Wife seeks answer to death in New York She does not believe husband took own life

March 13, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- Sean Hinton was a wisecracking teen-ager when he met his future wife in the band at Baltimore's Southern High School. She was a majorette. He played the drums.

"He noticed me before I noticed him," says Francine Hinton, as she looks over videotapes of Sean joking with old co-workers and doing dead-on impressions of his boss. "We had a wonderful time together. He was so funny. We were so close, and there is nothing that explained him disappearing."

It has been more than four years since New York police officers pulled Sean Hinton's body out of the water next to Battery Park, at the tip of Manhattan. He was 22. It was an abrupt and mysterious end to a promising marriage with plans for the future.

Last month, still seeking answers, Francine Hinton came to New York City for the first time in her life.

She felt her stomach turn as she stared at the East River water where her husband's body was first spotted. She glanced at slides showing autopsy photos of Sean. And she left knowing little more than when she came.

"I'm very frustrated," said Francine Hinton, 26, who still wears her husband's wedding band on a string around her neck. "No one seems interested in finding out what really happened."

Sean and Francine were married in 1989, the year they graduated from Southern. He was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. Tall and strait-laced, Sean went to school and eschewed hanging out on East Baltimore street corners.

While Francine raised their three small children, Sean worked, starting as a $4.59 per hour maintenance man at a downtown hotel. He soon moved on to better jobs, and by the fall of 1992, he had nearly completed his training and was on the verge of a career as a police officer -- his ticket out of public housing and into a middle-class life he had sought but never known.

"He had worked so hard to get this job because he wanted to move his family out of here," says Jean Hinton, Sean's mother. "He had always talked about being a fireman, or a policeman. He was the type to wander up to the police on the street and ask them advice."

Ruled a suicide

On Oct. 24, 1992, he walked out of the couple's Lafayette Courts apartment. His body was found 10 days later, on Nov. 3. A month later, Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, a New York City medical examiner, ruled the death a suicide, though he and police here still consider the case to be officially open.

Given the absence of information about Sean in those final days, it is easy to understand why Francine Hinton has never accepted that ruling.

Flomenbaum and police readily acknowledge that they don't know how, or why, Sean arrived in New York, a city where he knew no one. They don't know how or where he entered the water. And they have no clear explanation for the way Sean's body was found: with his wrists tightly bounded together in a square knot. That fact led New York police to report the case initially as a homicide.

"I don't know how he did it, but I believe he was able to tie his wrists together himself," Flomenbaum told Francine Hinton during their meeting. When she offered him a string and asked him to tie his wrists together in the same way, he refused.

She then recited points that, in her opinion, raise questions about her husband's case.

The fact that Sean, as a police trainee, was assigned at the time of his death to a police officer who was being investigated by the FBI for his ties to a West Baltimore drug ring. No charges were brought, and the officer remains on the job.

The fact that the Baltimore Police Department gave her husband a funeral with full honors and paid off on a life insurance policy even though he was a trainee, not a full officer, and was officially found to have committed suicide while off-duty. Police say only that the department was trying to be sensitive to the family.

The fact that Flomenbaum was so uncertain of his ruling that he issued a death certificate without listing a cause of death in November 1992. During their conversation in his First Avenue office here Feb. 28, Flomenbaum offered to change his suicide finding if Francine Hinton could provide hard evidence that Sean might have been murdered. She says that to get such evidence, she may have her husband's body exhumed from King Memorial Park in Randallstown.

"I know it sounds crazy, but I believe there is something there. I feel I owe it to Sean, for what he was trying to do for our family, to find out what really happened," she says. "I believe 100 percent that this was murder, not suicide."

But police in New York and Baltimore, while acknowledging the case is hardly seamless, privately say Francine Hinton is ignoring facts that strongly suggest Sean's death was a suicide.

Arrested

Sean, they point out, was arrested for drunken driving late on Oct. 23, the night before he disappeared. The arrest, six weeks before his expected graduation from the police academy, would have triggered his dismissal from the force and dashed -- at least temporarily -- his dreams for improving his family's lot.

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