August 26, 2009

Crime Stopper

Whether it’s catching a gunman, pedophile, or other criminal, Paul McCormick ’87 defends justice in Augusta County, Va.

By David Learn ’92

Before Paul McCormick ’87 arrived on the scene, an 18-year-old had barricaded himself inside his parents’ house and was shooting at police officers responding to an altercation the teen had with his parents.

“He and I started talking,” says McCormick, a trained crisis and hostage negotiator in the Augusta County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office. “It turned out that he was a guitar player, and I like to play guitar.”

The two men built a rapport as they talked, McCormick from the ground and the teen from the vantage point of a window two feet above. At some point, though, the rapport broke down, and the teen reached for a pistol inside the house. McCormick leapt and grabbed the man’s arm, trapping him at the window.

“I hung on for dear life, and he was trying to pull himself back into the house,” he recalls. Law enforcement officers quickly entered the home and ended the standoff without injuries to anyone.

“It was a group effort,” says McCormick, who received the Augusta County Sheriff’s Commendation Ribbon in December 2008 for his actions. “I was just there at the right time.”

Before joining the sheriff’s office in August 2000, McCormick made a career of helping children. At the now-defunct DeJarnette Center, he had worked with juveniles tried as adults and convicted of violent crimes. For two years at the Office on Youth, he dealt with truant adolescents, including gang members whom he has since had to arrest as adults. And from 1999-2000, he was a counselor for women and children at the New Directions domestic violence shelter in Staunton, Va.

“My experiences in all those jobs pushed me into law enforcement,” says McCormick. “I got tired of trying to fix the broken pieces; I just wanted to arrest those victimizing others.”

About three years ago, McCormick began focusing on sexual predators. The crime that brought things into focus involved a 4-year-old girl who needed surgery and who had developed genital warts as a result of repeated molestations.

Despite the horrors of the abuse she had endured, the girl remained a quintessentially beautiful little child. For McCormick, the encounter was fundamentally life-changing.

“She had an impact I’ll always remember. Here’s this little girl who, after a year of going through this, maintained an absolutely upbeat perspective,” he says. “That was the case that really opened my eyes and got me interested.”

Since then, McCormick has seen sex crimes swell to about 95 percent of his caseload.

To crime-show aficionados fed a steady diet of CSI and other, similar dramas, where detectives routinely solve their cases in weekly installments of 52-minute episodes, where everything comes together quietly and neatly, and the investigators are unaffected by all that they witness, McCormick has a simple message: It’s not like that. In addition to sifting through he-says-she-says testimony in an effort to ferret out the truth, he has had experiences take him places he’d rather not go.

“I can think like a pedophile,” he says of the process necessary for catching the predators. “It makes me feel a little dirty afterward.”

The job has other ramifications for his personal life that are largely expected. A career in law enforcement takes away evenings and weekends that most others enjoy. At times he has to cancel plans and even vacations.

It also means that the line between time on the job and time with family is blurred. Sometimes, it’s merely inconvenient, like when he has to leave his family during a trip to the store because duty is calling. Other times, “awkward” fails to convey the experience.

“My child, who’s now in second grade, his best buddy in first grade — one day I had to arrest his mother and grandmother,” McCormick says.

With such stories in his experience, it’s hardly a surprise that McCormick has taken the time to write and self publish two novellas, each concerned with horrific crime.

The first of these books was Marsupial Man. Published in 2006 through iUniverse Inc., it tells the story of three adults who decide to spice up their lives with a little killing. The second is The Physics of Madness, published earlier this year by Author House. It chronicles a teen who searches for his own identity through murder and necrophilia. McCormick is under no illusions that either will be featured reads in national book clubs.

“They’re certainly not happy, feel-good stories,” he says. “They try to get inside the head of deviants.”

One thing that may be said of all the stories McCormick has to tell is this: In a sense, they all begin, “Once upon a time, at Lafayette College.”

It was at Lafayette that McCormick took his first psychology classes. Professor Alan Childs awakened in his young student a wonder at the workings of the human mind that has been a running theme through all the stories that have starred McCormick since, whether as counselor, officer, or author.

“He taught Psych 101,” McCormick says, “and it really got me interested in why people do what they do.”

posted in Alumni

tagged with