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Losing Jon

A Teen's Tragic Death, a Police Cover-Up, a Community's Fight for Justice



     Kids don’t think. That’s just the way it is. A kid who is partying thinks the whole world is partying.

    They weren’t really kids anymore. All were college students but one, mostly freshmen and sophomores, but they were still kids to me. Some attended college locally and others were home for winter break. There were fifteen of them—eight girls and seven guys. They had grown up together and were all friends or familiar acquaintances.

     The tallest in the group, a kid named Chris, was six-foot-two, blond, and a good first baseman on recreational-league baseball teams I had coached against. Jon and Mickey Bowie were identical twins with sandy hair, dark eyebrows, and a frequent glint of devilment in their eyes. They had often played on teams I coached from the time they were eleven until they graduated from high school.

     As a group, they had talked for weeks about renting a motel room. Most were under the legal drinking age in Maryland, and those who drank wouldn’t have to drive or worry about getting hassled by their parents or the police. Cramming fifteen young people in a motel room without disturbing other guests wouldn’t be easy, but kids don’t think.

     At 11:39 p.m. on Friday, January 5, 1990, a young woman who was the night clerk at the Red Roof Inn on Route 1 just outside of Columbia, Maryland, placed a call to the Howard County Police Department.

     “Howard County Police. May I help you?”

     The night clerk identified herself and explained, “A guest just called and said there was a party or something going on in one of the rooms. I’m the only person on duty right now, and I didn’t want to go out there.”

    “Well, I mean, are there narcotics involved? I mean, what—”

     “I have no idea.”

     “Is it a bad party? A good party?”

     “He just said there was a bunch of noise.”

     She gave him the address and phone number.

     “You know, it’s good to be able to describe to me what’s going on because I don’t like to send police into situations—”

     “Noise complaint.”

     “Okay, I’ll send somebody over.”

       Several police officers were eating chicken at a chain restaurant practically across Route 1 from the motel, and two of them responded almost immediately. Soon, a half dozen additional police cars would arrive at the motel, followed by one or two patrol cars from the state police barracks a mile up the road.

     Things were about to get ugly.

* * *

     I was coaching a team of ten- and eleven-year-olds the first year that my son Dan, who was ten, and the Bowie twins, who were eleven, played on the same team. The Bowies were the kind of kids that other kids wanted to be like. They enjoyed themselves, were good at what they did, and when the game was over they did something else. Jon was the closest to a genuine free spirit I’d ever encountered. Mickey usually had less to say and was fierier, more physical. Although their personalities differed, I still got them confused even after I’d known them for years. In later years, Mickey told me that sometimes he and Jon switched positions for the fun of it, and Mickey played catcher and Jon shortstop. I never caught them at it.

    During that first summer I also met their mother, Sandra. She was a single divorced parent and went by her maiden name, which I kept forgetting and like most people I referred to her as Sandra Bowie. Her family and mine weren’t what you would call regular friends—we didn’t keep up with each other’s lives, and we didn’t socialize—but something about Sandra and her sons reminded me of family. Sometimes when our sons were younger, Sandra would drop Jon and Mick off at our house for a sleepover and sometimes I would drop my sons Mike and Dan off at her apartment.

     As Jon and Mickey grew older, they played baseball and football and tolerated academics, which did not interest them particularly despite their naturally quick minds. When her sons were old enough, Sandra hired them to do occasional jobs at the daycare center she managed.

     Jon and Mickey got full scholarships to play baseball for Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota. Mickey also planned to play football, so he left home two weeks ahead of his brother to attend football practice. By then Sandra had married Jim Keyser, and she and Jim drove Jon up to Dickinson two weeks later. They planned to make a vacation of it and tour the area after the boys were settled. When they arrived, Jon and Mick informed them that they had decided that North Dakota was not for them. It was too cold, too far from home, too whatever. 

     Jim and Sandra thought the boys were just getting cold feet and told them that they wouldn’t abandon their vacation plans. If the boys weren’t staying, they would have to find their own way home. Sandra thought that would be the end of it. She and Jim toured the area and Jon and Mickey took a Greyhound bus home. They enrolled at a local community college, began classes there, and Sandra eventually got over it.

     That night at the motel, Jon and Mickey were enjoying winter break during their second year of college. 


* * *

The Red Roof Inn is a three-story economy hotel a mile or so outside Columbia, just east of Interstate 95. It sits along a high grassy embankment paralleling Route 1.

     It was January-cold at about 10:30 that Friday night as fifteen warmly dressed young people got out of their cars and gathered in the parking lot. One young woman went into the hotel lobby and came back out exhaling white air and saying you had to be twenty-one to rent a room.

