Fugitive evokes image of rebellion Youth, 16, sought in slaying of hospital counselor

October 23, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Dan Thanh Dang and Greg Tasker contributed to this article.

His head is shaved and his eyes are blanked by dark, round glasses.

As 16-year-old Ben Garris remained a fugitive from a murder charge, that dour expression -- reprinted in newspapers and even on a rock band's promotional fliers -- threatened to become a symbol of teen-age rebellion and thrill-seeking.

The image recalls a face from the film "Natural Born Killers." But some said it masked the grim reality of a counselor dead at a Towson mental hospital and two teens -- Benjamin Scott Garris and a female friend -- on the run.

At his former high school in Frederick, officials worried that students found the chase romantic, and police were stationed to calm fears that he might return. In Towson, Baltimore County police were running low on leads. And in Timonium, the missing girl's parents feared that she has been lured by the adventure of an accused friend's flight.

It all makes his mother cry.

"I think there's a lot of hype around this case," Tina Marie Lee said, speaking publicly for the first time since her son was charged in the Oct. 8 stabbing of a counselor at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. As a tear ran down her cheek, she pointed to her heart and said, "Reality is here."

In an interview with The Sun, she said she feels helpless. Helpless because she and her fam-ily have done everything to help police find their son, but haven't heard from him. Helpless to convince others that she barely recognizes her son in police descriptions of a manipulative liar whose writings suggest a drive to play out scenes from violent films such as "A Clockwork Orange" and "Natural Born Killers."

Rightly or wrongly, the photo of young Garris in his sunglasses has defined his image in reports presented by media outlets -- from the Frederick newspaper to the "America's Most Wanted" television program.

A former girlfriend says the pose was not planned, although they had seen "Natural Born Killers" repeatedly.

It is apparent from his mother's photo collection that he liked to mug for the camera.

Mrs. Lee's dining room drawer is full of snapshots. Of Ben playfully sticking his tongue out at the camera while visiting New York City. Of Ben squinting through laughter. Of Ben's cake-and-ice cream, backyard birthday party.

And there is videotape of 10-year-old Ben, a soprano with soft curls of hair, playing Oliver in a community theater musical.

"He's very talented, very artistic, very poetic, very gentle," Mrs. Lee said. And very depressed. In March, after he swallowed sleeping pills and codeine-laced cough syrup, his mother and stepfather insisted that he get treatment at Sheppard Pratt.

Seven months later, on Oct. 7, Mrs. Lee signed her son out for a day's leave from a group home at the hospital. Back home in Frederick, Ben went to the dentist and then met some friends for an afternoon street festival.

Mrs. Lee returned her son to the group home known as Fordham Cottage about 8 p.m.

Hours later, his counselor, 26-year-old Sharon Edwards, was found stabbed to death. Somebody had tried to set fire to the home.

Ben was gone.

About that time, Richard DeCosta was dozing on a living room couch in his family's Timonium bungalow. He had drifted off watching "Saturday Night Live," and now his daughter was prodding him to wake up.

Jane, 15, had come home about 11:30 that night from a date with a new boyfriend.

For the past couple of years there had been problems with their "Janie." Funky clothes and body piercings were the least of it -- she ran away a dozen times, including one jaunt to Boston, and eventually spent two weeks at a girls detention facility and two months at a residential psychiatric facility, her parents say. Recently, she seemed to be improving, getting B's at Sheppard Pratt's Forbush School. She wanted to study art.

Jane returned to her room. Mr. DeCosta surfed the channels until about 3 a.m., and then retired. At 4:30 a.m., his wife, Peggy, padded down a short hall to the bathroom and noticed that their daughter was gone, and so was the family's Chevy Blazer.

The DeCostas, by now toughened against the heartache of a missing child, decided to wait until morning before taking action. If Jane returned safely after a brief joy ride, that would be a relatively minor offense, they reasoned.

After sunrise, the Blazer was found barely a block from their home, run up a curb.

A police officer called to the scene told Mr. DeCosta of the slaying at Sheppard Pratt. They were looking for a patient named Ben Garris -- one of Jane's old boyfriends.

According to the DeCostas, a friend said Jane called her about 1:45 a.m. saying Ben had called her, and "he's coming to get me."

The police remain uncertain whether Jane was abducted.

Today, part of Peggy DeCosta would prefer to see her daughter as the innocent, but her mother's instinct tells her that Jane went willingly.

"I can see Janie getting caught up in this little adventure," she said. "She thinks because she's survived a few runs to Fells Point, she's streetwise and tough, and she's not."

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