Detective is driven by case in his old neighborhood

December 27, 1990|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

About the series

Some murder cases are particularly shocking. Others are especially baffling. Some cases are both.

For this weekly series, The Evening Sun chose cases that stunned the Baltimore area but remain unsolved, despite intensive police work.

Unsolved murders are not forgotten murders. They are not buried by police. The solution can hinge on a single piece of needed evidence, a critical piece of the puzzle. And investigators say that publicizing the cases could yield important new information.

Homicide detectives working on the Otani case in today's story can be reached at 396-2100.

Elaine M. Otani has been dead nearly 6 1/2 years, slain by an unknown assailant, but one Baltimore City detective cannot forget her.

The police files on the Otani case -- four worn manila folders -- have Detective Dan Shea's fingerprints all over them.

For Shea, the lead investigator in the case, solving this murder has become a passion.

The 41-year-old detective has handled dozens of homicides. But on this case Shea is driven by the fact that he found every aspect of the crime personally repugnant.

The outrage occurred in his old neighborhood in northeast Baltimore, three blocks from where Shea played as a child.

The case also set Shea, the son of a career Air Force doctor, on the trail of several health-care professionals, men who had to be quizzed because they knew the victim.

One measure of Shea's resolution is the fact that he has flown halfway across the country following leads, even though he likes flying "about as much as being set on fire."

For the detective, the mystery surrounding Otani's death has meant repeated contact with the victim's family, whose deep, quiet grief haunts Shea.

Otani's baffling murder has challenged Shea's professional competence. It also has made the detective angry and, in doing so, triggered his willful determination to solve the case long after it is forgotten by the public.

"Some of us really take these cases personally," says Shea.

And he hopes the killer is haunted by the crime. "I'd like to think that whoever is responsible for this murder is consumed by what he did, and that he thinks about it from the time he wakes until the time he sleeps."


Elaine Miye Otani, 26, was found dead on July 19, 1984, strangled and stabbed repeatedly in her first-floor apartment in the 5600 block of Woodmont Ave.

Her nude body was discovered at 5 p.m. by an elderly neighbor who noticed that Otani's front door was ajar. The victim was lying on the bed.

The apartment had no air conditioning and was oppressively hot because, for some unknown reason, all the windows were closed.

Otani, a student in medical research at the University of Maryland in downtown Baltimore, had been dead about 24 hours. Police say the stab wounds had been done in a deliberate manner by someone who may have had medical training.

The victim, a native of Kensington in Montgomery County, had not been raped or robbed. A crumpled $1 bill lay on the dining room table, alongside a pile of medical textbooks.

There was also an unsigned, hand-written note to her saying, "Tomorrow they'll be beautiful. Thinking of you." It sounded like a note sent with a gift of flowers, but none were found.

Police saw no sign that someone had broken into the apartment, and there was no evidence of a struggle. Otani, who detectives )) say was in superb physical condition, would have fought for her life. She jogged regularly and did aerobics to music in her apartment.

Authorities believe someone visited Otani, there was an argument, and she was murdered -- possibly in the shower.

Her hair was still wet when detectives arrived.

Though the inside of her bathtub was clean and dry, detectives discovered a streak of Otani's blood, Type O positive, on the outside of the tub, and a large blood stain on the bathroom rug.

Shea examined the tub with primitive yet effective tools. He removed the drain plug, attached a rag to the end of an opened coat hanger and jiggled it through the drain pipe. The rag came out without any trace of blood.

But Shea still has a hunch about the tub.

"My guess is she was attacked, strangled and stabbed there," says Shea. "Then the body was washed, placed on the floor and then the bed. But. . .I don't know. I don't know. The killer would have had to run the water a long, long time to get rid of the blood."

Police never recovered a weapon, and they are not close to making an arrest.

Shea has walked throughout Otani's neighborhood -- his old neighborhood -- looking for evidence. Her activities on the last day of her life remain a mystery.

So far, the detective cannot find anyone who saw or talked with Otani and he presumes she spent much of the day at home alone, working on a school project and exercising. Her leotard hung on the back of the bedroom door, and an album by "The Cars" lay on the stereo.

She had no summer job and apparently spent much of her time studying in the apartment. She hoped eventually to enter medical school.

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