With new lead, police reopen old murder case

June 19, 1994|By Joe Nawrozki and Robert A. Erlandson | Joe Nawrozki and Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writers

An article in The Sun June 19 about the unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik reported that during the investigation of her disappearance on Nov. 7, 1969, Inspector Julian I. Forrest Sr., chief of detectives, had pressured investigators on behalf of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

In fact, Mr. Forrest had retired in October 1966.

Col. Edwin E. Taylor, who was chief of the criminal investigation division when Sister Catherine disappeared, retired Dec. 25, 1969, just before her body was found Jan. 3, 1970, in Lansdowne. Mr. Taylor said yesterday that he has no recollection of the case and knew nothing of any outside interference.

The Sun regrets the errors.

On a gray Saturday morning almost 25 years ago, two hunters crossing a snow-crusted field in Lansdowne stumbled on a terrifying sight -- the partly clothed body of a young woman sprawled halfway down an embankment. The only evidence of life was fresh animal tracks.


It was Jan. 3, 1970. With Baltimore's daily newspapers on strike, the discovery of the frozen, mutilated body of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik made barely a ripple compared with the furor over her mysterious disappearance eight weeks earlier.

Despite months of investigation by Baltimore and Baltimore County homicide detectives, the killer of the popular, 26-year-old teaching nun was never found, and the motive for the slaying remains unclear. Over the years, the thick case file lay dormant in county police headquarters in Towson.

But police revived the investigation this spring after a former student at Archbishop Keough High School approached them with a startling story. She said a Catholic priest who had sexually abused her took her to see Sister Catherine's body weeks before the hunters discovered it on a local dumping ground off the 2100 block of Monumental Ave.

The woman, now 41, was an Archbishop Keough student when Sister Catherine taught there. She also told police that another man she met in the priest's office told her he had beaten Sister Catherine to death because the nun knew of the alleged sexual (( molestation.

She said the priest and the other man -- whom she has not identified -- warned her that she would suffer the same fate if she told her story to anyone else.

Meanwhile, several detectives involved in the investigation in 1970 have told The Sun that their initial efforts were hampered by pressure and lack of cooperation from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

City detectives said that after a visit to the police commissioner by archdiocesan representatives, they were forced to cut short the questioning of a priest about the nun's death. A county officer said he was ordered to destroy investigative documents because of church sensitivity.

William Blaul, spokesman for the archdiocese, said officials there deny that such interference could have occurred.

The woman whose allegations caused the case to be reopened is one of several who have told Towson lawyers Phillip G. Dantes, Beverly A. Wallace and James Maggio that they were sexually abused while they were students at Archbishop Keough in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The lawyers declined to comment.

Police have been unable to verify or disprove the woman's allegations. But in interviews with police and The Sun, she provided details about the body that were known only to investigators at the time, and detectives have not dismissed her claims.

"We are continuing our investigation into the Cesnik murder and are looking for additional information that someone might have out there to direct us to a suspect," Maj. Allan J. Webster, commander of Baltimore County's Criminal Investigation Services Division, said last week.

Investigators have traveled recently to three states to interview witnesses. They are also applying techniques developed over the years since the slaying, including the creation of a psychological profile of a possible suspect -- a stranger to the nun -- which they hope will elicit a response from the public.

"To a dedicated investigator, there's no such thing as a closed case," said Baltimore County Police Chief Michael D. Gambrill, who worked on the Cesnik case as a young detective and who has taken a personal interest in the renewed investigation.

"Even now, 20 years after I left the homicide squad, I'll recall an unsolved case and try to remember if we left anything undone," Chief Gambrill said.

Conflicting evidence

The slaying remains particularly puzzling because some evidence points to a street robbery turned deadly, and other evidence points to a killer who knew Sister Catherine or was at least familiar with her activities.

The crime was also set against a backdrop of rebellion against authority that was sweeping the country as it struggled with the Vietnam War and of change that was gripping the Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

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