‘If you re­ally en­joy it, that fire still burns in you’

NRP of­fi­cer Star­liper re­tir­ing af­ter 30 years on South­ern Md. wa­ter­ways

The Enterprise - - Front Page - By DANDAN ZOU dzou@somd­news.com

Be­com­ing a nat­u­ral re­sources po­lice of­fi­cer was Rick Star­liper’s dream job since he was a boy of 10. In 1987, he sold his house and moved his fam­ily of five from Franklin County, Pa., to St. Mary’s to achieve that dream.

In the three decades that fol­lowed, he worked on cases of il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties and boat­ing ac­ci­dents and pa­troled much of the wa­ters and parks in South­ern Mary­land.

His re­tire­ment start­ing on Oct. 1 would con­clude a ca- reer of “ful­fill­ment” for him, re­al­iz­ing his child­hood dream sparked by trips he had with his wildlife con­ser­va­tion­ist fa­ther, Floyd Star­liper, pa­trol­ing parks where he fell in love with wildlife.

“I’m go­ing to miss it — 30 years of do­ing the same thing,” he said. “You are your own boss out here. You make the job what you want to make of it.”

At times, his job feels like “a minia­ture of ‘Dead­li­est

Catch,’” a tele­vi­sion se­ries fea­tur­ing fish­er­men catch­ing Alaska king crabs.

In­stead of crabs, his big catch was a miss­ing boater from Wal­dorf af­ter a nau­ti­cal ac­ci­dent about 20 years ago.

It was about 3 or 4 p.m. in a windy day in late fall, and he had been search­ing all day. Sur­rounded by wa­ter, Star­liper said it was an un­be­liev­able mo­ment when he saw the man emerg­ing out of 5-foot-high waves in the lower Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

Elated that he had found him, Star­liper was also ex­hausted af­ter drag­ging the man into his boat, which was a chal­lenge in rough wa­ters when the boater him­self could barely lift his arms af­ter six hours of float­ing in wa­ter.

Other times, the wa­ter was calm and his days were event­less. And Star­liper’s main job was get­ting to know peo­ple and build­ing re­la­tion­ships.

Af­ter 30 years of work­ing in the re­gion, Star­liper knows al­most every wa­ter­man in the area and is on a first-name ba­sis with most of them. Half of the wa­ter­men have his per­sonal phone num­ber. Many know where he lives in Dray­den. He sees them on the wa­ter and on land at gas sta­tions and gro­cery stores.

“Once they get to trust you, they will keep you in­formed,” he said.

Although not con­sid­ered friends, Star­liper sees wa­ter­men like his neigh­bors.

“If my boat breaks down, prob­a­bly a wa­ter­man will tow me back to the dock,” he said. Some­times, it works the other way around.

Star­liper be­lieves if an of­fi­cer treats every­body fairly and projects com­mon sense, “this job will go smoothly be­cause they talk.”

Dur­ing the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, he said the test of fair­ness seemed to al­ways go back to him when he was get­ting ready to go to bed at night.

If he went to bed still think­ing about the ci­ta­tion, he knew that the ticket was both­er­ing him and he prob­a­bly should have been more le­nient.

To Star­liper, be­ing fair means dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween an hon­est mis­take and an in­ten­tional act. That dif­fer­ence could be be­tween one un­der­sized crab and 20.

“If you try to do some­thing you know you are not sup­posed to do, you need to be taught a les­son,” he said. But if he sensed some­thing was an hon­est mis­take, he would give a warn­ing.

Other perks of his job in­clude see­ing marine life and wildlife in the wa­ter — bald ea­gles, pel­i­cans, os­prey, deer, dol­phins, you name it. He’s seen more and more dol­phins in the bay th­ese days.

“You don’t re­al­ize how huge they are un­til you see them,” he said.

Dur­ing a re­cent pa­trol on the St. Mary’s River with his col­league, Emily Beck­hardt, on Aug. 24, a wa­ter­man called his cell­phone to tell him he saw a coy­ote swim­ming to the shore where he had pa­trolled ear­lier.

