Death of city woman leaves tangled trail

July 16, 1995|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

Keri Sirbaugh's father shakes in his seat, struggling to talk without crying. Twisting his beefy hands into a knot, he shrinks down in his wicker patio chair. Tears leak from beneath his dark sunglasses. The big man is crumbling again.

"Please," he gasps. "Tell people, the least little thing -- anything at all -- if you know, please call the police. Please."

It has been three weeks since Bill Sirbaugh drove in a panic to his daughter's apartment at the end of a dead-end street in Northeast Baltimore and found her body dumped in a gloomy gulch of woods 40 footsteps from her door.

His only daughter had been strangled and beaten to death.

Police have no suspects, no leads. As they have delved into Keri's private life looking for her killer, the trails have become as tangled as the maze of footpaths weaving through the overgrown woods where her body was found.

What looked like a textbook case of murder that would be solved easily has plunged city police homicide investigators into a bramble of contradictions.

"It looked personal to us -- personal as hell," says Detective David Neverdon as he works the crime scene for the umpteenth time with his partner, Detective Robert Patton. "It was up close and very violent. That usually means somebody had a grudge. Find the guy who hated the victim and you have your man.

"But it seems that a lot of men had problems with Keri."

Through no apparent fault of her own.

In most ways, Keri Sirbaugh was like thousands of other young women in Baltimore. At 21, she was working hard to find her path into adulthood and shed the remnants of childhood awkwardness. But she was not easily overlooked in a crowd.

Friends describe her as a "superwoman," an "amazon," an "exotic beauty."

She stood nearly 6 feet tall from the soles of her combat boots to the peak of her flaming red tangle of hair. She weighed 160 pounds. And she moved like a force of nature, emitting gales of laughter and girlish chatter wherever she went.

Generous to strangers, loyal to friends, she was someone people noticed. And being noticed in certain quarters of Baltimore in 1995 can be a dangerous proposition -- especially at night. Especially for women.

"It got her a lot of unwanted attention," says Mark Bell, 30, a friend. "She was a big girl -- with big hair, big lips and big breasts. Unfortunately, there's a lot of men in this day and age who see a woman like that and forget that there's a person inside that exotic body."

Dreams of writing career

Behind the 500-watt smile and striking looks was an aspiring journalist who had just completed her junior year at American University in Washington after beginning her college education at Essex Community College.

Keri had always done well in academics, graduating 10th in her class from Towson Catholic High School in 1991. And for as far back as anyone in her family can remember, she had always wanted to be a writer.

When she was a little girl, she began secretly scribbling poems in her bedroom -- sweet rhymes about waves and dreams and true love -- and squirreling them away.

"She apparently had been writing them for a long time," says her mother, Fran Sirbaugh. "One day, she just decided to show them to me. I guess she was in the seventh or eight grade. We discovered we had quite the gifted little writer on our hands."

How and why she decided on American University, her mother doesn't know.

"But she was like that," Fran Sirbaugh says. "She would set her sights on something, and that was it. She'd go for it. You raise your children hoping they'll turn out right, in spite of whatever mistakes you make as a parent, and you never know until they're grown.

"Well, Keri succeeded. She's a very intelligent young lady -- or she was."

Fran Sirbaugh's face drops. She looks down into her hands, fiddling with her wedding ring.

"She was my friend. I admired her very much."

On weekends, Keri usually could be found at her family's white-sided house in Hamilton, gabbing with her mother, sharing confidences with her 18-year-old brother, Brian, and helping her father with his home improvement business. A giant of a man, Bill Sirbaugh could swing a hammer. But it was Keri who often wrote the job proposals, organized the contracts, returned the phone calls.

"She was a great kid," he says before his voice cracks and he has to stop talking again.

"In our circle, she was probably the only person who wasn't estranged in some way from her parents," says George Rickels, 29. "You couldn't be friends with Keri and not hear about how great her family was. Her mother was probably her best friend. And her dad, well, she just worshiped her dad.

"He was like her protector."

A new life downtown

In 1992, Keri left home, moved into an apartment nearby on White Avenue and began to gravitate toward downtown. Charles Street was where the action was. And she found ready soul mates among the art students and aspiring writers who flocked to the low-rent apartments of Mount Vernon and Charles Village.

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