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.