In the darkness of early morning March 29 of last year, someone brutally killed -- one prosecutor says "assassinated" -- Maryland State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf after he stopped a speeding car.
On Monday, prosecutors will begin their campaign to convince a Howard County jury that Eric Tirado, a 27-year-old Bronx, N.Y., man, was the killer. State's Attorney William R. Hymes says the trial is by far the county's biggest since he took office 13 years ago.
Courthouse officials are giving special treatment to the case. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Tirado and have lined up hundreds of potential witnesses.
Security is as tight as the narrow street that winds alongside the courthouse in Ellicott City.
Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo has requested help from the Maryland State Police, which has stationed plainclothes officers at every corner of Courtroom One -- where Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. sits. Other officers are outside the courtroom and in the hallways. All wear earphones.
State Police also are part of a convoy of vehicles that will transport Tirado from the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup to the Ellicott City courthouse.
"Because of the nature of the case, we've increased security to what we feel is adequate," Chiuchiolo said. "We know it's going to be a major, long-lasting trial. This has been highly publicized and there are going to be large crowds, a large press contingent."
Prosecutors Michael D. Rexroad and Timothy G. Wolf have guarded their evidence with tenacity, fighting in pre-trial motions to prevent Mark A. Van Bavel and his two associates from getting a glimpse of their strategy.
"I've never seen a case where the state was so secretive," Van Bavel, a veteran of capital punishment cases, complained after a motions hearing yesterday. The Baltimore attorney has made numerous motions to force the state to surrender evidence he said is needed to adequately defend Tirado.
"If you look at the 280 witnesses in discovery, the state hasn't indicated which of these witnesses are going to be called. It's a monumental task to confront 280 witnesses," he said.
Prosecutors have countered that they are not obligated to release information that would reveal their theory of the slaying.
Jury selection was being completed today. The 12 jurors and at least four alternates were to be picked from 80 people who were asked to return after prosecutors and defense attorneys interviewed about 500 people.
Prosecutors had predicted that opening statements could begin as early as today, but the process was delayed when 29 of the 80 prospective jurors reported today that they might be unable to serve.
Deputy State's Attorney Dwight S. Thompson labeled the killing "an assassination," because he said the gunman surprised Wolf, shooting him while he was writing a traffic citation in his police cruiser.
Tirado was charged with Wolf's murder April 12, after an extensive investigation that took State Police to Virginia, Delaware and New York City.
Also charged with murder is Francisco Rodriguez, 21, who was convicted in U.S. District Court in Virginia of conspiring to distribute drugs and was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison April 5. His murder trial has not been scheduled.
A key figure in the case is Roberto Rodriguez, 28, no relation to Francisco Rodriguez, who initially was charged in two counts as an accessory after the fact for allegedly helping Tirado and Francisco Rodriguez flee after the shooting. His case was transferred to Baltimore and the charge was reduced to car theft.
Roberto Rodriguez, a Honduran national, was freed last June 29 when his case was placed on a stet docket in Baltimore Circuit Court on the condition that he cooperate with the murder investigation. That means the charge is inactive and will formally be dropped in 2 1/2 weeks if he continues to assist in the investigation.
According to court records, Roberto Rodriguez was with Francisco Rodriguez hours after Wolf was shot while sitting in his police cruiser on Interstate 95 in Jessup, and he was with both men in Oxon Hill hours before the shooting.
Francisco Rodriguez and Tirado were linked to the killing when police found their blood-stained fingerprints on an abandoned Chevrolet Nova in the parking lot of a convenience store in Lansdowne.
Tirado, who in previous court appearances wore suits, had on a multicolored sweater and brown pants yesterday. He looked short standing next to the towering Van Bavel. He also was slender. Van Bavel said Tirado has lost weight since he was brought to Howard County last November.
Tirado wore a mustache but no beard. Prosecutors unsuccessfully sought a ruling that would have prevented him from shaving his beard so that he would appear as he did in March 1990.