By Carrie Wells, Luke Lavoie and Kevin Rector
The Baltimore Sun
LAUREL, Md. — Without warning, a man opened fire on Howard County police on a busy thoroughfare Wednesday afternoon, disappearing into a wooded area after seriously wounding an officer.
A half-mile-wide manhunt Wednesday night involved dozens of Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery county officers. A major portion of U.S. 1 was shut down for rush hour, and businesses, schools and homes were on lockdown through the evening.
Police had announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspect, whom they identified as Stephon Prather, 29, of no fixed address.
The search for Prather was relaunched at daybreak Thursday, with officers, SWAT team members and even police academy recruits participating, Howard police said.
Officers who were patroling the area observed Prather at about 9 a.m. Thursday walking alongside Route 1 and immediately took him into custody without incident. He had what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the leg, which police believe he sustained in the initial confrontation Wednesday, and was transported to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
Freddy Pina, 23, of Ellicott City, who works at Omega Auto Werks in the 9400 block of Washington Boulevard (Route 1), said he was walking out of work Wednesday night when he heard the gunshots which stopped him in his tracks. On Thursday morning, Pina said he was taking a car out for a test drive when he spotted a man on the side of Route 1. "I saw the guy standing and he had two sticks and his face covered with a red shirt or something," said Pina who said he then turned around and drove back into the parking lot, "It's him, it's him," he said he told an officer there. Police captured Prather shortly thereafter.
Howard County police chief William McMahon said it's "possible [Prather] hunkered down" over night. The area in which he was captured was close to where he was being searched for Wednesday. "The investigation is really just beginning, " McMahon said. "He shot a cop. We take that obviously very seriously."
McMahon added that police "have a tremendous amount of work to find out why he did what he did yesterday and a tremendous amount of work to make sure he is held accountable."
Route 1 is shut down in both directions as police continue the investigation. Uniformed officers and officers in fatigues remain in the area as of 9:15 a.m. Thursday. Police did not say whether Prather was armed when taken into custody.
The Howard County officer wounded in the shooting was identified as Steven Houk, 30, a two-year veteran of the department. Houk, a patrol officer assigned to the Southern District, was listed in serious condition Wednesday after being flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, but Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said he was conscious and alert.
The officer remains in serious condition Thursday, but McMahon said "it looks like he's going to have a good outcome." McMahon also thanked various agencies from surrounding jurisdictions that assisted in the search as well as the public for enduring the "pretty intense presence" of law enforcement in the area.
Near the scene of the shooting on Wednesday, SWAT teams — many in tactical gear holding rifles — and police K-9s flooded the streets. Helicopters flew overhead and sirens were heard constantly. Several schools were on temporary lockdown and had after-school activities canceled as police searched the area.
Kerry Moore, who lives in a subdivision separated by woods from the commercial area on U.S. 1, said he was home in the afternoon to let in a contractor when he heard helicopters overheard. Moore, 59, said he turned on the TV news and heard that an officer had been shot nearby.
"It's kind of scary up here against the woods," he said. "If he was going to run, he was going to run toward our house."
Moore said that he hoped the officer would recover quickly and that he appreciated an automated phone call from Howard County with information about the suspect. His doors were locked and his house lights were on Wednesday night, he said.
"It kind of gives you an uncertain feeling," Moore said. "Hopefully they'll catch him soon."
At least one of the other officers shot at the suspect as he ran away into nearby woods, but police did not know whether the suspect was struck.
Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon was at Shock Trauma with the injured officer and his family, officials said.
The last Howard County officer killed in the line of duty was struck by a car in 2007, and another Howard County officer was injured in a friendly-fire shooting incident in 2000.
A Baltimore County officer, Jason Schneider, was fatally shot in August while serving a warrant in Catonsville.
Tryphenia Ellis-Johnson, co-owner of Liberty Tax at 8851 Gorman Road, said she left work early and was not around when the shooting took place, but that it worried her.
"It makes me more aware that I need to be more careful," she said Wednesday night. "It could be near my office, almost anywhere."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Sara Toth and editor Melanie Dzwonchyk contributed to this article.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 The Baltimore Sun