Haunted by the unsolved slaying of their daughter nearly two years ago, Herbert and Kuze Battle are fighting in court against her estranged husband -- a suspect in the killing -- over rights to see their granddaughter.
The Battles say they fear losing contact with Brianna Lester, who was not quite 3 years old when her mother -- Baltimore County police 911 operator Linda Lester -- was found dead almost two years ago with her throat slashed near Interstate 70.
"It just hurts so much," Herbert Battle said. "Brianna is the only thing left of our daughter."
Linda Lester, 31, had been missing nearly a week when her body was found at the interstate's Patapsco River bridge on Oct. 17, 1994. At the time, she was seeking a divorce from her husband, Donald Lester, and alleged in court papers that he had threatened to kill her.
After her death, the file on the divorce case grew to include the issue of custody -- as well as a police affidavit identifying the husband as a suspect, and stating that Brianna told relatives she witnessed the killing.
The Battles had temporary custody of Brianna for several months while police investigated the slaying. But Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel awarded Lester custody a year ago because he is the child's father and no charges had been brought against him, said his former lawyer, Jerome M. Levine.
The Battles were awarded visitation rights but last month filed a complaint that Lester had not adhered to court-ordered conditions for their visits with Brianna every other weekend.
Lester of the 8600 block of Church Lane in Randallstown declined to talk to a reporter. But his former attorney said Lester is innocent and there is no evidence to link him to his wife's death.
"It would be much better for the child if they could just work this out," Levine said. "He is an excellent father, and he had a good relationship with the Battles before all this happened."
Herbert Battle of Glyndon reported his elder daughter missing Oct. 12 after she failed to pick up Brianna from her estranged husband's home the previous night. Two days later, police found her blood-stained 1985 Mercury Cougar backed into a parking space at the old Woodlawn Ramada Inn.
A state highway crew found her partly clothed body Oct. 17 on an embankment below I-70 at the Patapsco River bridge.
Herbert Battle said he last saw his daughter about noon Oct. 11. She dropped Brianna off at the Battle home in the first block of St. Paul Ave. while she worked the evening shift at the police communications center in Towson.
He said he did not hear from her the rest of the day, but Donald Lester unexpectedly arrived at his house at 4 p.m. and picked up the child.
"She never told us that day that he was going to pick Brianna up," Herbert Battle said. "She always told us in the past when he was going to pick her up. And she didn't call us that afternoon like she usually did either."
But before she left work at 10: 45 p.m., she told co-workers that she was going to her husband's house to pick up Brianna. She last was seen driving from the Baltimore Beltway onto the Liberty Road exit, her father said.
When police searched her Owings Mills apartment, they found nothing unusual. Donald Lester had left a message on her answering machine that evening asking her why she did not pick Brianna.
According to an affidavit signed by homicide Detective William M. Ramsey in the Circuit Court file, Brianna told relatives that she saw "Daddy cut Mommy's throat." She made that statement, Ramsey said in the affidavit, before her mother's body was discovered.
"It was only a couple of days after we had reported my sister missing. She told me that once," said Linda Lester's sister, Christine Battle, 19.
According to Ramsey's affidavit, the child also told that to other family members.
But Levine said no proof exists that Brianna made those statements -- or witnessed the slaying.
"I checked into Donald Lester's background, and I found him to be totally believeable," he said. "It's unfortunate that whoever did this has not been brought to justice, but they are barking up the wrong tree."
According to court records, Linda Battle and Donald Lester married at All Saint's Episcopal Church in Reisterstown on Nov. 10, 1990. Brianna was born Nov. 26, 1991.
vTC But the relationship soured, and on Jan. 24, 1994, the couple separated, according to court documents. In the divorce complaint she filed a month later, Linda Lester said her husband "on a number of occasions has threatened to kill" her if she left him.
Donald Lester, according to his reply in the court file, wanted to work out their differences in marriage counseling. He denied threatening her and said she often yelled and used profanity when he read from the Bible.
According to the court file, homicide investigators searched Donald Lester's house and removed "forensic evidence." But last week, police Capt. Rustin E. Price, who heads the county homicide division, would not say whether there are other suspects.