Bridget Phillips' killer left a puzzle that night in 1989

THE HUNT FOR THE MAN WITH THE HAMMER

July 03, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Bridget Bernadette Phillips is buried on a grassy plain in Kansas, beside a copse of sweet gum trees that dance in the summer breeze.

Sunlight splashes off the marble headstone and the vase of pink petunias marking the grave of the 22-year-old woman, whose love of learning had taken her to Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins University.

If she rests in peace, family and friends do not. Her 1989 slaying in an off-campus apartment here remains unsolved and agonizing, a baffling puzzle spattered with a few fragments of evidence, some theories and many questions.

Jim Hagin, the police detective still on the case, calls it the most brutal killing he's encountered -- and one of the most perplexing to a homicide pro.

In Tallahassee, Fla., the victim's parents painfully sort through their recollections of the last months of Bridget's life, in hopes that some memory of what she said or did could help the police.

"It's frustrating -- like the answer is there but we keep overlooking it," says Kelley Phillips, her father.

"It's still so hard, really hard to deal with this," says Linda Phillips, Bridget's mother. "We need answers, for family and friends."

The facts of the case would not fill many pages in a detective's notebook.

Ms. Phillips, a popular and attractive young woman, was hit repeatedly on the head with a hammer or some other metal object when she entered her apartment in the 2800 block of N. Calvert St. on a cold, wet night in March.

Because there were no signs of a break-in, the police believe that Ms. Phillips knew her killer and probably let him inside. He lingered in the apartment for nearly an hour and washed up at the scene before leaving -- by the front door.

For five years, the police have kept the wooden door as evidence. But the killer remains somewhere on the other side, beyond the grasp of Detective Hagin. The case, he says, is "among the most frustrating I've ever worked." Despite a public outcry over the slaying and rivers of sympathy for the victim's family, few productive leads have surfaced, Detective Hagin says.

He has a hunch that some people familiar with Ms. Phillips' death are withholding information -- because they are frightened to share it, even after five years.

"There is a fear factor on the part of [former Hopkins] students," says the detective, who continues to keep track of many of Ms. Phillips' college friends and acquaintances.

At Hopkins she was an honors student in medieval history. After graduating from high school in Kansas, she had completed her undergraduate work at the University of Florida and entered Johns Hopkins in fall 1988, aiming for a doctorate. She had great expectations. On a picture postcard mailed from Baltimore, she scribbled, "Here it is, Mom and Dad -- the school of my dreams."

Hopkins fell in love with her.

Vivacious, engaging and immensely talented -- she was fluent in six languages -- Ms. Phillips breathed life into her academic circle. When she walked into the college library, friends say, it was like Mary Tyler Moore entering that sit-com's TV newsroom.

The police theorize that her trusting, friendly nature might have caused her to misread the intentions of the person who took her life.

Off campus, Ms. Phillips found time to bake cakes for acquaintances, befriend stray animals and hold weekly brunches for her colleagues.

She also was strong and independent; she lifted weights and changed the spark plugs in her car.

Ms. Phillips had several suitors in the year before her death, at least two of whom wanted a more permanent relationship, according to her family. But it was history that captured her heart. Relatives say she fancied herself as a modern-day Indiana Jones; her last Christmas card to friends was a humorous snapshot of Ms. Phillips beside the grave of a skeleton she'd excavated during an archaeological dig in Austria.

At Hopkins, she worked tirelessly in the Milton D. Eisenhower Library, in whose quiet recesses she would study for hours. But the library was also a magnet for her personal travails, the scene of an argument with one ex-boyfriend, and some kind of confrontation with a rejected suitor.

It was on the front steps of that brick-and-marble building that Ms. Phillips was last seen alive by friends. They left her at the entrance around 6 p.m. on March 22, 1989. She told them she planned to study.

Her final hours remain a mystery. Ms. Phillips made one brief telephone call, around 8:45 p.m. to a close friend who lived

several blocks away and had been expecting her to drop by that evening. He sensed no alarm in the voice of the young woman, who said she'd be there within the hour. She never showed up. Instead, police surmise, she ran into her killer somewhere near her Calvert Street apartment building, where she was hit seconds after stepping inside.

Ms. Phillips' body was found the next day, just inside her front door. She was fully clothed and wearing an overcoat. She had not been robbed or molested. Beside her was her knapsack, filled with books.

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