     Only Jeff Phipps, short and stocky with reddish-brown hair, was twenty-one. Jeff had been Jon and Mickey’s next-door neighbor for several years, had attended college briefly, and now worked in construction. He and the Bowies lived in adjoining town houses, had gone to the same high school, and sometimes hung out together even though Jeff was two years older. Jeff went into the lobby and soon came out waving a room key.

     The room was on the first floor facing the parking lot next to the end unit. It was a standard motel room with a double bed, a dresser with a TV on it, and a round table with two chairs.

     Jon and Mickey brought a case of beer and one of the young women also brought a case. One kid brought a pipe that he claimed belonged to someone he knew. It was a tobacco pipe, but it could be used to smoke marijuana. Those I spoke with later wouldn’t say who brought the pipe, but they insisted that no marijuana was smoked that night. One young woman brought a camera.

     Most of the kids found room to cram in on the bed and they chatted as they waited for a popular late-night talk show to come on, starring Arsenio Hall. A couple of guys moved the chairs by the door and sat there. They had been in the room a half hour or so when the phone rang, and Jeff answered it. He hung up saying it was the front desk and they had to keep it down. They tried, and did for a while.

     Jeff made a pass at one of the girls. His girlfriend, a slender blonde, got angry and ran crying into the bathroom. Jeff left in a huff and then there were fourteen. Eight girls, six guys.

     A few girls went into the bathroom to console Jeff’s girlfriend. Mickey didn’t know her that well, but he followed the girls in to see if he could help. He couldn’t see that he was helping much and was coming out of the bathroom when someone shouted, “Cops.”

* * *

        The police would say later that they were just doing their jobs that night. I eventually pieced together the official statements of the young people in the motel room along with details from conversations I had with several of them, and the following is more like what I believe actually happened.

     As Mickey stepped out of the bathroom, two police officers were standing inside the door. One, a muscular white guy in his upper twenties, was big and really tall. Six-foot-seven. The other, a black guy, was pushing thirty. There was immediate confusion. Kids shouted, “Cops,” and the officers shouted, “Out of the bathroom.” and “Sit. Everybody on the bed.”

     Mickey found room on the end of the bed and those still in the bathroom came out and squeezed in here and there. Chris, the first baseman, got up from a chair by the door and sat beside Jeff’s girlfriend, who was still sniffling. I don’t think Puffy, the only black kid in the room, played baseball, but he was a longtime friend of Jon and Mick’s and of others in the room. He was standing near the door and took the chair that Chris vacated.

     Chong Ko, who was Korean and had a stocky build and neatly trimmed black hair, was already sitting in the other chair near the door. Chong was also a longtime friend of Jon and Mick’s. His family owned and operated several successful restaurants and convenience stores in and around Columbia.

     Officer Ricky Johnson, the black officer, stayed near the door, which remained propped open. The tall, white officer, Victor Riemer, walked around the bed and checked the bathroom. He began asking for identification, and a few kids pulled out driver’s licenses, but not everyone carried identification.

      Officer Johnson ordered the person who had rented the room to stand up. The kids said the person who rented the room had left. This seemed to make the officers angry, as if they didn’t believe it. Johnson read a statement about the legal consequences of underage drinking. He said no commissioner was on duty that night to sign the necessary paperwork, so anyone who didn’t have identification would have to spend the weekend in jail. Some of the girls started crying. Guys looked at the floor. 

     Jon was sitting on the heating unit behind Johnson.

     “Yeah, right.” Jon said. “You can’t do that just because we don’t have IDs.”

     Johnson turned sharply to face Jon and said, “Shut the fuck up.”

     Jon looked down at his chest and back up at the officer and said, “You can’t do that.”

     “You got a problem?” Johnson snapped.

     Chris, who had known Jon a long time, would tell me later that Jon knew he had gotten himself into something and wished he hadn’t. Jon raised both hands and slumped back against the wall, which Chris knew wasn’t at all like Jon unless he was nervous.

     “Hey, no problem,” Jon said. “No problem.”

     “Let me talk to you outside,” Johnson said.

     One girl didn’t remember later exactly what was said, but she thought Jon was being smart with Johnson, sort of showing off, and Johnson got angry.

     Later, this struck me as a critical point in the kids’ encounter with the police. Jon had backed away from the confrontation, and things would have turned out completely different if the officer had simply ignored Jon’s remark instead of escalating the situation.

     Chong Ko snickered, and Riemer shot him a look. “So, you’re a smart ass. Stand up.”

     Chong stood. Jon had also started to stand to go outside and Johnson gave him a shove, and Jon sat back hard on the heating unit. Johnson frisked Chong and stopped his hand at Chong’s jacket pocket.

     “What’s this?”

     Chong took out an unopened pint of grain alcohol, set it on the round table among the opened beer cans, and sat back down.

     Johnson turned to Jon again and motioned for him to stand up. Jon stood and stepped toward the door; Johnson grabbed his sleeve and jerked him forward, and Jon stumbled.

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