Forest phantom was never identified

January 04, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

The woods along Poplar Hill Road in Cockeysville are lovely, dark and deep, the workshop of poets and painters.

Days pass in eerie stillness just three miles from bustling York Road. At night, startled deer vanish into the black labyrinth of trees, when couples stop to park and kiss.

Detective Ken Ziegler doesn't like the area. It gives him the creeps.

"It feels real cold and impersonal up here," says Ziegler, his eyes riveted on the woods. "I really love the outdoors. And I like to walk in the woods. But I can't relax up here, because I know what happened."

Twice in the spring of 1983, an unknown night stalker crept out of the woods and emptied a pistol into the cars of young lovers parked in the Loch Raven watershed area of Baltimore County.

In the first attack, on April 16, a man and woman were seriously wounded but survived. In the second shooting a month later, Catherine Marie Britt, a 22-year-old college student, was slain.

Britt was shot three times in the head as she sat in a car with her boyfriend on Poplar Hill Road at 2 a.m. May 15. She went into a coma and died four days later, less than a week before she was to graduate with honors from Towson State University. The fatal bullets came from the same gun used in the April attack, a .25-caliber pistol.

Her boyfriend, Jim Rhodes, also was shot three times but survived.

More than 7 1/2 years later, Britt's killer remains at large. Baltimore County police have chased some 400 leads and questioned 10 potential suspects, including two new ones last month, but have not made an arrest.

Authorities recently circulated a new sketch of the murder suspect, an update of the original composite. The new one depicts the man as having grown older.

Detective Ziegler kept working on the Britt case even after a routine transfer took him out of the homicide division, and his outrage at the murder is still as strong as ever.

"I want to find the killer to put the Britts' minds to rest," the detective says. "He killed their little girl."

Ziegler's eyes flick back to the woods that concealed the night stalker.

"I just wish there had been something back there to record what happened," the detective says.


It was nearly 1 a.m. on a rainy, moonless night when Rhodes swung his maroon AMC Spirit onto the shoulder of Poplar Hill Road, just north of Merryman's Mill Road. Rhodes, 23, and his girlfriend, Cathy Britt, had driven there to snuggle and talk on a Saturday night.

The couple, sweethearts since Bel Air High School, had gone out to dinner and a movie, "Breathless," a thriller starring Richard Gere as a killer trying to elude police.

They initially had returned to the Cockeysville apartment that Britt shared with her sister, watched the Orioles' game on TV, and then had gone out again. Rhodes drove only three miles before parking on the deserted road.

Rhodes doused the headlights, engulfing the couple in darkness. The windows were closed. The radio, tuned to an easy-listening station, provided the only light -- a light that may have served as a beacon for the killer.

An hour passed. Around 2 o'clock, the pair were startled by a car speeding by. "That guy's out of control," Rhodes murmured. Shortly thereafter, the lovers decided it was time to leave.

Neither one saw the gunman coming.


The assailant shot his way into the car. The first slug shattered Britt's window; all six bullets found their marks. Fatally wounded, Britt slumped against the passenger door; Rhodes was struck in the head, arm and chest.

The gunman then circled the car and confronted the driver. "Give me your wallet," he demanded. Rhodes, bleeding and in shock, handed over his billfold, which contained $10. The gunman took it and disappeared.

Rhodes did not hear a car drive off. Despite his terrible wounds, he knew he had to drive Cathy to where they could get help. He managed to get his car started and in motion.

Rhodes drove the three miles back to Britt's apartment at a crawl: His injuries, which included two collapsed lungs, made it too painful to shift out of second gear. Gasping for breath, he spoke gently to the unconscious girl leaning against the shattered window.

"I'm sorry, Cathy, I'm sorry it's so cold."

At the apartment building, Rhodes stumbled out of the car and frantically pressed all the outside buzzers. One tenant telephoned for help.

Later, from his hospital bed, Rhodes described the killer t police: a slender white male, between the ages of 28 and 33, with stringy brown hair and a small mustache.

Police say Rhodes, a health club instructor, survived because he was superbly fit. One bullet remains lodged in his chest.


Britt never regained consciousness and died May 19, two days after being removed from a respirator. She was awarded her bachelor's degree posthumously. A scholarship established in her name has provided financial assistance to 24 students at Towson State.

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