Injured officer seeking new path Drunk man ended career with scuffle

Aaron Saramak on Wednesday looks out at Meeting Street in downtown Charleston, an area he once patrolled as an officer in the Charleston Police Department.

Early in life, Aaron Saramak liked being on the water.

He enjoyed kitesurfing and windsurfing in his native New England. He took an interest in police work, too, and imagined a job that would let him enforce laws on the water.

With a college degree in marine science, Saramak took the next step in realizing that dream when he was hired at the Charleston Police Department. He planned to earn his chops patrolling downtown streets, then push for a slot in the agency's harbor patrol unit.

His career aspirations would change forever early one morning in December 2011, when a drunken man he was chasing attacked him near Wentworth Street. The man kneed Saramak's back over and over. Saramak eventually walked away with just a scrape on a knuckle and another on a knee.

But in the coming days, the pain became unbearable. His encounter had worsened a previous condition in his back. Doctors found a herniated disk that made his return to police work unlikely, so he retired.

Now 28, Saramak told a judge this week that being deprived of a chance to pursue his dream job should earn his assailant a stay behind bars. He disagreed with the prosecutors who suggested that 31-year-old Adam Dintelman should get probation. Saramak's frustration with the handling of his case highlights a sentiment that's common among police officers. But it's one that is sometimes difficult for prosecutors and judges to reconcile in the courtroom.

"There's no doubt that my career is no longer as a police officer," Saramak said. "If we just let this go with a slap on his wrist, this is just going to be seen as open season on other police officers."

Dintelman pleaded guilty Wednesday to second-degree assault and battery. Under a deal with prosecutors, he admitted to the lesser, nonviolent offense punishable by up to three years in prison. He had faced up to 10 years for assaulting a police officer while resisting arrest.

The North Charleston man had a previous assault conviction. But after his run-in with Saramak, he shook alcohol abuse and embarked on a career path of his own - efforts that prosecutors said made him a good candidate for probation.

Ninth Circuit Judge Markley Dennis struck a middle ground and sentenced Dintelman to three months in prison and four years on probation. If he behaves, Dintelman will be freed sooner.

The judge said that only Saramak's injury, not the loss of his career, could be factored into the sentencing. His early retirement, Dennis said, would be better addressed in a lawsuit.

"If I thought giving (Dintelman) three years will make this gentleman's back clear up, I'd do it in a heartbeat, but it's not," Dennis said. "Quite frankly, I wouldn't have faulted him if he had shot the man."

Saramak started plotting his career course at the University of Rhode Island.

The Connecticut native worked a summer internship for a marine patrol unit there. He aimed to someday join the policing arm of a state fishery department or the Environment Protection Agency.

After graduation, he sent applications to police departments in port cities on the East Coast. He shot for a warmer climate, so Charleston was a perfect fit.

Saramak moved here in April 2009. He was assigned to the police force's Team 2, which patrols the lower portion of the Charleston peninsula.

He responded to shootings. The suspects he tried to arrest sometimes fought back.

But he most often dealt with drunken revelers. Saramak ran into one early on Dec. 17, 2011. The man would change his life.

He saw the shirtless man dump the contents of two wine bottles into a storm drain near Barre and Beaufain streets. Before Saramak could stop his cruiser, the man ran.

The officer, then 25, gave chase and found the suspect, Dintelman, hiding under a car.

Dintelman crawled out and stood up. He was trying to find his way to a friend's limousine, he said.

He ran again.

Saramak followed him behind homes near Gadsden and Wentworth streets. It was almost 4 a.m.

Dintelman lunged from behind some bushes. He grabbed the officer by the collar of his protective vest and held on.

"I couldn't get him off for the life of me," Saramak said. "It was a death grip."

His assailant tried biting and head-butting him. Dintelman drove his knee into the officer's back.

Saramak called for help. He heard other officers' sirens and saw their lights. But it took them five minutes to find him.

Dintelman said nothing during the ordeal.

"I was just trying to stay alive," Saramak said. "There was fire in his eyes. He wanted to fight."

Saramak didn't have a Taser. He was too close to his assailant for pepper-spray. He couldn't reach his baton.

But he finally broke free and clasped handcuffs onto one of Dintelman's wrists.

"If it had gone any longer, I would have shot him," he said, "without a doubt."

Dintelman was jailed on charges of simple assault, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and having an open alcohol container.

Hours later, Saramak said his back pain worsened. After he slept, he said, it became unbearable.

But he thought he could shrug it off and go back to patrolling the streets.

"I couldn't," he said. "My quality of living just went down."

Saramak was approved for a light-duty assignment during the next six weeks, police spokesman Charles Francis said. He was allowed to extend the assignment twice by three months each time.

But in April 2012, the department heard that Saramak's physical limitations were permanent. The officer first learned in a written note from his doctor that he probably could never go on patrol again.

He eventually lost about 25 pounds. He couldn't work out at the gym like he once did.

Department officials invited Saramak to work other jobs, but he couldn't be a police officer.

That June, he was approved for disability retirement. He moved back to Rhode Island in October.

Saramak went to Boston and looked into spinal fusion surgery, but it would risk making his pain worse.

"It was a crush," Saramak said. "I was losing my dream."

To Dintelman, his fight with a police officer served as a wake-up call.

He had struggled with substance abuse for a while.

His mother was an addict, friends said later in letters read in court. His father wasn't in his life. During childhood, he bounced from the home of one abusive family member to another, they said.

But after the assault, he checked himself into a treatment program for drug and alcohol abuse. He finished it five months after the attack.

That June, though, he was indicted on an elevated charge of assaulting an officer while resisting arrest. Prosecutors had learned about the extent of Saramak's injuries.

He was jailed again.

Dintelman later attended Trident Technical College and planned to enroll in a pharmacy program at the Medical University of South Carolina. His girlfriend, a hospital lab technician, said in a letter to his attorney that he wanted to help others.

He had quit drinking and focused much of his energy on caring for his 5-year-old daughter, his girlfriend said.

"It was literally a sobering event for him," she wrote. "He has matured in so many ways."

When Dintelman walked into a courtroom Wednesday, though, Saramak's attorney portrayed him as violent.

In September 2009, he punched a man on King Street who had told him not to talk to his girlfriend. The blow chipped one of the man's teeth and bloodied his nose. Dintelman was convicted of simple assault.

Frank McCann, who routinely represents police officers, said his behavior continued.

The attorney showed the judge pictures of Dintelman holding a military-style knife and striking a fierce pose. Another showed a mat, boxing gloves and a mannequin in his garage.

"When people sign up to be a police officer," McCann said later, "they don't sign up to be a punching bag."

But Dintelman had taken up martial arts only after the attack, his attorney, Susan Williams of Summerville, said. It came as a suggestion during his treatment program, she contended.

"My efforts to turn my life around could have been too late to change that man's life," Dintelman said of Saramak in the courtroom. "But I hope they change the lives of others to come and mine."

Assistant 9th Circuit Solicitor Lindsey Byrd considered his steps to better himself when she recommended probation, she said later. She saw her suggestion as "just and appropriate."

"We are not able to punish defendants for personal monetary damages," she said, "only for their criminal actions."

The two days Dintelman had already served in jail will be subtracted from his three-month sentence. Dennis ordered him to complete 100 hours of community service and get anger-management counseling after he is released.

Saramak planned to fly home to Rhode Island and go back to his part-time job. He held out hope of rediscovering his original career path.

"I still have the will," he said. "But my body's still telling me no."

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