An act of kindness toward strangers cost an elderly Baltimore County man his life early yesterday, when he was gunned down after inviting a couple complaining of car trouble inside his home to use the telephone.
Harold Leon Webb, 75, was shot to death in the foyer as his wife, Joanne, 66, avoided a flurry of gunfire while chasing one person out of the back door after a foiled robbery attempt.
The Webbs, whose 12-acre farm is in the 16000 block of York Road near Sparks, had gotten out of bed together at 12:45 a.m. when they heard someone knocking on their front door. They found a man and woman who said their car had broken down.
The Webbs had answered their door in the past to help stranded motorists without incident, said Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, a county police spokesman. But this time was different.
The man and woman stepped into the foyer of the red brick home as Mrs. Webb went to get a portable telephone from another room. She handed it to the man, who then fumbled when he tried to use it, police said.
Mrs. Webb told police that she took the telephone from the man, and as she tried to show him how to use it he moved behind her and began reaching into his jacket, which startled her. That is when things began to unravel.
A frightened Mrs. Webb hit the man with the telephone and chased him when he began running through the house. The man turned and fired several shots at Mrs. Webb, one bullet piercing her nightgown.
Undaunted, she continued to chase the man until he fled out of the back door. Returning to the front of the house, Mrs. Webb found her husband lying on the floor with several gunshot wounds.
Mrs. Webb called 911 and a paramedic crew was dispatched from the Hereford Volunteer Ambulance Company. Mr. Webb was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.
It is believed that the woman shot Mr. Webb, although there could have been another suspect involved, po
lice said. Nothing was taken from the house, but police believe the Webbs had been singled out by the would-be robbers.
"We do not believe it was a random event. We believe thiparticular house had been targeted by these intruders," said E. Jay Miller, another county police spokesman.
Mrs. Webb told police that both suspects were white and appeared to be in their mid-20s. The woman was wearing a black leather jacket and a dark leather cap. The man was described as being about 6 feet tall and wearing a close-fitting cap.
Yesterday, on a brilliant, sunny morning, the two-story home was shuttered with only the glow from one lamp showing through a window. Cars lined the grassy driveway as family and friends drove up and somberly walked inside.
Mrs. Webb was resting and is "physically all right," said her son, Hurst Hessey, who spoke for a few minutes outside the home.
He said his mother telephoned him at exactly 1:22 a.m. with the news that his stepfather had been shot and killed, said Mr. Hessey, an attorney.
He had last seen his stepfather alive about a week ago when he delivered Girl Scout cookies to the couple. Mr. Webb, his stepson said, was a retired contractor who had been good at fixing things around the farm.
After Mr. Webb's retirement, he became a full-time "gentleman farmer," Mr. Hessey said. "He had a green thumb and he spent a lot of time keeping up this farm."
The couple still kept 15 head of cattle, although the horses that used to roam the farm some time ago are gone.
It was a second marriage for each of the Webbs, who had a total of nine children from their previous marriages. The couple had been looking forward to celebrating their 24th wedding anniversary Nov. 26, Mr. Hessey said.
The large home, which is hidden behind tall shrubs and trees, is in a quiet, prosperous section of northern Baltimore County between Hereford and Sparks. Neighbors declined to discuss the slaying.
Police said there have been no murders in either Sparks or Hereford for at least 10 years.