Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lawman, local legend, hangs up the badge and gun

It was with mixed emotions that Reading police Inspector Francis F. Drexler turned in his badge and gun last week and sidled off into the sunset after 37 years. "I don't know," he said, when asked how he felt about retirement. "Mixed emotions, I guess. I'm going to miss the work. I'm going to miss the people. I won't miss the 2 o'clock phone calls." He was born and raised in the city and graduated from Central Catholic, Class of 1968. He joined the city in 1974 after getting an associate degree in business at St. Gregory's University, Shawnee, Okla. Two years in the heartland taught Drexler one thing: He didn't want to be a businessman. "I saw an ad in the newspaper and applied at the police department," he said. He spent the first five years as a patrolman, then moved to a high-crime unit, serving as a plainclothes officer for two years. He took a liking to plainclothes work and spent the balance of his career in vice and narcotics and later in criminal investigations. He was promoted to captain in 1992. Drexler also has been an instructor at the Reading Police Academy for 25 years. "I'm going to miss that (teaching) most," he said.
Drexler said the kidnapping and murder of 8-year-old Erica Martes is the case that has stuck with him, in part because it involved the death of a child, but also because it tested his skills as an investigator and commander. Erica was kidnapped Oct. 24, 2000, from the Riverside Elementary School by Marcial P. Sosa, who was despondent after the girl's mother, Nancy Lopez, broke up with him. He walked the girl down to the Schuylkill River, strangled her and buried her in a shallow grave on the banks of the river, all to get back at the mother. I interviewed Sosa in Berks County Prison the day after he pleaded guilty and he calmly laid the whole thing out for me in chilling detail. Drexler is definitely the kind of man you want to be in charge when a child goes missing. He marshaled the resources of state and local police, National Guard and every available search and rescue and K-9 unit in the region to find Erica. "We searched for days and days and it got to the point where I had to make the call: 'Do we keep searching or do we call it off?' " Drexler said. Drexler decided to keep searching. Police found Sosa in an apartment in north Philadelphia on Nov. 7, 2000, but he refused to tell investigators where Erica was. Publicly Drexler held out hope for the girl's survival but ordered police to keep searching the river and its banks. Erica's body was found two days later in a shallow grave on the riverbank near her home by a cadaver dog team from Dauphin County. Sosa, now 46, is serving life for the kidnapping and murder. Drexler said he has no immediate plans and will be content for now to fish, watch sports on TV and read a good book now and then. "It's time to pass it on to the younger generation of officers," he said. I, for one, take great comfort in knowing that most of them were trained by Franny Drexler.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


I saw John Fielding driving David Kamioner north on Third Street at Washington Street in a beat up compact car that reminded me of my old Mazda. I forget who was driving, but John Fielding was wearing a black cowboy hat.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Former Northeast Tap Room Owner Back in Berks

There’s a light around Pete Cammarano.
It’s not the light from the ancient Reading Premium beer signs behind the bar at Mike’s Tavern.
Pete, 53, of Reading owned and operated the Northeast Tap Room on North 12th Street for almost 20 years.
He sold the Tap Room in 2003 and moved to Seattle and then Memphis, Tenn., looking for a new start.
He came back to Reading and bought Mike’s at 135 Exeter St. in May, from the Duplak family, who owned and operated the bar for 76 years. The original liquor license hanging behind the bar is dated 1934, one year after Prohibition ended.
Mike’s was popular with shift workers at the former Dana Corp. Parish plant. The blue-collar shot-and-beer crowd is gone.
Pete bought the Northeast Tap Room in 1983 and replaced a Budweiser tap with one of Yuengling’s varietal beers. Eventually, the Tap Room offered 100 different beers. The tavern started drawing beer aficionados from all over Berks County.
Then around 1990, the microbrew craze hit and the Tap Room was a hot spot.
While living in Memphis, where he opened a hoagie shop, Pete came home for the holidays in 2009 and visited Mike’s, which had been one of his old haunts.
The owners were looking to sell and Pete saw a way home.
Since May, Pete has transformed Mike’s. Stella Artois is the most conventional beer on tap.
“The Stella Artois is there on tap so the others can be weird,” Pete joked.
Mike’s features three varieties from Lagunitas Brewing Co., San Francisco, on tap and 80 other beers, domestic, international and “weird.” One tastes like Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak.
Pete, almost from the day he left Reading, felt the tug of his hometown calling him back.
As the light faded outside one recent afternoon and patron after patron wandered in, Pete greeted each by name.
The patrons at Mike’s, many former denizens of the Tap Room, will tell you that it’s the warm light of Pete’s beer knowledge, mellow personality and friendly smile that keeps them coming back.
For Pete, he says he’s home for good.
“This is where I’m supposed to be and it feels really good to be back,” he said.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Eagles vs. Giants, 1968

A snowball hit my bedroom window on Christmas morning, 1968.

It was the O'Hara boys.

It couldn't have been 9 a.m., and already they were suited up in New York football Giants uniforms.

John, 11, a notorious instigator, was spinning a football as his brothers Patrick, 9, and Victor, 8, blew on their hands and jogged in place.

"Are you coming or what?" John snarled.

I was pulling on the pants of the Eagles uniform my dad had just given me for Christmas.

At 10, I already was an inveterate Eagles fan. My father sold bobble dolls, pins and pennants with his partner, Jack Becker, at Franklin Field. I sat on the cement stairs in the stands behind the Eagles bench on a crushed cardboard box my dad gave me when he greased the security guard. Back then it took only $5 to get a 50-yard-line seat for the second half. Another buck got me hot chocolate and a hot dog.

Jack O'Hara must have gotten to the stores too late, or maybe he was in New Jersey, when he bought his boys their navy blue football costumes.

Nevertheless, it would be two-on-two, All-Star format, on the lawn of the Norris Hills Apartments.

Did I mention it was snowing?

It was me and Patrick against John and Victor. We kicked their butts.

The field was on a slight, north-south grade. There was a parking lot on top and an enormous evergreen at the bottom. The sidelines were the sidewalk and an apartment building.

As usual, John and I were the protagonists. Victor and Patrick were supporting characters.

John was much stronger and more athletic than I was, but he also was a hothead.

Patrick and I waited for Victor to fumble the ball or drop a pass from his frozen hands. John would unravel, and we'd sweep to victory.

Win or lose, we walked off heroes. In uniform. Bruised and bloodied. Veterans of a real tackle football game. A snow game, at that.

Even though John was angry at Victor for fumbling a last-ditch, razzle-dazzle kick return, he piggybacked him home when the boy complained his feet were frozen. They probably were. His mother, Lenore, would see to them.

When Dad asked who won, I told him, "The Eagles did, of course."

Mom made us some hot chocolate.

Dad and I sat by our cardboard Christmas fireplace and laughed at replays of Eagles fans throwing snowballs at Santa Claus.