Slain woman ordered to testify at suspect's trial Summons blamed on computer mixup

October 06, 1998|By Joe Mathews and Peter Hermann | Joe Mathews and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Theresa E. Ambrose was killed in February, shot during a robbery at the Pigtown bar where she worked. But until last week, the court was trying to resurrect her to testify at the trial of the teen-ager accused of murdering her.

Three times the Baltimore Circuit Court sent summonses to Ambrose, who was 35, demanding that she testify against the 16-year-old girl charged with pulling the trigger. The order was clear: either appear in court or be jailed for contempt.

"Do the courts think they can subpoena her ghost?" said Louis "Van" Vanevera, Ambrose's former fiancee, who received the subpoenas at the home they shared in Lansdowne. "She's dead. This is a murder trial. Why do these things keep happening?"

While the court has stopped sending the subpoenas since being contacted Friday by The Sun, Vanevera says this summons to the dead is only the latest indignity to befall Ambrose's relatives in recent months.

Ambrose was working at her father's tavern, Rainbow's Pigtown Bar, at 11: 40 p.m. on Feb. 11 when three teen-agers entered and demanded money. They asked the barmaid to open the cash register. But Ambrose froze, and one teen-ager shot her. One adult and four teens, including then-15-year-old Carleana A. Kirby, were charged in the case.

Since her death, the family has struggled to pay medical bills from the shooting that run to the tens of thousands of dollars. In May, a crucifix placed in a vacant Pigtown lot to honor Ambrose's memory was toppled by a neighbor, touching off a heated conflict.

"I feel a lot of sympathy for the family," said Detective Homer Pennington, the lead investigator in the homicide case, who added he was unaware of the summons. The summons was first mailed to Ambrose in August. A sheriff's deputy hand-delivered another copy later in the summer; Vanevera says he confronted the deputy, who apologized. Nevertheless, a third copy came by mail last week, addressed to Ambrose and stating: "You are hereby summoned to appear as victim" in Kirby's trial on Oct. 20.

"Failure to appear on time may cause you to be charged with contempt of court or a warrant to be issued for your arrest," the summons says.

The summons was signed by Patricia Bertorelli, chief deputy clerk for the Baltimore Circuit Court. Contacted Friday, Bertorelli said Ambrose's name was mistakenly entered into a computer that produces subpoenas by a young clerk who no longer works for the court.

After The Sun's call, court officials deleted references to Ambrose from the computer system and held a staff meeting to ensure such a mistake will not reoccur.

"This is the first time that it's gotten to the point that someone complained about it," Bertorelli said, adding: "We are straightening that out now. If you are in touch with the family, we apologize."

Court officials blamed the errors in part on confusion surrounding the Crime Victim Notification Request Form, which the state's attorney's office gives to every crime victim. The form is meant to help prosecutors locate relatives. If the victim is dead, there is space for an alternative victim's name.

In that space, Ambrose's relatives wrote her name and her mother's name, and filled in both addresses. The clerk did not catch the mistake, and that information triggered the subpoenas.

Geraldine Rosemond, the records manager for the clerk's office, said the form can be confusing for a grieving family. "I think the responsibility lies a little with the state's attorney's office," she said. "Somebody should have sat down with them and gone over the form."

But Althea Handy, the assistant state's attorney for the case, deflected the blame. "The state's attorney had nothing to do with putting that information on the system," she said. "I wonder why the family didn't call me or ask me about it. If they were so upset, they should have called."

Sitting in his living room in Lansdowne, Vanevera says he didn't call because he wanted to ignore the summons and "forget all about the murder."

The phone rings. Ambrose's father, Ray "Rainbow" Watkins, is on the line, saying that "I should hire a lawyer and sue whoever sent these subpoenas," Vanevera said.

But Vanevera is less adamant. "I just want everyone to let Terry rest in peace."

Pub Date: 10/06/98

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