Suspect once listed as dead has new life under arrest in theft ofpaintings, jewels Death certificate part of a ruse to beat charges, police say

October 26, 1995|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF Staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

The report of Robert Jeffrey Reedinger's passing into the sweet bye-and-bye was, indeed, greatly exaggerated.

In fact, police say, the Dundalk native probably wrote his own obituary and death certificate -- part of an elaborate plan to avoid theft charges in Maryland and Delaware.

But the obituary that appeared in a small Maryland newspaper eventually led police to a North Carolina town, where he was arrested this weekend and charged as a fugitive with stealing paintings from a four-star hotel and jewelry from a neighbor.

"I told him he looked pretty good for a corpse," Jimmy B. Wilborn, a sergeant with the Person County sheriff's office and the person who arrested Mr. Reedinger, said yesterday.

Mr. Reedinger, 31, told North Carolina officials yesterday he will waive extradition and face the charges in Cecil County and in Wilmington, Del., said Maryland State Police Sgt. Michael Cole.

"The guy was shrewd in trying to convince everybody he was dead, but he showed up a couple of weeks ago at a farewell party for his girlfriend in Perryville," Sgt. Cole said. "Obviously, he's not that shrewd."

Well, maybe.

In Delaware, Mr. Reedinger will have to be indicted again.

"That weasel!" said Detective Steven Elliott of Wilmington's police department. "When we were notified he died, we dropped the charges."

Mr. Reedinger was a waiter in 1993 at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington when he is alleged to have stolen two paintings worth $3,000 from the hotel. He was charged in March.

He also is charged with stealing a gold necklace worth more than $300 from a Perryville neighbor's home in April. He even wore the necklace in front of its owner a month later, police said.

According to Sergeant Cole, Mr. Reedinger attempted to convince law enforcement officials in two states that he died in August in Cumberland, thus making moot the criminal warrants against him.

An obituary request received at the Cecil Whig was accompanied by an official-looking state death certificate, signed by a Dr. Frederick Togus, who police found does not exist. Mr. Reedinger supposedly passed into the hereafter from Memorial Hospital Medical Center in Cumberland and was buried by a Mount Carmel, Pa., funeral home, "next to his great grandmother as per her request," the obit said.

Not so, police discovered.

A story in the Whig last week raised questions about Mr. Reedinger's obituary and prompted several calls to state police, who tracked the fugitive to Roxboro, N.C. His girlfriend, Sharon Nichols, had moved to work at a veterans' hospital there.

"We knew that he wasn't dead, we just didn't know where he was. We got a tip that he was very much alive and had moved from Perryville with his girlfriend who had worked at the Perry Point Veteran Affairs Medical Center," Sergeant Cole said.

Ms. Nichols has denied any involvement in Mr. Reedinger's flight to North Carolina; she could not be reached yesterday for comment.

The key to locating Mr. Reedinger, officers said, was old-fashioned police work. Everyone along the chain of Mr. Reedinger's "death" -- hospital, funeral home, cemetery -- indicated strongly to police that the suspect had blown town.

"An excellent informant told us Mr. Reedinger was living with Ms. Nichols down in Roxboro, N.C.," Sergeant Cole said. "We got a post office box and telephone number from the informer and ascertained he was there. Then we called the folks down in North Carolina."

Sergeant Wilborn said yesterday that he and a team of officers began surveillance on Ms. Nichols' house late Friday. Early Saturday, officers called Ms. Nichols, identified themselves and watched through a window as Mr. Reedinger bolted for the attic.

He was found hiding in a clothes closet and was arrested without incident.

Mr. Reedinger attended Baltimore County schools and served in the Navy, according to his mother, Mrs. Darlene McKrush, who also has three daughters. His parents divorced 20 years ago.

"I think he's bright, he just doesn't know how to direct it," she said yesterday. "He's been searching for something since 14 and I guess he just chose the wrong path."

Mr. Reedinger, who lived in Perryville for several years prior to his arrest, was on 18 months probation for stealing antique furniture from a Perryville shop last year. The pieces were recovered from his home.

The FBI office in Wilmington dropped federal charges against Mr. Reedinger this year for allegedly stealing on July 8, 1994, three models of World War II Navy ships crafted by a veteran who was dying of cancer.

The ships, 3 to 5 feet long and meticulously detailed, were of the U.S.S. Langley -- the Navy's first carrier -- and two later modifications of her. They were on display in the main lobby at the Perry Point veterans hospital, where Mr. Reedinger's girlfriend worked as medical administrator.

They were recovered two weeks later from Mr. Reedinger's home and other locations. The veteran who made the replicas, Gil Jones, learned of the recoveries just days before he died.

"We dropped our case because we wanted him to roll on the state charges," said an FBI official, who asked not to be identified.

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