Unused to violence, Salisbury stirs uneasily in wake of girl's slaying

September 11, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Correspondent Robert A. Erlandson of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

SALISBURY -- Vivian Massey heard the screams coming from the women's restroom at Salisbury Mall about 6 p.m., but she dismissed them as "just kids playing around like they do in the evening."

But when the shrieking just "kept on and kept on," she decided to investigate.

Too late, the jewelry salesclerk saw a 17-year-old girl emerge from the bathroom no more than a dozen feet away and stagger toward the Earring Tree kiosk. The girl, whose blouse was soaked in blood, was clutching at a wound in her chest and still screaming.

"The expression on her face . . . she looked surprised. It all happened pretty fast, but that's what I remember most," said Ms. Massey, 27, a Laurel, Del., resident who quit her sales job yesterday. "It was awful."

The stabbing victim, Salisbury State University freshman Heather Miller of Glenshaw, Pa., was pronounced dead Monday evening at Peninsula General Hospital.

Police have made no arrests in the case, but they released a composite drawing of a man of medium build with bloodshot eyes and slurred speech who several witnesses claim had been

"acting suspiciously" at the mall before the slaying.

Investigators also announced yesterday that they believed a man and a child might have witnessed the crime and urged them to step forward.

Sgt. Richard L. Hagel, supervisor of the Salisbury Police Department's criminal investigations division, said their testimony may be "critical" to any prosecution.

The two possible witnesses "left the mall before police arrived," said Sergeant Hagel. "They are not suspects. We're pleading with them to come forward and talk to police."

Miss Miller's death has stirred strong feelings throughout Salisbury, an Eastern Shore town of only 20,592 people where random violence has not been commonplace. At Salisbury State, officials estimate that at least 200 of the school's 5,700 students have sought counseling for their grief.

Miss Miller was recalled as a "strong B" student with a "smorgasbord of interests" by officials at Shaler Senior High School in Glenshaw, a middle-class suburb of Pittsburgh. Her many high school credits included yearbook editor, women's chorus, homecoming chair woman, student government and even a singing lead in a production of "Annie" last year.

The middle child among three daughters of Richard and Karen Miller, Heather was "a very popular, a very attractive girl with a good sense of humor," said David Shutter, activities director at the 1,600-student high school.

"She was kind in every way, a Girl Scout forever," said Bernadette McDonough, a longtime neighbor of the Miller family in Glenshaw. "She was so excited about going away [to college]. She was over here about three weeks ago."

Miss Miller had already made strong attachments on the Salisbury campus, arriving two weeks before the start of school to go on a 10-day canoe trip through the back-country lakes of Ontario, Canada, with fellow freshmen.

Police speculate that Miss Miller may have been killed in a robbery. Several "personal items" she had before the stabbing were missing later, said Sergeant Hagel, who declined to be more specific.

Nevertheless, the senselessness of the crime and its violence have struck a nerve here. Until Monday night, few in Salisbury would have considered it unsafe to use a public restroom at 6 p.m.

Police point out that Miss Miller's was only the third slaying recorded this year in a city that often goes a year or more between homicides.

While Salisbury Mall has a high vacancy rate -- some retailers jumped ship for a larger and more upscale mall, The Centre at Salisbury, which opened last summer -- Sergeant Hagel said the older mall was not regarded as a high-crime area.

Lori Marler, spokeswoman for Salisbury Mall, said the incident would cause no changes to security.

"We feel like we have sufficient security," Ms. Marler said. "We have guards on duty whenever the mall is open. In addition, a lot of the police officers [investigating the slaying] are still out there working. We are cooperating with the investigation fully."

Dr. Thomas E. Bellavance, Salisbury State University's president, said Miss Miller's death has raised concerns over the safety of the community and comes on the heels of another slaying with a link to the campus.

One week ago, the body of a 25-year-old former Salisbury State student, Lisa Stier of Delmar, Del., was found at Leonards Mill Park near Salisbury. Family members said she was planning to return to the college this fall. Michael Campbell, 34, of Salisbury has been charged with first-degree murder in her death.

"God, it's awful," Dr. Bellavance said of Miss Miller's death. "This young girl was just a great kid, extremely active in high school, a fine academic record, top SAT scores, full of enthusiasm, all that you could want in a kid."

Dr. Bellavance said that while Miss Miller's death was the first slaying of a Salisbury student in his 12 years at the school, it has made him question whether youngsters are safe anywhere today.

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