Small town in the spotlight St. Michaels: Media descend after man's body is found in room of hotel where murder mystery was staged.

March 08, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS -- A couple attends a Valentine's Day murder-mystery weekend on the Eastern Shore, and soon after watching the play's groom get poisoned, the husband winds up dead, set on fire in his hotel room, and his wife is charged with murder.

Offer this as a movie synopsis, and it sounds too cliched, too much like a bad television rerun. Yet the death of 35-year-old Stephen Michael Hricko of Laurel was decidedly real, and its intrigue has catapulted a community to national fame.

And what a perfect America-in-the-'90s ordeal it is: The local author of the play is seeking movie offers through a Hollywood agent. The networks and the television tabloids descend. So does People magazine. The hotel's management gets inquiries from couples eager to spend next Valentine's Day in the same fateful room on the Miles River.

On the streets of historic St. Michaels, a waterfront tourist mecca more often associated with steamed crabs, sailboats and antique shops, the brouhaha holds one small comfort:

At least the couple was from the other side of the Chesapeake Bay.

"My grandfather said the Bay Bridge would be the ruination of the Eastern Shore," said Herbert E. "Skip" Granger, 69, owner of a St. Michaels flower and gift shop. "I guess he was right."

When Kimberly Michelle Hricko was arrested 12 days ago, few around here were terribly surprised. It didn't take Hercule Poirot or even Mike Hammer to figure out something was a little suspicious about her husband's death.

The body was found early on the morning of Feb. 15 by volunteer firefighters responding to Mrs. Hricko's report of a fire in her "cottage" room at Harbortowne Golf Resort & Conference Center, a sprawling 111-room motel about a half-mile outside St. Michaels in Martingham.

Hricko, superintendent of the Patuxent Greens Country Club in Laurel, and his wife were guests of a friend (Harbortowne's groundskeeper), who spent $239 to give them a romantic weekend. Saturday night, they ate dinner together and watched "The Bride Who Cried," a murder mystery in which guests and cast mingled in an improvisational performance.

Mrs. Hricko told police that after the show, she and her husband argued. She said that he had been drinking heavily and wanted to have sex and that she didn't. She left the room, got into her car and got lost driving to Easton, she said.

State police investigators soon learned that Mr. Hricko was probably dead before the fire started. There was no soot, no burns in his trachea, no carbon monoxide and no sign of alcohol in his blood.

A friend of Mrs. Hricko's told police that Mrs. Hricko, 32, a surgical technician, had confided two weeks earlier that she had a plan to inject her husband with a drug that would stop his breathing and paralyze him. Then she would set their home's curtains on fire with a cigar or candle.

When the friend pointed out that Mr. Hricko didn't smoke cigars, she was undeterred. She told the friend she had taken out a smoker's life insurance policy on her husband and that would lessen suspicion, police said.

According to documents filed in Talbot County District Court, police found someone who claimed to have had an affair with Mrs. Hricko. Another friend told them of other damning %o conversations.

"If I thought I could kill him and get away with it, I would do it tomorrow," Mrs. Hricko allegedly said.

The day she was arrested, the news filled the front page of the Easton Star Democrat, the local newspaper. Since then, almost every day has brought a new front-page story about the case.

Speculation about the case is rampant: Could the play have inspired the woman's behavior that night? Had she expected Eastern Shore police to be so incompetent that they would never suspect murder?

Such questions are "the hot topic around here," said Denise Riley, the Star Democrat's executive editor. "It's like an episode of 'Murder She Wrote.' How could you not put it on the front page?"

Cast members have found new celebrity in the community. The greatest fame has gone to those who talked to Mrs. Hricko that night. (Two casts were doing simultaneous performances in adjoining rooms to handle the overflow crowd.)

"Everywhere I go, people want to talk about it," said Stephen Kehoe, 39, an Easton lawyer who played the play's victim, Bernardo, in his first acting role since high school. "I do one dinner theater, and I have the media looking at me."

No one in the community has relished the spotlight quite like Barbara "Bobbi" Benitz, the Easton woman who wrote and directed the play. Wednesday, the big question in her life was whether to grant an interview to ABC's "20/20" or "Dateline NBC." After consulting her agent -- a woman recommended by her son, a Los Angeles theater director -- she picked the latter.

"Could I have written all this? Lord, no," said Benitz, 70, who got her start in murder mysteries acting part-time on Westminster's now-defunct EnterTRAINment line. "Nobody would buy this."

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