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By Dan Belson and Lilly Price

Baltimore Sun

May 03, 2023


May is, by far, the hardest month of the year for Debbie Sorrells.

This year, May 21 will mark the five-year anniversary of the line-of-duty death of her daughter, Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio, who was 29 and nearing her fourth year at the Baltimore County Police Department in 2018 when she was fatally struck by a stolen Jeep while responding to a burglary call in Perry Hall.

Every year, Sorrells is inundated with reminders throughout the month. There’s Mother’s Day, as well as Caprio’s anniversary with her widower, Tim Caprio, and his birthday. Less than a week after the anniversary of Caprio’s death, her daughter’s birthday brings more emotional toll.

Those dates fall in a month scattered with annual tributes to fallen first responders. A memorial service for Baltimore County Police officers will be held May 12, followed by National Police Week, in the middle of the month.

This year, Sorrells is the family speaker for the annual Fallen Heroes Day ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, where Caprio is buried. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, she described her journey so far along the endless “road of grief,” exchanging emotional support with the father of another fallen police officer and finding hope in symbols.

The ceremony, which will be livestreamed and held in person Friday at the Timonium cemetery’s Fallen Heroes Memorial, memorializes Maryland first responders who died recently in the line of duty. Juan Wilson, a Baltimore firefighter and emergency medical technician who died in October, will be celebrated at this year’s ceremony.

Among the 10 other first responders being recognized at the statewide ceremony this year are Wicomico County Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn HilliardHoward County Fire Lt. Brad Scott and Maryland Corrections Officer Gregory Collins. In addition to Sorrells, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Baltimore County Chief Administrative Officer Stacy L. Rodgers and Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Nathan will deliver remarks.

‘He was a quiet hero’

Wilson died doing what he loved, his godsister JoVonne Lewis said.

Wilson suffered a medical emergency in September at the scene of a medical call. He died a month later, just 10 days after turning 34.

”He liked the excitement of being a fireman and the camaraderie of it,” said his mother, Jacqueline Garrett, who lost her only child. “He loved his job.”

Wilson grew up five minutes from the station where he would spend 11 years: Engine Company 53 in Edmondson Village.

Never one to complain or boast, Wilson didn’t share many details of his job with his mother.

“I came to find out he was a well-known and well-respected firefighter,” Garrett said. “He was a quiet hero.”

Wilson, a graduate of Woodlawn High School, entered the fire academy at 22 years old. He joined the ranks of a department where his two cousins had worked for decades.

As one of the first people to enter fires and respond to medical calls, Wilson often confronted tragic circumstances. He remained dedicated to the profession and the Edmondson Village community even on the hardest days, Lewis said.

”He still went back to work, still did his job, still served,” she said.

In his free time, Wilson enjoyed riding motorcycles, playing video games to unwind from work, and traveling. He often watched his godnieces and helped out at his mother’s day care center. Wilson is survived by his mother and his father, Larry Wilson.

“Juan was always there for me. Always,” Lewis said. “The only time he didn’t [respond] was when he was at work.”

‘Guilt is like gold’

Overwhelmed with grief in the weeks that followed her daughter’s death, Sorrells sees that time as a “huge jigsaw puzzle,” which she’s still trying to piece together. While the outpouring of support from police and the community was cathartic for her husband, Sorrells found it stressful, feeling especially overwhelmed by large groups.

Somewhere along the line, she met Chuck Schneider, the father of slain Baltimore County Police Officer Jason Schneider, who is buried next to Caprio at Dulaney Valley.

Jason Schneider, a 36-year-old tactical officer and father of two, was shot to death in August 2013 while trying to serve a warrant at a home in Catonsville. He was the ninth Baltimore County Police officer to be killed in the line of duty. Caprio was the 10th.

Sorrells remembers speaking with Chuck Schneider during a hike after Caprio’s death and “just suddenly feeling there’s somebody that gets it, that knows where I am.”

Since then, the two parents have leaned on each other while navigating the never-ending road of grief throughout the past five years. Schneider has been able to share wisdom with Sorrells from his position further down the road.

“I have the privilege of sometimes letting her know some of the things she can expect, some of the obstacles that might be in the road,” Schneider said.

In turn, Sorrells has helped him keep the grief from his son’s death in perspective. For example, while Sorrells must struggle emotionally the entire month of May, Schneider’s pain is more diffused.

“My admiration for her to get up every morning and put her feet on the floor, knowing that month comes by every single year, is a tremendous inspiration for me,” said Chuck Schneider, who spoke at Fallen Heroes Day in 2018.

The parents see services like Fallen Heroes Day as what Schneider called a “double-edged sword” — a large showing of support that helps them in their grieving process, but a stressful time that can bring strong feelings of loss.

While the parents have been able to prepare for emotional dates and occasions on the road of grief, they still run into “potholes” and “flat tire issues,” such as unexpected moments of crippling feelings. Sometimes mundane tasks could bring out powerful emotions — dinnertime has been a frequent trigger for Schneider, whose family always ate together.

“I wish I knew what my triggers were, but they’re different on different days or different months,” Sorrells said. “I can’t be prepared for them.”

The parents said guilt is one of the strongest feelings following unexpected loss of their children, especially because Amy and Jason died doing their job. They feel guilt for not preventing their children’s deaths, and for not being there, even though they know it wasn’t possible. They also feel guilt for smaller things, such as not finishing their child’s baby book.

Schneider often says that “guilt is like gold, a little bit weighs a lot.” The heavy burden can snowball, and can lead to self-destructive coping mechanisms without an outlet.

“You don’t want to feel like you’ve betrayed them or dishonored them by ignoring their memory,” Schneider said.

He’s found that embracing his son’s memory has helped lighten the burden by freeing him of guilt and regret.

A veteran and retired Baltimore Police officer, Schneider said he finds services such as Fallen Heroes Day to be therapeutic to his journey, as he is able to express his feelings to fellow first responders who understand the uncertainty and danger of the job.

Sorrells, a nurse, has found it easier to tell Caprio’s story in children’s terms, and recently wrote a children’s book about her daughter. The book’s title, “The Story of the Dragonfly,” is a reference to the insects’ repeated appearances following her daughter’s death.

It started when a large dragonfly flew around Caprio’s funeral. Sorrells has seen dragonflies regularly since then, especially at places and events related to her daughter. She sees the motif as a comforting message from her daughter, bringing her peace and reassurance, as well as a connection with her daughter.

For Jason Schneider’s family, it’s the letter ‘J’ and blue jays, as he was nicknamed “J Bird” as a boy. Chuck Schneider recalled seeing his son’s badge number appear on a license plate.

“Little things like that are very, very positive,” he said. “We feel it’s their spirit, their energy that is making contact.”

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