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Horn Point scientists track how microplastics move through watershed

CAMBRIDGE — Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory have embarked on a research project that will lay the foundation for plastic research in the Chesapeake Bay. The two-year project, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, will track how microplastics move through the Choptank River watershed on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Thanks to a $30,000 matching grant from the Mid-Shore Community Foundation and a group of generous donors who met the match, a short-wave infrared (SWIR) microscope will be purchased. This camera microscope system transforms the project. Project Co-leaders are Drs. Jamie Pierson and William Nardin.

Pierson said, “We are thankful for the support we have found with people in the local community who contributed to our work on microplastics in the Choptank River. With this new microscope we will be able to tell not only how much microplastic is in our samples, but what are the kinds of plastic in different parts of the river.”

Plastic samples of all sizes, from plastic bags to microplastics barely invisible to the naked eye, will be collected and examined. Along with the SWIR microscope, a drone outfitted with a special camera will be used to scope out larger plastic debris in the watershed from above. Both devices can identify different types of plastics, from plastic bag from beach ball to water bottle. Experiments will look at six different types of plastic, which degrade differently and have different densities, and how they may be trapped or move differently in different places in the river at different times of year.

“Potentially, we’ll be able to make the connection between bigger pieces of plastic in a marsh that break down, and the pieces feeding into river system leading to microplastics in the water. We’re hoping to figure out if different types of debris get moved in different ways,” said Pierson.

The project will also create a group made up of experts and stakeholders that will advise the research in specific ways to ensure that the outcomes of the project are relevant to policy makers and directly inform management actions regarding plastic marine debris.

“The goal is to develop a budget that illustrates plastic debris input and retention in marsh and open water habitats of the Choptank river system,” said Assistant Professor William Nardin. “Ultimately, this information will allow stakeholders to examine how plastic debris deposition differs across habitats, different flow regimes, and different plastic loads, and to assess potential management strategies to mitigate plastic pollution.”

Studies have estimated that up to 95% of the waste that accumulates on shorelines, the sea surface, and the seafloor is plastic. To date, most published studies on plastic debris have focused on marine ecosystems and not estuaries, rivers, or freshwater systems. Even fewer studies have focused on the interaction of coastal wetlands, such as underwater grasses or marshlands, and the accumulation of microplastics.

Large pieces of debris are most obvious, but increasing attention has been paid to microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters in size, or smaller than a pencil eraser. These smaller particles have specific and important human and ecological health implications because they can enter the food chain when they are ingested by the creatures at the base of the food chain.

All of the data gathered will be made available to stakeholders and policymakers from agencies such as NOAA and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, as well as local agencies and NGOs, to be applied to coastal wetland systems, locally and globally.

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Incumbent Register of Wills gains lead in Dorchester

CAMBRIDGE — Terry Dayton Wheatley, Dorchester County’s incumbent Register of Wills, took the lead after the first round of mail-in ballots and provisional votes were counted.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16, Wheatley, a Democrat, was leading the race with 5,898 votes, or 53.2%. Republican challenger Carla Spear had received 5,149 votes, or 46.5%, by the same time.

Over 1,200 mail-in ballots helped to push Wheatley’s totals past Spear.

Wheatley was initially trailing Spear by 215 votes after early voting and Election Day numbers were tallied together late in the evening on Election Day.

While Wheatley secured more early votes, Spear earned more ballots on Election Day.

As of the end of the day Monday, Nov. 14, Dorchester County had 448 mail-in ballots left to count. The remaining mail-in ballots will be canvassed on Friday, Nov. 18.

Wheatley was appointed Register of Wills by the Judges of the Oprhans’ Court in November 2020 after working in the office as Chief Deputy Register of Wills for 10 years.

According to the League of Women Voters, the Register of Wills is responsible for assisting the public with administrative processes concerning estates of deceased individuals. The Register is also responsible for collecting Maryland inheritance tax on estates and probate fees, maintaining all records of wills and estates of deceased individuals, acting as clerk to the Orphans’ Court and safeguarding wills of living persons who live in Dorchester County.

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Linkwood man pleads guilty to father's murder

CAMBRIDGE — The Linkwood man charged in connection to the October 2021 shooting death of his 77-year-old father pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Douglas Lamont McKnight, 51, was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of his father, Douglas Washington McKnight of Linkwood, who was fatally stabbed and shot in mid-October last year.

Officers from the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office responded to a home in the 3700 block of Ocean Gateway in Linkwood shortly after 2 p.m. Oct. 17, 2021, in response to a 911 call for a death investigation. The 911 caller was identified as the younger McKnight.

Police found the elder McKnight deceased in a bedroom with a gunshot wound to the head and multiple lacerations to his head, neck and hands. Investigators said the lacerations to his hands were consistent with defensive wounds. Detectives also found multiple shotgun shells near the victim.

The state medical examiner’s office later determined that the elder McKnight’s death was a homicide, and the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head and large lacerations consistent with a machete-style bladed weapon to his head and neck area.

Police interviewed the younger McKnight on the day his father’s body was discovered. At the time, McKnight denied any involvement in the murder of his father, and also gave police consent to search his 2007 Ford Explorer.

Investigators recovered an 18-inch machete containing blood under the rear seat of the vehicle.

Detectives with the Maryland State Police Homicide Unit also reviewed surveillance footage from neighboring residences, which showed McKnight’s Ford Explorer arriving at his father’s home within five minutes of the 911 call. Initial charging documents stated that McKnight stayed inside of the residence for approximately four minutes and then drove toward Route 50, which was when he called 911.

Police identified robbery as a motive early on in the case following interviews with the victim’s family, where they learned that the elder McKnight had recently stopped providing his son with financial support, leading to an argument.

During Tuesday’s plea hearing, prosecutor Molly W. Fox provided facts that supported investigators’ initial theory, saying that McKnight told his friend “Oct” that they could get drug money by robbing the elder McKnight.

“Oct” was identified as Octavius Ralphfawn Thomas, 44, of Cambridge. Thomas is also charged in the murder of McKnight’s father and his case remains open.

Another interview with McKnight the day after his father’s body was discovered in the Linkwood home further solidified the motive as robbery.

McKnight confessed to investigators that he and Thomas planned to rob his father for money. He told police that he dropped Thomas off in the woods near the Linkwood home on Oct. 15, 2021, and instructed him to rob his father. Thomas also went into the elder McKnight’s home with a machete.

Thomas later returned to the vehicle with money, blood-soaked clothes and the machete. He told the younger McKnight that there was a struggle and he had to use a gun to fight McKnight’s father.

Fox said that $1,400 was taken from the victim, and McKnight and Thomas split the money evenly.

Fox added that Thomas was already on parole for another unrelated crime and was wearing a GPS ankle monitor. GPS data records indicated that Thomas was in the exact location of the elder McKnight’s residence at the time of the murder, she said.

Police later found the shotgun with blood on the barrel, along with bloodstained clothing consistent with surveillance footage and witness testimony, in Thomas’ apartment in Cambridge.

Both men were arrested on murder charges the day after the elder McKnight’s body was discovered. Both remain held without bond in the Dorchester County Detention Center.

Circuit Judge Brett W. Wilson accepted McKnight’s guilty plea, commenting that he was an “essential player” in the murder. Wilson also ordered a full pre-sentence investigation.

McKnight is scheduled to be sentenced at 3 p.m. Jan. 19 in the Dorchester County Circuit Court.