Missing - and life holds its breath Vanished: Friends and family of a young Baltimore doctoral student, who apparently was abducted, live in anguish awaiting some news of her fate.

April 07, 1996|By Michael James and David Folkenflik | Michael James and David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

CULPEPER, Va. -- On the roadside spot where a mystery began is a vase of withered roses and a rain-spattered note, the faded ink bearing the words of a friend: "Alicia, I wish for you peace where ever you may be."

Alicia Showalter Reynolds' car was found here March 2, along a rural stretch of U.S. 29 that meanders through the green hills of northern Virginia. But Mrs. Reynolds, 25, a Baltimore resident and a gifted Johns Hopkins University doctoral student, has seemingly vanished.

"Is it ever going to end? Are we ever going to have just even one thing that will give us something to know that we'll find her or to know that we can bring closure to this?" pleaded Mrs. Reynolds' mother, Sadie Showalter, on a recent cable television broadcast.

Virginia state police and the FBI believe Mrs. Reynolds was abducted by a sociopathic motorist, a man posing as a polite good Samaritan who convinced the young woman that something was wrong with her car on the morning she disappeared.

Now, more than a month later, Mrs. Reynolds -- a researcher on the verge of unlocking mysteries of a tropical disease afflicting 250 million people -- has become a mystery herself as police research the clues left behind.

"We have 30 State Police and FBI agents who have been consumed by this case," said Lucy Caldwell, a Virginia State Police spokeswoman. "They feel like they have some good leads.

"But we still feel that we need the public's help if we're going to find her -- or him."

A self-assured woman in her fourth year in the Hopkins pharmacology Ph.D. program, Mrs. Reynolds often drove through high-crime areas of East Baltimore on the way to medical institutions, sometimes in the dead of night.

In all that time, she never had a problem, said her husband, Mark Reynolds.

"Alicia felt very safe here. And she was, for four years," said Mr. Reynolds, a first-year dental student at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

"She lost a hubcap one time, and a perfectly kind stranger stopped, told her to stay in the car and replaced the hubcap. She ran into a good Samaritan here in Baltimore, in areas you'd think twice about. It's ironic."

Mrs. Reynolds left her Ridgely's Delight home near Camden Yards shortly after 7: 30 a.m. that Saturday to drive alone to Charlottesville, Va., where she and her mother planned to go shopping for a dress for the June wedding of her twin brother, Patrick.

She had just passed through Culpeper, a quaint, historic town that has been the site of numerous elegant horse shows, when she pulled over on the shoulder of U.S. 29 about two miles south of the town center.

Passing motorists said they saw a clean-cut man in blue jeans and a flannel shirt talking to her by the roadside.

One witness reported seeing Mrs. Reynolds getting into a dark pickup truck with the man. The two drove off together.

Mrs. Reynolds never arrived at the Charlottesville shopping mall where she was to meet her mother.

"Alicia was always very responsible and very punctual. I said, 'This is not like her, something must have happened,' " said Mrs. Showalter, who lives in Harrisonburg, Va.

Mrs. Showalter called her husband, Harley, who notified local police. Mrs. Reynolds' husband feared an auto accident and called every police department in the 120-mile stretch between Baltimore and Culpeper.

But there was barely any trace of Mrs. Reynolds, other than an initial clue that surfaced in downtown Culpeper. One of her credit cards was found in the middle of a residential street, as though it had been thrown out of a vehicle.

The card was found by a passer-by about 3: 45 p.m., roughly five hours after Mrs. Reynolds got into the truck with the man. Then, about 6 p.m., police found her car.

The white Mercury Tracer was locked and a white napkin had been placed under the windshield wiper, apparently as a sign of a disabled vehicle.

But the car was in working order and had no mechanical problems, according to police.

Mrs. Reynolds' black parka was found about 15 miles away next to a rural pond in Madison County. Police searched the pond and nearby area but found nothing.

Mystified, investigators reported Mrs. Reynolds' disappearance to the local media.

Sinister 'rehearsals'

The news accounts prompted more than 20 women to come forward, recounting how a polite man in a dark-colored truck stopped them or tried to pull them over in the Culpeper area by claiming he saw smoke or sparks coming from their cars.

The incidents happened in January and February.

Some of those women accepted rides from the man, who they said acted "very gentlemanly" and dropped them off at nearby garages without any problems, said Ms. Caldwell of the Virginia State Police.

One woman reported a violent physical advance, but that incident was in a neighboring county and doesn't seem to fit the profile of Mrs. Reynolds' possible abductor, Ms. Caldwell said.

The accounts from the other women have led police and FBI criminal psychologists to a troubling conclusion: The previous incidents were practice drills.

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