Sheppard Pratt to review policies in wake of slaying Police continue search for patient, 16, charged in counselor's death

October 11, 1995|By JAY APPERSON AND DAN THANH DANG | JAY APPERSON AND DAN THANH DANG,SUN STAFF

As police searched yesterday for a teen-age patient suspected in the weekend slaying of a counselor at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, officials at the Towson psychiatric hospital said they would review their policies with an eye toward tightening security.

The internal review could lead to an expansion of the hospital's force of 11 full-time security officers or it could call for counselors to be fitted with "panic buttons" or similar devices, a hospital spokesman said.

Two committees also will review the screening process that allowed the suspect, Benjamin Scott Garris, 16, of Frederick to live in Fordham Cottage, the group home where the slaying took place, said Sheppard Pratt spokesman Mark Eber.

"I think people are shaken up," Mr. Eber said in describing the mood at the hospital. "They're concerned, but they also know we are very professional and on top of the situation and doing everything we can to ensure the safety in and around the Sheppard Pratt grounds."

Baltimore County police have increased patrols at the hospital campus, and Sheppard Pratt has temporarily added four security officers from a private company, Mr. Eber said.

The Garris youth has been charged as an adult with first-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of Sharon Edwards, 26, a counselor working her first night shift at Fordham Cottage.

Her relatives have questioned why she was working alone.

The hospital spokesman said Ms. Edwards had participated in a two-week orientation program and a seminar on counseling skills. She also had worked for 14 months at a day center for mentally disabled adults.

Jim McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, said it is "typical and reasonable" for a program such as Fordham Cottage to have one adult on duty overnight, particularly when there was a backup security system and the counselor was responsible for only three teens. Nevertheless, he said, the slaying warrants a review.

The Garris youth had been picked up by his mother Saturday morning and was returned to the cottage the same day at 8:15 p.m., Mr. Eber said. The first report of trouble came at 2:34 a.m. Sunday, when a cottage resident reported smelling smoke.

A security officer extinguished a fire on the front porch and then ++ discovered the counselor's body in the recreation room. Court records show that a propane tank, attached to several "bomb-like" devices, was found with its valve open and gas leaking.

Bags of clothing and shoes nearby appeared to have bloodstains, according to court records. Traces of blood also were found on a bathtub, and a knapsack containing several knives with blood on them were recovered from the Garris youth's closet, the records state.

Mr. Eber said room searches are conducted only if counselors suspect a patient is being secretive or behaving inappropriately. He said there were no such indications with the Garris youth.

"Did we have him in the appropriate level of care? At this point we believe we did," Mr. Eber said.

County police continued their search for the Garris youth and Jane DeCosta, a 15-year-old Timonium girl believed to be traveling with him.

Dozens of callers reported sightings to police yesterday. But "many of the calls aren't panning out," said police spokesman Cpl. Kevin B. Novak.

The Garris youth was described as 5 feet 6, medium build, 150 pounds, with short orange-dyed hair shaved on the sides. Police said it is possible that the boy has dyed his hair a different color, or shaved his head bald.

Police were not sure whether the Timonium girl -- who has not been charged with a crime -- went freely or was forced to join the Garris youth. She is described as having short, spiked black hair, a nose ring and three rings in her ears. She also has a tattoo of an A in a circle on her lower right leg.

Police are asking anyone with information to call 887-2198.

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