Jury was escorted inside the mind of a murderer Prosecutors portrayed Van Metre as 'evil'

June 02, 1996|By SCOTT HIGHAM | SCOTT HIGHAM,SUN STAFF

For federal prosecutors, it was the trickiest kind of criminal case.

Old evidence. An overturned conviction. Fading memories. And worst of all, the burden of proving what was going on inside the troubled mind of James Van Metre III when he picked up a young mother on a sunny fall day five years ago and slaughtered her a few hours later.

But with some old-fashioned detective work and careful courtroom planning, the prosecutors were able to provide jurors with an unflinching look at the world of a confessed rapist and murderer.

By the time the case was over, jurors couldn't wait to convict Van Metre of federal kidnapping charges.

As the court clerk polled the panel before the verdict Wednesday, the foreman, instead of saying, "Here," blurted out the decision of the eight women and four men.

"Guilty," he said.

It was a dramatic close to a case that prosecutors thought they had all but lost two years ago.

An appeals court overturned Van Metre's conviction for killing Holly Ann Blake on Sept. 26, 1991, because of a procedural blunder.

The mistake contributed to the defeat of the Carroll County state's attorney in the 1994 election.

With Maryland barred from trying Van Metre again for murder, the new prosecutor in Carroll County came up with plan.

He called federal prosecutors and asked whether Van Metre could be tried for kidnapping because he took Blake across the Pennsylvania state line into Maryland, making it a federal offense.

If he were convicted, Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes reasoned, Van Metre could spend his life behind bars.

"This was a tragedy that was crying out for a common-sense solution," Barnes said. "It was a very difficult case."

From the start, winning a conviction was far from certain. Federal prosecutors had to prove that Van Metre, 38, intended to kidnap Blake, 28, when he picked her up at Distelfink's Drive-In, a truck stop in Gettysburg.

For prosecutors, the case posed a number of problems:

Witnesses said Blake had a date with Van Metre, and some testified that they saw her stepping into his Subaru. How could prosecutors prove he kidnapped her when evidence seemed to show she went along voluntarily?

Van Metre told a family member about meeting Blake the day before her disappearance. If he was plotting to kidnap Blake, why would he tell his sister-in-law about her?

Van Metre confessed to Blake's murder in vivid detail, claiming he strangled her after she ridiculed the size of his genitalia. If jurors believed that he killed her in a moment of rage, how could prosecutors show that the murder was part of a plan?

Two investigators were assigned to develop the case: state police Cpl. Douglas Wehland and FBI Agent Greg Stevens. Searching through closed case filings and interviewing old witnesses, they found clues that would later lead to Van Metre's conviction.

During the original search of the murder scene on a 280-acre farm in Harney, officers found a pair of handcuff keys hanging in the bushes a few feet from the spot where Van Metre built a bonfire and burned Blake's body.

Wehland, Stevens and other investigators went back to the scene in March 1995, searching all day for the handcuffs. They couldn't find them. For the kidnapping trial, the keys would have to do.

The two investigators then interviewed one of Van Metre's old girlfriends, Donna Ray. She produced what would later turn out to be a bonanza for prosecutors. She had more than 100 letters Van Metre had written from a Pennsylvania prison, where he is serving a 15 1/2 -to-35-year sentence for raping a Mennonite woman 11 days before the murder.

In one letter, Van Metre said he lied to investigators about the reason he killed Blake. In another, he said he killed Blake and raped the Mennonite woman because of his rage against women and his frustration over losing Ray.

"I was filled with anger," he told Ray in one of the letters.

Prosecutors Andrew G. W. Norman and Carmina S. Hughes started to prepare the case for court. They scored a series of victories before the trial even began.

They won a ruling allowing the Mennonite woman to testify because her ordeal was so similar to Blake's. They also won a ruling allowing them to present the case to a jury.

Defense attorney Gregg L. Bernstein argued that the facts of the case were so awful, a jury would convict Van Metre simply to get even for what he did to Blake, not because he planned to kidnap her.

Prosecutors developed a theory to guide jurors through the kidnapping trial.

Van Metre, they would later tell the panel, harbored a deep hatred of women. He kidnapped the Mennonite, tied her hands behind her back and took her to his parents' farm in Pennsylvania. He probably would have killed her, they said, had she not told Van Metre she forgave him after the rape.

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