The calls began 24 years ago and went on and on, in a pattern that became distressingly familiar to police and telephone company officials throughout metropolitan Baltimore.
The victim would be a woman whose sister or other close female relative had just been married. The voice on the phone would say the newlywed had been kidnapped and was about to be harmed unless the woman did as the voice commanded:
Talk dirty to me.
Take off your clothes and tell me about it.
Stand naked in front of a window and describe how it feels.
According to the Baltimore County police, perhaps as many as 3,000 such calls have been made by the same man since the first few were logged in 1966. Over the years, the police gave the man a nickname -- the Bridal Kidnapper -- because he got his leads from the Sunday bridal announcements in The Sun. The police never came close to making an arrest, however, and one detective who spent close to 12 years on the case admitted that he thought they never would.
But yesterday they did.
A 46-year-old South Baltimore man was arrested at 10:30 a.m. at his home and charged with 39 counts of telephone misuse, said Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, a county police spokesman. The suspect faces a fine of up to $500 and as much as three years in jail for each count if he is found guilty.
He was caught with technology that had not yet been invented in 1979, when Detective Joseph W. Price of the Baltimore County police started working on the case.
"Call Trace," a Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. service available in most parts of the state, allows customers to trace a call by using a code on their touch-tone telephone or, with a rotary phone, by dialing a four-digit number. The service costs $1 per traced call.
Because this particular caller had a pattern of targeting women residents of dormitories at area colleges, many of the colleges advised their women students to get Call Trace if they got an obscene call.
Last April 24, a man made an obscene telephone call to a woman at Goucher College who had Call Trace, and who notified administrators. The police traced the number to a phone booth in the 2000 block of East McComas Street, outside the Locust Point Marine Terminal.
The next month, five obscene calls to women at the College of Notre Dame were traced to the same phone booth, the police said.
In September, the police installed a device on the pay phone to record the numbers of all outgoing calls. At the same time, Detective Lee W. Russo began working undercover at the terminal. He spent much of his time sitting in a crane overlooking the McComas Street phone booth.
One man who always wore a raincoat was a frequent user of the phone booth. The police matched the times of the man's visits to the booth with the numbers called at those times. The police called those numbers and, detectives said, during a four-month period documented 39 obscene phone calls.
When the police arrested the suspect at his home, they found a raincoat with one of its pockets cut out.
"I didn't think that we would catch him," Detective Price said. "We didn't expect the telephone technology. . . . After that, everything just fell into place."
The greatest fear of investigators was that, as the years passed, the caller would tire of his game and instead try to act out his fantasies. A similar concern had occurred to many of the women once they were told by the man that he had kidnapped their family member and that, unless they cooperated, she would be harmed.
"He knew her name, he knew whom she had married, he knew other details about the family your average obscene caller wouldn't know," said one woman who received such a phone call in 1987. "I wasn't sure whether he had her or not, but you don't play around with these people." The woman said she complied with the man's demand that she "talk dirty" to him, then she called her newlywed sister and found she was safe at home.
The police said the man often used the Sunday bridal pages of The Sun to select his victims because the paper's stories contained the names of all family members. Because of that, the police would occasionally ask The Baltimore Sun for early proofs of bridal pages so they could ask some of the brides and brides-to-be for permission to install tracing devices on their phones.
According to the police, Victor Herbert Gardner Sr. of the 1100 block of Hull Street, South Baltimore, was charged in the case and released on his own recognizance.
How to use Call Trace
Call Trace allows the telephone company to flag a caller's number. The service is available throughout most of Maryland and can be used by any customer to help the authorities trace an obscene or harassing call.
Customers who want to trace a call should push *57 on a touch-tone phone or dial 1157 on a rotary phone immediately after hanging up from the call to be traced. It will not work if another call comes in before the service has been activated.
The traced number will immediately be registered and stored at telephone company offices. It will not be revealed to the customer requesting the trace. The phone company will provide the traced number to the authorities.
Customers who use Call Trace should immediately notify their local C&P business office that they have done so. There is a $1 service charge for tracing each time the service is used.