'May the legend . . . live forever' Mementos mark spot where youth's body was found

September 20, 1992|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

The parents of James R. "Jamie" Griffin still visit the woods in the Gunpowder Falls State Park where his body was found in 1990, eight years after their only child disappeared.

Others also have made this pilgrimage, and have left tokens in remembrance of the gifted, 17-year-old pianist who was killed in 1982, just before his graduation from Dulaney High School.

Somebody even left a neatly painted sign that reads: "May the legend of Jamie Griffin live forever in the hearts and minds of all who enter the Gunpowder River."

The family has tried to learn who placed the wooden sign while the yellow crime-scene ribbon still encircled the spot, or the flowers and other mementos.

"We've asked everyone: The police, his friends . . . everyone we could think of," said Jamie's mother, Lou Ellen Griffin, 59.

The now-weathered plywood sign is still nailed to a tall pine tree. Below, a faded bouquet clings to the trunk.

"We liked the words," said Jamie's father, Norville Griffin, a 69-year-old retired ironworker.

After editing the unknown writer's tribute by changing "legend" to "spirit" and deleting "river," the Cockeysville couple put the words on a special headstone they placed at the site earlier this year.

They also added Jamie's full name, the date of his birth (May 31, 1964), the date of his death (April 2, 1982), and: "Missing 8 years. Found here March 24, 1990."

The memorial sits in a wooded and wildflowered section of the park near the Harford County line, across from the tiny post office on Bradshaw Road. It is a massive stone, buried deep to prevent its being toppled by vandals or nature.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer gave them permission to place the headstone in the state park, said Mrs. Griffin. The governor also sent a letter.

Looking at the stone, as shafts of sunlight fell through the pines and illuminated the sign and the monument's words, Mr. Griffin said: "I have three battle stars from the South Pacific, and I thought I went through hell out there, but" -- he stopped a moment, his voice breaking -- "this is worse."

He turned away and saw a blackened shape on a tree beside the stone: a cross, crudely carved into the trunk and set afire.

Less than 30 feet away, the land is still scarred by backhoes that tore through the soil in 1982 searching for Jamie. Psychics were called in. Numerous false leads about Jamie's last day, when he was leaving for a weekend camping trip with a youth group, were tracked down.

Mr. Griffin said he always had a bad feeling about that section of the state park. "I always wanted to bring [the psychics] here," he recalled. "But they said: 'No, no, no. It would be just wasting time.' "

Years after Jamie's disappearance, Mr. Griffin read an article about experimental ground-penetrating radar. County police and Kingsville firefighters joined the equipment's developer and his squad of volunteers.

While the searchers were still setting up the electronic sensing devices, the eight-year search ended. Jamie had been found.

In 1984, Michael Whittlesey, now 28, was convicted of robbery, theft and assault with intent to rob Jamie, and sentenced to 25 years. Whittlesey, formerly of Joppatowne and a classmate of Jamie, has since been charged with murder. He will be tried in Denton in Caroline County.

The trial has been delayed while Whittlesey argues that the murder charge violates his constitutional protection against double jeopardy -- being tried twice for the same crime -- because evidence in the murder case had already been used in his robbery conviction.

Mrs. Griffin recounted her son's accomplishments and performances -- for the Polish ambassador, at the Inner Harbor, City Hall, the Naval Academy, and numerous schools and churches -- and called his talent "angelic."

Jamie is buried at Grace Methodist Church across from the Griffins' Falls Road home.

To ease her pain, Mrs. Griffin helped found the Missing and Exploited Children's Association in 1984.

She is the support group's secretary and keeps its phone in Jamie's room. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, it rings with calls from around the country.

The group isn't allowed to do searches, she said, but serves as a backup. Sometimes, when no one else seems able to help, it gets calls referred by 911 operators.

"I might refer them to lawyers or the national center, or the state police clearinghouse for missing children," she said. "They've already called the police . . . so the waiting begins."

Mr. Griffin isn't much involved with the group. Even Mrs. Griffin finds some of its activities too difficult, such as the now-annual Mass for missing children, to be offered at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at Our Lady of Hope Church in Dundalk.

Mrs. Griffin said she shares every parent's hope for the return of these children, recalling her own grief at learning the fate of her son after years of hoping he was alive.

"While he was missing," she said, "I could still think he could have been playing the piano anywhere."

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