Carroll girl looked forward to studying dolphins Slain Liberty graduate loved nature, wanted to protect environment

July 30, 1998|By John Murphy and Mike Farabaugh | John Murphy and Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Jackie Powder and Mary Gail Hare and contributing writer Jeff Seidel contributed to this article.

Little about Shen Poehlman's tennis game was fancy. She was a baseline player who put the ball in play and waited for opponents to make mistakes. When they did, she pounced.

That combination of patience and persistence won her three straight county titles at Liberty High School in Carroll County.

It would also help her succeed in almost everything she did. She lettered in volleyball, led the school in community service and won the Booster Club's coveted Lionbackers scholarship. She was headed to Florida State University in two weeks to study marine biology.

On Tuesday, Shen's life -- which one school administrator said had become a role model for other students at Liberty High School -- ended violently, police said. Police found her smothered and strangled yesterday in the back seat of her car in the parking lot of a Reisterstown apartment complex. She was 17.

Police arrested John Miller IV, 26, of Reisterstown on a charge of first-degree homicide yesterday.

Despite her athletic success, sports was only a part of her life, she told The Sun during an April interview previewing high school tennis.

From early childhood, she was fascinated by dolphins, hoping to study marine biology.

She attended Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Fla., last summer, spending a week as one of 14 dolphin lab students. She studied dolphins and learned to swim with and train them.

"Dolphins are the most beautiful and fascinating creatures in the world, and I'm completely amazed by them," Shen wrote on her application, said Peggy Sloan, director of education for the Dolphin Research Center.

"I figured out a lot about myself, what I want to be and what the world is all about," Shen wrote after her week at the center.

"I'll never forget swimming with the dolphins and watching the passion of the people who work with them."

She could often be seen wearing dolphin earrings, said Bruce Damasio, her tennis coach.

"Shen was interested in dolphins from the time she was a little girl, long before dolphins were the vogue," said Janet Poehlman, her mother.

"When she was only 10, she was collecting articles about dolphins and looking for schools where she might study about them. It was an interest she kept and maintained."

Any project to preserve the environment also attracted Shen, her mother said:

"Shen was always the first to get to work on anything to do with nature. She had an eye for nature and what was around her."

At the Poehlman house in Eldersburg yesterday, friends of the family gathered all day. Many stayed in the dining room where photographs of Shen, including her senior portrait, were spread across the table. A "Congrats" banner from her graduation hung on the wall.

"She was going away to school, but she was not pulling away from us. She would keep us close," Janet Poehlman said.

"I have three children and I know that everyone thinks their children are wonderful, but I tell you there was really something special about this girl. Maybe that is why the Lord took her so soon."

Shen's schoolmates came to console her parents and left the home sobbing.

"There is nothing we can say to her parents except that we loved her and we will be here for them," said Bethany Jelinek, Shen's classmate.

Therese Brennen, who has lived next door to the Poehlmans for five years, said, "This is too close to home. I don't want to know the details of how this happened. It is a tragedy no matter what happened."

Sara Groff, a friend since childhood, said Shen was a really good, really trusting person. "She was always trying to do something nice for somebody."

"She was a really friendly person that you never minded asking for help," said Terry Rheubottom, Shen's friend since grade school.

Shen had never played tennis before high school, but she was an immediate standout. She played doubles as a sophomore, and Damasio shifted her to No. 2 singles midway through the season.

On the tennis court, Shen was focused on performance, not on style, Damasio said.

"She played with her heart and her head," he said yesterday. "Other kids may have had better skills, but few had her desire. She had that ability to keep pushing herself."

Damasio recalled her as "the girl next door, impish," who would often wear a Mr. Bubble T-shirt to practice.

"That's the kind of person she was, bubbly, smiling," he said.

On the court, however, she would exploit her challenger's weaknesses.

"In most sports today, the emphasis is on strength and power and showmanship, and you've got to have a certain panache," Damasio said. "What's refreshing to me about Shen is that she just comes out and keeps the ball in play and gives you a chance to make a mistake."

Shen won her third county tennis title impressively, defeating Charis Fulton of North Carroll, 7-5, 6-0, after Fulton had routed her a week earlier, 6-1, 6-2.

She ended her senior season with a 12-5 record.

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