‘If you really enjoy it, that fire still burns in you’
NRP officer Starliper retiring after 30 years on Southern Md. waterways
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
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.