Missing hours stump police

December 18, 1990|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

DUSK IS NEAR as the graduate student and her adviser walk briskly across the Johns Hopkins University campus toward his car.

Their meeting over, he is heading home. She is off to the library to study, a 35-pound bag of books slung over her shoulder. Nonetheless, her step is lighter; the meeting has eased her concerns about a heavy academic work load.

As they part, the adviser quotes a Latin phrase meaning, "To the stars through difficulties." The young woman smiles and waves back before disappearing in the frosty twilight.

Detective Jim Hagin has replayed the scene a hundred times in his mind, wondering what followed in the life of Bridget Bernadette Phillips. How did she spend her final hours? And with whom?

Phillips was slain late that night, March 22, 1989, bludgeoned in her Charles Village apartment by someone she probably knew.

Twenty-one months after the murder, the victim's last hours remain cloaked in mystery. A canvass of the area by police failed to find anyone who saw Phillips, a bright, affable 22-year-old, after she entered the Milton D. Eisenhower Library on campus at 6 p.m.

Around 9 o'clock, she made one phone call, probably from the library, to a friend she intended to visit. Phillips never showed up.

The exact time of death is not known. But another tenant in Phillips' apartment building, a woman, heard a cry around midnight. She presumed it was just her own child and thought nothing of it.

The victim's body was discovered at 2:45 the next afternoon by a concerned classmate who wondered why Phillips had missed a seminar. The friend, a woman, found the apartment door locked but had a key because she sometimes stayed with Phillips.

Police talked to many of Phillips' friends but, "We've never been able to find anyone who saw the victim after 6 o'clock," says Hagin, the city homicide detective heading the investigation.

Hagin is struck by this six-hour gap in Phillips' life. Although many Hopkins students had gone home for the Easter holidays, the detective believes Phillips was too well-known around campus not to have been noticed by someone that night.

Someone besides her killer.

When Phillips entered her apartment in the 2800 block of N. Calvert St., she may have invited the man who was about to attack her inside, police believe.

Says Hagin: "I think she walked in with [the killer], and . . ."

This, he says, is the likely scenario:

Phillips, still struggling with her books, climbs the stairs to her second-floor apartment and unlocks the door. A man enters behind her. She steps forward and casually removes her earrings, placing them on a table. The man raises a blunt object.

Suddenly, blood is everywhere. Phillips struggles in vain, clawing at her attacker before slumping to the floor. Her bookbag drops beside her on the linoleum, concealing a man's footprint traced in blood.

The killer, who lingers in the apartment for almost an hour after the murder, never sees the footprint.

The next day, police literally hacked the floor apart to rush the print to an FBI laboratory in Washington for analysis.

The young honors student, who was working toward a doctorate in medieval history, had been beaten mercilessly on the head.

The killer had not broken into the apartment. Police discounted an unlocked bedroom window as a point of entry because there were no footprints on the bed beside it.

A search of the roof, fire escape and alley produced no clues.

Hagin tried to sort out the pieces of the puzzle. Why was Phillips killed? She hadn't been raped or robbed. There was money in her coat pockets, and jewelry worth thousands of dollars in her apartment.

Yet Phillips' set of keys was missing and the door was found locked. That was bizarre, Hagin thought.

Phillips' other belongings had not been disturbed.

Her souvenirs showed the range of her travels abroad -- from Cambridge, England, where Phillips once studied, to Austria, where she took part in two archaeological excavations.

Police found the research paper she worked on the night she was murdered: a study of the relationship between the papacy and the emperors of Byzantium in the ninth century.

Also found were a number of brief biographical sketches Phillips wrote about her acquaintances, including a vagrant she met several days before her death.

As time passed, police compiled an extensive file on Phillips by talking to people she knew.

She was a gifted artist, musician, athlete and historian. She was fluent in six languages. She also knew how to change the spark plugs on her car, which police had found undisturbed on a nearby side street after her death.

Friends portrayed Phillips, of Gainesville, Fla., as a spirited yet sensitive young woman whose ebullience enlivened the often somber world of graduate education. She hosted Sunday brunches for Hopkins students at her apartment. Armed with high-tech laser equipment, detectives found the place loaded with fingerprints.

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