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Somerset police chief joins ranks of fallen officers

Paul Peirce
| Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Elk Lick Township Police Chief Sheridan O. Caton never ignored an opportunity to honor fellow police officers killed in the line of duty. Next May, Caton won't make his solemn journey to Harrisburg to hear the roll call of fallen police officers at the annual police memorial.

He will be among those honored.

Caton, 60, was killed at 12:30 a.m. Sunday in a head-on collision in Addison Township, another portion of rural Somerset County, as he was responding to a neighboring police department's call for assistance in apprehending a suspected drunken driver near Confluence. Caton's cruiser collided head-on with another suspected drunken driver, and Caton was pronounced dead at the scene.

The driver of the other car, Warren E. Christopher, 40, was reported in critical condition in West Virginia University Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va., and a passenger, Mark Allen King, 31, was in fair condition in Conemaugh Memorial Hospital in Johnstown.

No arrests have been made, but the accident is still under investigation by state police at Somerset.

Somerset Borough Police Department's officer-in-charge, James Hahn, recalled the Roof Garden Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police never had to seek volunteers from area police departments to attend the annual police memorial in Harrisburg because they knew Caton, known as "Sherd" to acquaintances, likely would attend.

"He always went to the memorial in full uniform. He loved the uniform, and really loved his job and working with people," said Hahn, who worked on the police force in Meyersdale with Caton from 1966 through 1970.

Elk Lick Township secretary Ardith Deal, who was hired by the township about the same time as Caton, also recalled the 41-year police veteran's devotion in attending the annual police memorial.

"I don't ever remember him missing one. Sherd always said those services gave him a special feeling ... even chills when he went," Deal said.

"I don't know whether it was seeing all the lines of cruisers and police officers from all the departments paying their respects ... the bagpipes playing or the service itself, but he really respected the job and always went there," Deal said.

She said Caton regretted he had never attended the national police memorial service in Washington, D.C.

Caton began his law enforcement career in 1965 when he was hired as a part-time policeman in Meyersdale. About a decade later, Caton was named chief, eventually serving 29 years with that department before retiring in 1994.

Months after retirement, Caton was hired as chief of the part-time, three-member Elk Lick Police Department, where he served until his death. Elk Lick, home to Mt. Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania at 3,213-feet, is about eight miles south of Meyersdale.

It has a population of about 2,300 people including "a few hundred Amish," according to Supervisor George Bodes.

The department also patrols adjoining Salisbury Borough, with a population of 878 people. Salisbury is only about three miles north of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

News that Caton was on his way to assist another officer at the end of a shift that ended at midnight was not a surprise to anyone who knew him, according to Hahn.

"He wouldn't think twice about responding to help someone. He loved his job and loved helping people -- not only other policemen," Hahn said.

"I can personally tell you that he put the same 101 percent into the job his last day on duty as he did the first day 40 years earlier. It could be a simple call for a suspicious vehicle or even a bank robbery, he wouldn't respond any different to either call," Hahn said.

Meyersdale police Chief Ron Ackerman said Caton was a mentor to other area officers.

"He was really well-liked and respected. He was a great policeman," Ackerman said.

Bodes, who has worked for the township for 24 years, including the last seven as supervisor, said he was "amazed" by Caton's dedication.

"Day or night ... if you needed him, he would always be there. He'd be there to help during holidays with all the parades, and he'd always be out speaking with the kids at school, and I don't think he ever missed a township meeting in 10 years so he could see what we needed him to do," Bodes said.

"Whether it was gingerly explaining to an Amish family about the steel wheels (causing damage to township roads), Sherd was down to earth and could talk with anyone," Bodes said.

During the series of violent tornadoes that struck the area on May 31 and June 2, 1998, Bodes recalled that Caton "was here working, practically around the clock."

"He wasn't just doing police-type work either. He was out assisting anyone he could," Bodes said.

Deal recalled that Caton recent solved an area burglary spree -- except there was a problem.

"One of the victims was an Amish family. The Amish, under their religious beliefs, believe in turning the other cheek and it's hard to persuade them to bring charges against someone and then testify in formal court," Deal said.

"So Sherd went to the head of the local Amish church and explained how important this family's testimony was to the case and the township would be the one filing the criminal charges, so the family was permitted to testify. Everything turned out just like Sherd said it would," Deal said.

"It hasn't sunk in yet how much we'll miss him here. He did his job, but never lorded power over people," she said.

Hahn recalled Caton's knowledge of his jurisdiction and its residents was astonishing and helped him solve many crimes, including the arrest of a major car thief during the 1970s just outside Meyersdale.

"I remember we got this call from (Caton) about 2 a.m. telling us a leader of a major, major car theft ring who had been working up and down the entire East Coast had somehow ended up in Meyersdale, and dumped a car in our area and stole another one. But no one could figure out where he was," Hahn said.

Hahn said the town's other off-duty policemen immediately responded, and Caton soon spotted a late-model Cadillac that Caton recognized as belonging to a local businessman. The car was headed out of town.

"He knew (the owner) wouldn't be out that late, so he followed him and the thief, who had put temporary plates on the stolen car, eventually led us into a cornfield where he surrendered. Later, the chief went back to the scene and found a .357-caliber handgun that the guy had ditched at the last minute and to this day he (Caton) thought that if he didn't call us for backup, he would have been shot," Hahn said.

Acquaintances recalled Caton enjoyed fishing, "tinkering with television and VCR repairs," and in recent years had discovered the Internet.

"His son, Brian, lives in Australia, and he just loved talking with him on the Internet. He would call me at all hours with questions about his computer ... like I was some kind of an expert," Deal said.

At Garlitz Grocery on Ord Street, Salisbury, where the handwritten chalkboard advertisement outside touts fresh watermelons for $5.79, clerks Carol Menser and Kim Winkler lamented they already miss their friend.

"Sherd always would stop by here at closing just to make sure we were OK because we had been robbed a couple of times. He always had a joke when he stopped," Menser said.

"He was really nice, and we're going to miss him," Winkler said.

In addition to his son, Brian, Caton also is survived by a daughter, Roxanne Knopsnyder, of Somerset; four grandchildren, and two brothers and five sisters.

Visitation will continue from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today at the Price Funeral Home on Main Street in Meyersdale, where a funeral service will be conducted at 11 a.m. Thursday. Interment will be at the Greenville Union Cemetery.

Hundreds of police officers from departments throughout Pennsylvania and the United States are expected to attend the service and procession to the cemetery. The service is expected to include bagpipes, a state police helicopter fly-by and a gun salute by state police.

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