Officer John R. Phelan

Fallen Hero Officer John R. Phelan

On this day in Baltimore Police History 1956 we lost our brother Police Officer John R. Phelan due to gunfire based on the following;

The photograph of a rookie who dreamed of nothing more than police work as a career, now hangs in his nephew’s office, it is balanced by the unique patch of the Baltimore Police Department in a custom frame. The picture of the young man, full of life with unquestioned pride in his eyes, makes one contemplate his own mortality. At the end of 21, and with only four months of service protecting the City of Baltimore, Officer Phelan died at the back of an ambulance, the victim of a bullet from his own service weapon. His widow, 19 year old Jacquelyn Phelan, described her late husband’s love for police work as if it were a religion, she spoke of the many times he would rearrange his uniform, and clean his gun until he felt it was perfect. He would also polish the badge he worked so hard to earn. Sadly, the young man was killed before the birth of their first child. The neighborhood in the Northwest District lived in fear, as a gang of armed robbers on a rampage, were robbing small businesses and citizens at will. Officer Phelan bravely patrolled the areas hardest hit by those robberies. In an effort to catch the robbery suspects in the act, several officers hid in the back rooms of liquor stores, and grocery stores and patiently waited for these criminals to strike. Patrolman Wilbert J Schroeder hid in the rear of the Park’s Liquor Store in the 2700 Block of West North Avenue. Late on the evening of September 29, 1959, three men burst through the front door the liquor store brandishing handguns; they began shouting orders to the store owner William Park and his two employees, Gilmor Donte and James Curtis. On emerging from his hiding space, Patrolman Schroeder was met with a barrage of gunfire from less than 10 feet away, bullets flew, shattering bottles and cases of beer, but, amazingly, not a single person was struck, and the three robbers fled to the street. Officer Schroeder close behind, took aim at the largest member of the group and let his final round fly. It struck Alvin Herbert Braxton, a 6 foot, 210 lb. seventeen-year-old in his leg as he ran. The shot stopped Alvin Braxton in his tracks. With news a gun battle spreading fast, requests for assistance were quickly answered. Among those who responded were Patrolman Phelan and his partner, Patrolman Theodore Weintraub. With the scene secure, the officers sent for an ambulance to care off the young criminals for treatment to his leg wound. Medics, Walter Robinson and Mark Rohm arrived shortly afterward and loaded the critically injured man into their ambulance. In the mid 1950s, handcuffs, and leg irons were a luxury item. Often those patrolman who had them had spent their own money to acquire them. On this night not a single responding patrolman had a set of handcuffs to restrict the movement of the prisoner. In order to properly guard against escape, Officer Phelan and Weintraub joined the medics in the back of the ambulance for a ride to Lutheran Hospital. Braxton saw an opportunity to escape and began to fight despite the throbbing pain in his leg. The two patrolmen fought back in a desperate struggle within the closed quarters of the ambulance. The medics stopped their vehicle in the intersection of Popular Grove and Baker Street and went to aid of the patrolman. Before Robinson and Rohm could help, Braxton ripped of Officer Phelen’s gun from his holster and began firing wildly. He managed to shoot his way to temporary freedom by fatally wounding Officer Phelan and hitting Weintraub in both legs. The violent youth forced open the doors to the ambulance and assaulted a taxicab driver who was stopped nearby. He then took control of the cab and rammed the rear of the ambulance to keep the patrolman inside. By this time, others were responded to the sounds of gunfire, and frightened calls from citizens. Patrolman Henry Hau was first on the scene upon seeing Braxton Officer Hau took careful aim and shot Braxton four more times. With their ambulance damaged, Robinson and Rohm sped to the hospital in an attempt to save the two patrolmen’s lives. John Phelan died before he would reach the hospital, he would become the youngest officer to lose his life in the service of the city of Baltimore; eventually patrolman Weintraub would recover from his wounds. Patrolman Phillip Buratt and William DePaula, who were driving the patrol wagon, responded to the scene. Still without handcuffs, they transported the wounded Braxton to Lutheran Hospital for much needed care; upon arrival to the hospital Braxton would again attempt an escape, this time he would fight with all his strength despite his extensive injuries, eventually being subdued by an overwhelming number of police who finally handcuffed him. After he had received the necessary care, Braxton revealed the names of his fellow gang members, and where they could be found. Police arrested and charged Alvin Braxton, Roger Ray, Earl Pickett, and Albert Braxton, Alvin’s older brother, they were all charged with more than 11 robberies. The gang had stolen nearly $36,000 and three pistols. Allen Braxton was also tried convicted of murdering Officer John R. Phelan. If anything good could come of such a tragic moment, it was the public’s outcry over the fact that officers were not properly equipped. Newspaper editorials insisted on properly funding and equipping the Baltimore Police Department. One editorial looked upon the idea as a matter of common sense, “Certainly relatively small budget items should not stand in the way of maximum protective equipment for all policemen.” The editor went one to suggest that taxpayers would be far from hostile to inclusion of relatively small sums for general issuance of both handcuffs and new holsters.”

These measures did little to comfort young Jacqueline’s grief at the loss of her new husband, but they did promise that in the future, officers would have the added measure of safety that many officers today take for granted.

As his brothers and sisters of the Baltimore Police Department we will not let him be forgotten, His service Honored the City of Baltimore, and the Baltimore Police Department may he rest in peace, and may God bless him.

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More details

End of Watch 29 September, 1956
City, St. Popular Grove and Baker Street
Panel Number 12-W: 15
Cause of Death Gunfire
District Worked Northwestern

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