Killer of woman, self was 'model prisoner' Another blow jolts prerelease system

June 03, 1993|By Roger Twigg and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Roger Twigg and William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writers

The state prison prerelease system was dealt another blow yesterday when a convicted murderer on work release fatally shot his estranged girlfriend in a construction trailer outside the Maryland Penitentiary before killing himself.

Rodney G. Stokes, 40, who was serving a life sentence plus 10 years for a 1975 Baltimore murder, walked into the trailer about 8:40 a.m. and shot Francine Evangela Harris twice in the head with a .38-caliber revolver and then shot himself once in the head, city police said.

Baltimore homicide detectives still were investigating how Stokes got the pistol.

Miss Harris, 33, who three weeks ago moved to an apartment in the 1600 block of N. Broadway, was an office worker for Wrecking Corporation of America, the company under contract to tear down the penitentiary's South Wing, officials said.

Stokes, who had been in the pre-release system since August 1988, was a work-release inmate employed by Baltimore Department of Public Works as a laborer in its Bureau of Highways' Street Lighting Section. He had worked for the city since January 1989, a public works spokeswoman said.

"He was a model prisoner," said Cpl. J. Scott McCauley, spokesman for the Division of Correction. "We had no reason to suspect that he might do something like this."

In fact, Stokes was one of 14 lifers on work release who had been granted family leave passes before the Division of Correction suspended the program for lifers after convicted cop killer Samuel Veney failed to return in April from a two-day pass.

Stokes had successfully completed 30 family visits ranging from 12 to 48 hours, Corporal McCauley said.

The murder-suicide yesterday was the fourth high-profile incident in the last two months involving inmates who either walked away or escaped from the state's prerelease system. Three of the inmates were convicted murderers serving life sentences and on work release.

Correction officials have acknowledged pressure to put an end to work release assignments for lifers, and Corporal McCauley ,, said yesterday the program is again under review.

The murder yesterday, however, was the type of incident that could not be foreseen, he said.

Members of Miss Harris' family said the woman met Stokes last year, when she worked as a private security guard on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at the public works yard where Stokes was employed. But she broke off the relationship with Stokes last week, they added.

"She saw that it was a dead end and wanted to move on," said Joyce V. Harris, the victim's younger sister.

"He was a possessive, jealous type. He was accusing her of messing around."

She said Stokes told the victim that he had someone watching her all the time, including the time she was at work.

"She was upset but not afraid," Ms. Harris said.

Friends and neighbors filed into the Harris family home in the 1500 block of N. Caroline St. yesterday, offering condolences.

"I don't have any hatred in my heart," said Peggy A. Harris, Miss Harris' mother.

"I don't know what to say. It's a bad time," said Dantee Cofield, the victim's 18-year-old son who was scheduled for surgery today at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he is being treated for cancer.

Baltimore police, correction officials and a public works spokes- woman gave the following account of Stokes' movements yesterday:

Stokes left the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit in the 900 block of Greenmount Ave. at 7:10 a.m. for work. He arrived at the public works yard at Gay and Oliver streets at about 7:40 a.m., but left at 8:10 a.m., after notifying his supervisor that he did not feel well.

The Division of Correction was told of Stokes' taking sick leave, said public works spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt.

At 8:20 a.m., he arrived at the Forrest Street entrance to the Maryland Penitentiary in a cab, authorities said.

A correctional officer stopped Stokes after he paid the cab driver. Stokes, who was neatly dressed, asked to go to the office trailer, and he was allowed to pass.

"There was no indication . . . of anything suspicious," Corporal McCauley said.

Stokes, carrying a duffel bag, walked into the trailer and asked two male employees if he could see Miss Harris. He pulled a handgun from the duffel bag and started walking toward the woman's office, as the two workers fled from the trailer.

Stokes then shot the woman twice in the head before shooting himself in the head.

Miss Harris' family members said a co-worker told them she was looking at a telephone book and did not see Stokes before he shot her.

The three other incidents involved the following prerelease inmates:

* Randy Eugene McBee, 38, who was serving a five-year term for unarmed robbery, escaped from the Eastern Pre-Release Unit March 23 and became the focus of a three-state manhunt. Before he was captured, police charge, he went on a crime rampage, sexually assaulting three women, stealing firearms and cars, and breaking in homes and tying up occupants.

* Veney, 54, who had been sentenced to death but won a commutation to life imprisonment, failed to return to prison April 18 and spent a week on the run in New York.

* L. V. "Lonny" Wade, 65, who was serving life plus 20 years for the 1963 murder and robbery of a Baltimore grocer and an additional 10 years for a prior escape, is still at large after walking away from his work-release job at a Jessup warehouse May 12.

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