Detective ties up loose ends to make case in '85 killing Suspect charged 13 years after woman disappears

December 31, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

On June 16, Howard County Detective Nathan Rettig slid a woman's photograph toward Kenneth Allen White.

The smiling face in the picture belonged to Sandra Lee Taylor, an Ellicott City mother of two young children who vanished Jan. 1, 1985 after a night of New Year's revelry.

White "recoiled," Rettig said. Then, in a Pennsylvania police station, the detective looked White in the eye and asked:

"Why did you kill her, Kenny, why did you kill her?"

White, 47, of Lebanon, Pa., an unemployed mechanic and father of a 9-year-old girl, is charged with first-degree murder. He vigorously denies involvement in Taylor's death.

"I didn't do it," White said at a Dec. 9 bail hearing. "I could have gone behind the Iron Curtain [in 1985] if I wanted to. I turned myself in to face these charges to clear my name."

Investigators long suspected White, who was seen kissing Taylor and then leaving with her from an Oella bar on New Year's Day, but the case moved slowly, from detective to detective, remaining one of 15 unsolved homicides in Howard County since 1975.

Even when environmental workers stumbled across Taylor's skeletal remains in June 1995, there was little real progress. Then, last May, the mystery was placed in Rettig's hands.

Rettig joined the Howard County Police Department four months after Taylor disappeared. As a patrol officer, he drove daily along Route 99 in Woodstock, only a few yards from the shallow stream where Taylor's bones would be found 10 years later. Rettig became a detective two years ago.

Veteran detectives, prosecutors and the victim's family credit Rettig's discipline in tracking down witnesses, linking crucial pieces of evidence and finding a suspect's friend whose statements helped change the two-year-old autopsy results from undetermined" to "homicide."

But legal experts say the case will be difficult to prosecute because of its age and its near-total reliance on circumstantial evidence.

"This will definitely be a challenge," said Jerome E. Deise, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who has defended numerous murder suspects. "There is virtually no forensic evidence, it's all circumstantial."

However, Deise said that he has only seen the documents charging White with the slaying -- all written by the prosecution -- and a newspaper account.

Whatever the outcome, Stephen Gover, Taylor's brother, said Rettig's determination eased the pain of not knowing.

"The arrest gives me a little closure," said Gover, 47. "I didn't think they had enough to catch [a suspect]."

For his part, Rettig said he never took the case personally, never got too close, worked his eight-hour days and then went home to his wife and kids.

Building a case

On a cold afternoon recently, Rettig -- his gray- and white-speckled hair scattered by the bitter wind -- sat in his unmarked cruiser, only a quarter-mile from the stream where Taylor's remains were found.

Adjusting his tan overcoat and nudging his eyeglasses up on his nose, Rettig spoke carefully about the case, pondering every question and answer, wary that a single slip could ruin years of work.

The former Marine -- raised by an office manager and a school librarian in the small Indiana town of Geneva -- never dreamed when he graduated from South Adams High School in 1981 that he'd someday investigate a murder.

During several interviews, Rettig emphasized that building this case was like building a home -- others laid the foundation and he did the finishing work. He said that the original work on the missing person's report and that of other detectives over the years were the crucial building blocks.

But colleagues say that Rettig did far more than put on the final touches -- he built the house.

"On this case you needed a bit of a bulldog, a dog who won't let the bone go," said Assistant State's Attorney Bernard Taylor, who will prosecute the case. "Nathan did that -- he was persistent."

Rettig's sergeant agreed. "Nate did a fantastic job bringing all the information together into a workable case," said Sgt. Greg Marshall, who heads the violent crime unit. "It got solved because nobody gave up on it from 1985 through 1997. Everybody involved did their part, particularly Nathan."

After Marshall handed Retting a box of papers and a three-ring binder with all the information about Taylor's slaying, the detective spent several weeks making phone calls and organizing the file.

Working from his small desk, decorated with a Semper Fi bumper sticker, American and Marine Corps flags and a small teddy bear, Rettig read how Taylor visited an Oella bar -- then known as the Valley View Inn -- on New Year's Eve, how she left with a man she didn't know, and how the 31-year-old mother of two made a brief stop at her nearby home and was never heard from again.

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