When he pa­trols nowa­days, peo­ple al­ways ask him about his re­tire­ment.

One of the boats he checked on Aug. 24 be­longed to the Ben­tons of St. Ini­goes. Much of the pa­trol­ing job in­volves check­ing li­censes, safety equip­ment and sizes of fish or other har­vest.

As Star­liper pulled his boat close, Fred Ben­ton pulled a perch out of the wa­ter.

“I thought you re­tired!” Ben­ton shouted as Star­liper stepped to the side of his pa­trol boat.

“You couldn’t leave me alone?” Ben­ton added jok­ingly.

The Ben­tons have known Star­liper for years. They chat­ted for a few min­utes, talk­ing about his up­com­ing re­tire­ment, the weather and the wa­ter. Be­fore Star­liper pulled away, Becky Ben­ton asked him to pose for some pho­tos.

“Wave good­bye,” she said, giv­ing Star­liper di­rec­tions for the pho­tos. “Now off into the sun­set.”

He waved, and they laughed.

“Nine more days,” he told them. Of­fi­cially he re­tires on Oct. 1. But he has many leave days ac­cu­mu­lated over the years and is us­ing them this month.

Later, he saw wa­ter­men work­ing on the wa­ter. Most of the time, he knew who ran the boat by look­ing at the boat alone. One of the wa­ter­men he saw was 83-year-old Bob Holden.

Holden asked him what he plans to do next.

“I’m get­ting my sleep pat­tern back,” he said with a laugh. It would be nice to wake up and “feel re­ally rested in the morn­ing.”

NRP of­fi­cers work “crazy hours,” like con­stantly be­ing in jet lag, he said. “Your sleep is be­ing put on the back burner.”

But that’s what he signed up for 30 years ago and he had one goal — “to pro­tect our re­sources.”

“That’s why we do it,” he said. The bad guys don’t work 8 to 4, and if they don’t do it, “who else will?”

One case he worked, for ex­am­ple, in­volved a night­time surveil­lance op­er­a­tion that led to lo­cat­ing peo­ple catch­ing oysters in a sanc­tu­ary at 4:30 a.m.

Another time, Star­liper spent days surveilling the Piney Creek area af­ter re­ceiv­ing in­for­ma­tion about il­le­gal crab­bing ac­tiv­i­ties. He later caught some­one us­ing stolen crab pots from wa­ter­men to crab in a re­stricted area. Upon be­ing caught, the per­son cut the floats of the pots in hope to hide the ev­i­dence. Star­liper re­cov­ered the pots and re­turned them to the wa­ter­men.

Star­liper’s for­mer su­per­vi­sor, Sgt. Devin Cor­co­ran, de­scribed Star­liper as the “back­bone of the Nat­u­ral Re­sources Po­lice in St. Mary’s County” in a let­ter nom­i­nat­ing Star­liper as the 2016 NRP of­fi­cer of the year for the South­ern re­gion.

“Not one to chase statis­tics or quick tick­ets, Cpl. Star­liper is more will­ing to in­vest time and ef­fort into cases that pro­duce qual­ity, last­ing re­sults,” Cor­co­ran wrote.

Pre­vi­ously, Star­liper was named the 2013 of­fi­cer of the year in Mary­land, what he con­sid­ers his big­gest ac­com­plish­ment.

Star­liper de­scribed the job of NRP of­fi­cers as “care­tak­ers of the en­vi­ron­ment” and “over­seers of the wildlife.”

“We are marine po­lice, park rangers and game war­dens,” he said.

The job is not for ev­ery­one. But for Star­liper, “if you re­ally en­joy it, that fire still burns in you.”

“If my boat breaks down, prob­a­bly a wa­ter­man will tow me back to the dock.” Cpl. Rick Star­liper, Mary­land Nat­u­ral Re­sources Po­lice of­fi­cer

STAFF PHOTO BY DANDAN ZOU

Mary­land Nat­u­ral Re­sources Po­lice of­fi­cer Rick Star­liper, left, talks to Kim Un­kle, a St. Mary’s wa­ter­man, on Aug. 24 on the St. Mary’s River.

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