furious turn their lives took on October 2, 2002. At 6:04 p.m. that day, a fifty-five-year-old man was gunned down in a grocery store parking lot in Wheaton, Md. The next day, five people were killed, all but one of them in Montgomery County.

“The whole metro area was truly tested,” Aaron said. “It’s amazing how two individuals with a rifle can paralyze an area.” When officers made traffic stops, he said, helicopters materialized with snipers hanging from their sides.

After each shooting incident, a police net was thrown up around the area. “SWAT officers were making stops,” Aaron said. “The net never worked, but drivers were cooperative.”

“People really came together,” McCoy said. “It showed how fragile our society really is.”

Sofelkanik started in the detective bureau with the sniper investigation. “One hundred percent of the bureau was working on following up leads,” he said. “You go out and you knock on doors. You sort tips, and you follow up.”

The shootings continued in Maryland and Virginia. In Montgomery County on October 22, a bus driver became the sniper outbreak’s tenth fatality. County Police Chief Charles Moose released a communication, possibly from the sniper: “Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time.”

The bus driver would be the last victim.  Two days later, at a rest stop about twenty-five miles outside Montgomery County, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were discovered asleep in their 1990 Chevrolet Caprice.

A multi-agency SWAT team was flown to the site, Sofelkanik said. Its members moved in on the car for a “tactical takedown.” The suspects were brought to Montgomery County, and the car, packed with evidence, impounded there. Their arrests, Sofelkanik said, “took a little bit of luck and a lot of talent.”

The metropolitan area breathed a collective sigh. “People brought food to the police stations,” Aaron said. “There were banners on overpasses along 270 that said, ‘We love you, Chief Moose” and “Thank you, Police.”

The door-knocking Sofelkanik described resulted in a series of unrelated arrests. A firearms task force grew out of the investigation, and new police radios were put into use more quickly than would have otherwise been the case. Uniformed policemen got used to strangers saying thank you.

In the bloodshed of that October and the responses it provoked, McCoy said, “You saw the worst side of people, and you saw the best.”