For homicide detectives, the case against James Howard Van Metre III seemed picture-perfect.
The tree-trimmer from Tennessee confessed to strangling Holly Ann Blake for questioning his manhood. He admitted burning the body of the 28-year-old mother to cinders in a bonfire. He even took detectives on a walking tour of the slaying scene.
That was all before a procedural blunder by prosecutors cost them a conviction in the case, prompting voters to kick the longtime Carroll County state's attorney out of office. For a while, it looked as if Van Metre would walk away from the crime.
But five years after the slaying, federal prosecutors in Baltimore are trying to salvage the case. Starting today in federal court, they will argue that Van Metre kidnapped Blake from Pennsylvania and took her across the state line to his brother's farm near Taneytown, where she was slain.
If convicted of the federal kidnapping charge, Van Metre could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
With the stakes in the case so high, prosecutors say, Van Metre made a desperate move a few weeks ago. They say he tried to arrange the contract killing of a witness from his jail cell in Baltimore, where he is awaiting trial. The plot was foiled, and a federal grand jury has indicted him on a new round of felonies.
Van Metre, 38, a stocky man with choppy brown hair and a beard, did not respond to a request for an interview last week. His lawyer declined to comment.
"I can't talk about it," defense attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said. "The trial is about to begin."
Prosecutors also declined to discuss the case.
"I really can't say anything," Assistant U.S. Attorney Carmina S. Hughes said.
In court filings, the two sides have been sparring for months over the case. Defense lawyers accuse the federal government of "bootstrapping" evidence from the slaying to concoct the kidnapping charge.
Defense lawyers have tried to exclude Van Metre's confessions from the trial. They have asked that evidence of a violent rape Van Metre committed shortly before the slaying be barred from the trial. Last Friday, they argued in court that jurors should not hear the case because the slaying and rape are so horrific, they could never be impartial. They asked the judge to decide Van Metre's fate instead.
"The facts in this case are so sensational, Mr. Van Metre will never receive an impartial trial," Bernstein said during the court hearing.
Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz denied the defense requests. Both sides are expected to start picking a jury this morning, and they could present their opening statements today.
The key question for jurors in the case: Did Van Metre bring Blake into Maryland against her will, or did she voluntarily take a ride to Carroll County that day?
The case against Van Metre didn't start with a slaying. It really began 11 days before.
It was early Sept. 15, 1991, when Van Metre broke into the basement of a home in East Berlin, Pa., court records show. He crept into an upstairs bedroom, where he found a young woman asleep.
In circumstances similar to the murder case, he choked the woman and took her to a remote field, where he raped her repeatedly before letting her go, the court documents show.
ZTC On Sept. 26, 1991, Van Metre encountered another young woman. Her name was Holly Ann Blake, a waitress at Spangler's Diner in Gettysburg, a divorced mother of two daughters -- ages 9 and 10.
Blake was waxing her car in the parking lot of Distelfink's Drive-In, a truck stop a quarter-mile from the diner. Van Metre, who lived at the 30 West Motel, not far away, was seen driving away with Blake in his beat-up Subaru hatchback.
According to his confessions, Van Metre drove around Gettysburg before crossing into Maryland and pulling onto a farm his brother rented in the northwest Carroll town of Harney. They took a walk. They began to kiss. They started to fondle
each other and Blake opened Van Metre's pants. He later told police she made a remark that would cost the woman her life.
She said she was disappointed.
"It just got me downright depressed 'cause, you know, it ain't the first time a woman's told me that," he told investigators, according to a transcript of the confession. "I looked at Holly, and I grabbed her by the throat. I lost it. I lost the deep end of my mind."
Blake fought back. She rolled around on the ground. She tried to kick and punch Van Metre. He told police he strangled her.
By then, it was 3 p.m. Van Metre said he didn't know what to do next. He emptied Blake's pocketbook. He looked at photos of her children. He roamed the farm and finally came up with a plan.
At 9: 30 p.m., he built a bonfire.
"I put Holly right in the middle of the fire," Van Metre told police. "Laid her right down in the middle of the fire, and I just stood away, and she went up, you know. She disappeared."