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In Harrisburg: A moment of truth

Saturday, January 15, 2000

By Dennis Roddy

By now, the long striptease Tom Druce has been compelled to dance in the shadow of the state Capitol is nearing its final veil.

Yesterday, after his lawyer met with prosecutors to discuss a possible plea bargain, Druce -- that is the Hon. State Rep. Thomas W. Druce, R-Bucks County -- worked to get his affairs in order and to devise a public explanation for what he was doing the night of July 27.

It was on that night that a man named Kenneth Cains was struck and killed as he staggered onto a busy street in the late hours.

Cains was a man of melancholy history. He lived in a rooming house in a mean stretch of Harrisburg, his only companion the drinking problem that troubled him much of his life. On the night he was hit, police say he was drunk and had reeled onto Cameron Street, a major traffic artery in downtown Harrisburg. So incidental was Cains to the life of his city that Harrisburg police and the coroner had trouble agreeing on his age.

What made Cains' death especially poignant is that he was an indigent black man, and the driver of the Jeep Grand Cherokee -- a luxury emblem of the rising career set -- drove on without stopping to help.

We do not know if the driver drove on as if nothing happened, or if the driver drove on saying "what was that thump?" or if the driver drove on gripped by the confused terror that sneaks up and pounces on otherwise exemplary citizens and turns them into criminals.

"Did you ever read 'Bonfire of the Vanities?' The parallels are eerie," says Randy King, the spokesman for the mayor and police in Harrisburg. King spent last week juggling calls about the least secret investigation in its history.

The plot line revolves around a young Master-of-the-Universe type who hits a black man with his car, then flees.

"It's not his fault, but he tries to hide it," King says.

Harrisburg, where intrigue frequently marries resentment, keeps few secrets for long.

Two weeks ago, someone mailed a Christmas card to Crime Stoppers, with a note implicating Druce. Within days, police were rounding up pieces of a Jeep Druce had repaired and then traded days after the accident.

In long conversations with people who have known him since he was a young aide for U.S. Sen. John Heinz, Druce has occasionally talked about himself in the past tense. At 38, he was one of the hopes of his party: young, handsome, a clean-cut star in the dingy constellation of the General Assembly.

No money changed hands here. No grand act of public corruption stands to topple one of the Republican party's best hopes. Someone fled a car-pedestrian accident, an act at once vulgar and wrong. In the past year, state legislators have been accused of bribery, corruption, pollution and perjury. Now, even that sad paradigm has been cheapened.

This week, Druce seemed to run on autopilot. The same night police seized pieces of the Jeep to see if Cains' blood was on the bumper, Druce was in front of a screening committee for the Bucks County Republican Committee, which will shortly endorse candidates for this year's elections.

The scandal might not cost him the endorsement; only his freedom.

"I need to have things resolved here, I know," Druce said last week, just before his lawyer telephoned the Dauphin County DA to begin talks.

The irony is that, if Cains was, indeed, drunk and staggering on a busy street, whoever hit him would likely have faced little, if any, blame. Whoever fled that night on Cameron might well have fled the scene of his innocence.

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