GORHAM – A beefed-up force of citizen volunteers is watching over Gorham.

“We’re looking for suspicious activity,” said Jim Osterrieder, the retired head of the FBI in Maine, as he rode through Gorham neighborhoods with histories of burglaries.

On patrol, Osterrieder, accompanied Terry Christy and Don Sedenka, are members of Volunteers in Police Service, which has a complement of 30 volunteers available to assist Gorham police.

“We never know what we’re preventing,” said Osterrieder, a former special agent with the FBI.

Osterrieder, 58, who has a degree in accounting, investigated a wide variety of cases, including white-collar crimes like security fraud, besides numerous bank robberies and terrorism.

After the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Osterrieder was the supervisor in charge of all FBI agents investigating Maine aspects of the case.

“I ran the FBI in the state of Maine,” Osterrieder said.

He retired from the FBI in 2004.

Osterrieder was once a detective with the Virginia Beach Police after being promoted from police officer. He served with Navy security as a Vietnamese interpreter and reconnaissance duty.

With his military experience and nearly three decades in law enforcement, Osterrieder offers a broad background of expertise to VIPS and local law enforcement.

“It’s a great way to give back,” he said about what drew him to volunteer in the community.

The Volunteers in Police Service program has proven valuable in both Standish and Gorham. Citing a recent Gorham incident, Osterreider said Sedenka was out in a snowstorm and was the first at the scene where a woman’s car had flipped over into a ditch. Osterrieder said Sedenka called in the incident and stood by to ensure the woman was OK.

Osterrieder also cited an example of how burglaries stopped in the Watchic Lake area after volunteers had stepped up its patrols along camp roads.

“We flooded the place,” Osterrieder said.

Known by the acronym VIPS, the program was launched two years ago. Initiated by Deputy Paul Pettengill of Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, the volunteer program began in Standish at the behest of Sheriff Kevin Joyce, then chief deputy.

At the request of Gorham Police Chief Ron Shepard, the volunteers began Gorham patrol last year.

“We have a great group of volunteers assisting the sheriff’s office and Gorham Police Department,” said Janet Biczak, volunteer coordinator.

The volunteers, Shepard said, represent “more eyes” in Gorham. He praised the volunteer program.

“You make a phone call and, boom, they’re out there,” Shepard said.

The VIPS is a free service to the town and its success has spurred plans to increase coverage to other communities.

“I will be working on branching out and recruiting in the Raymond, Casco, Naples, Sebago, Baldwin, Gray, New Gloucester and Pownal areas,” Pettengill said.

Wearing fluorescent jackets, khaki trousers and baseball caps with VIPS in gold lettering, the volunteers stand out. VIPS cruisers are painted brown and gold, county sheriff department colors, and emblazoned with the word “volunteer.” VIPS vehicles have amber lights on rooftops.

Osterrieder and Christy are Standish residents while Sedenka lives in Gorham.

Osterrieder recalled a citizen at a Standish gas station saying, “ I see you guys everywhere. What do you do?”

Volunteers relieving police of some responsibilities perform myriad missions. Using a radio in the cruiser, the three checked in with Cumberland County dispatch at the beginning of their recent patrol shift. Communicating on the air with dispatch, they were identified only by numbers. Osterrieder was 529; Christy, 535; and Sedenka, 519.

Armed with a radio, GPS, walkie-talkies and cell phones, the VIPS run routine patrols, well-being checks of elderly citizens and property security checks. The VIPS also are available to assist county deputies and Gorham police officers with roadblocks at crime scenes and traffic control at accidents.

Gorham Sgt. Dan Young said the volunteers have assisted at accident scenes during recent snowstorms. On New Year’s Eve, Sedenka was on the street aiding Gorham police with traffic control.

Pettengill cited one example in Standish of an elderly woman unable to continue driving because of medical reasons. He contacted the volunteers on patrol, who twice took her to a pharmacy for prescription medication, before returning the woman to her home.

“That is a perfect example of what the VIPS do,” Pettengill said.

Equipment in the volunteer vehicles includes traffic cones, flashlights, hard hats to be worn while directing traffic, and a medical bag. Training for volunteers includes CPR and use of heart defibrillators.

Before the three volunteers hit the road for their recent shift, they conferred with on-duty Gorham officers.

“We always check in with them,” Osterrieder said.

With a clipboard listing of properties to check from Gorham police, the volunteers looked for anything unusual, like an open window, tampered screen or fresh tracks in the snow.

The VIPS also perform clerical tasks at the sheriff’s office and truck the digital speeding signs posted along roads.

The volunteer program is growing and its duties could soon be expanded. “We’re still evolving – growing,” Osterrieder said.

VIPS patrols are not only visible but also personable. In one neighborhood, the trio stopped to chat with a senior citizen in his driveway.

And, volunteers receive positive feedback from the public. A woman at a stop sign on Garden Avenue in Gorham waved as the VIPS cruiser turned the corner.

“It’s been fantastic,” Osterrieder said about community response.

All volunteers, including Osterrieder, are required to successfully graduate from a 12-14-week training course. Assistant VIPS coordinator and Gorham liaison Ginny O’Keefe of Gorham said Osterrieder and retired Lt. Dick Elliot of the sheriff’s department serve as field training officers for the program.

The VIPS program “is a perfect fit for me,” said Osterrieder. “I enjoy being with these guys,” Osterrieder said.

Don Sedenka of Gorham is ready as a member of Volunteers in Police Service. Staff photo by Robert Lowell

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