Suspect arrested in brutal attacks at seniors' homes Man, 45, charged in 2 break-ins and linked to 4 others

Anonymous tip to police

November 11, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Caitlin Francke, Eric Siegel, Richard Irwin and Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.

A man released from prison in March after serving 14 years for robbing an elderly man was arrested yesterday as a suspect in a recent string of home invasions and brutal beatings of senior citizens in Baltimore.

Michael P. Stewart, 45, was arrested at his girlfriend's house in East Baltimore about 9: 30 a.m. Police charged him with crimes last night in two home invasions, and a police spokesman said he is a suspect in four other break-ins, one of which resulted in a slaying.

The attacks -- which began Oct. 13 when an 82-year-old woman was beaten in the head, tied up with a telephone cord and stuffed into a closet -- prompted a warning Monday night from the mayor and an aggressive police response that included help from the FBI.

Police say an anonymous caller told them Monday night that he "could lay out the whole thing." By yesterday morning, detectives said, they had linked pawned jewelry to the suspect and had obtained an arrest warrant.

"We finally caught a break, and it paid off," Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said.

Frazier said the crimes "took advantage of good-willed, trusting people. There was a predatory nature to all this. The attacks were outrageous and vicious."

The suspect was released from the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup on March 18, after he served 14 years of a 20-year sentence for a 1984 robbery and burglary, according to Maryland prison records.

Stewart was also charged in 1984 in the June 15 death of Ralph Hagenbuch, 77, who police said was beaten during a break-in at his rowhouse in the 700 block of N. Linwood Ave., near Patterson Park.

A jury acquitted him of the slaying.

Stewart's criminal history remained sketchy last night. The complete 1984 files have been moved to storage at the state archives in Annapolis and could not be obtained last night. What could be learned was pieced together from docket sheets and officials.

Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes recalled last night being concerned with the jury's acquittal on the murder charge. "I was disturbed by their decision, but, of course, judges cannot second-guess them," he said.

Linwood Hedgepeth, who according to court records represented Stewart in 1984, could not be eached for comment.

No one was home last night at Stewart's house in the 1100 block of Forrest St. But at the house where he was arrested, in the 1200 block of Treeleaf Court, neighbor William Smith said the suspect "behaved himself and never caused any trouble."

Smith said Stewart often stayed overnight visiting his girlfriend. "If he did what the police think he did, he never acted like he was running from police," Smith said.

Stewart was questioned for several hours at police headquarters downtown and was to be taken to the Central Booking and Intake Center last night for a bail hearing. He is charged with two counts each of assault, robbery and burglary.

Police say they have linked six home-invasion robberies in the neighborhoods of Guilford, Kernewood and Mid-Town Belvedere. In each case, elderly homeowners were attacked and beaten in the head when they opened their door and were robbed of money and other items.

The latest victim, James Chilis, was attacked Friday and left for dead in his Underwood Road house. The 79-year-old was found unconscious 21 hours later in his hallway. Joseph Vowels, 75, was beaten Oct. 21 in his East Biddle Street upholstery shop. He died Nov. 2 after being in a coma for 12 days at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Stewart is charged in the Oct. 28 beating of a woman on East Cold Spring Lane, around the corner from Chilis' house, and in the Nov. 1 beating of an elderly couple in Charles Village. The wife was still in critical condition yesterday at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

The beatings prompted Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to warn senior citizens to "use the appropriate due care and caution necessary when answering their doors at home."

As police searched for a suspect, homeowners living in brick ranchers in Guilford and Kernewood and century-old rowhouses east of Mount Vernon e-mailed safety tips to each other, held community meetings and posted fliers asking for information.

Yesterday's arrest "will relieve some of the stress in those neighborhoods," said Police Maj. Robert F. Biemiller, who commands the Northern District where most of the attacks occurred.

Jack Knapp, a friend of Vowels, said he was relieved by the arrest even though charges have not been filed in his friend's killing. "I'm just glad that they caught someone so someone else doesn't get hurt," he said.

Detectives made no secret that they were struggling with the case. They had only a scant description of the suspect because many of the victims were too severely injured to recall details of their attacker or remember being attacked.

Police formed a task force of robbery and homicide detectives to hunt down the assailant. Members of the pawnshop unit scoured secondhand shops looking for pawned jewelry belonging to the victims. The FBI was working on a profile of the suspect.

But the break in the case came Monday night, when someone called Metro Crime Stoppers, an anonymous tip line, and left the message that he "could lay out the whole the thing for us," Biemiller said.

Callers whose information leads to an arrest and a conviction receive a reward of up to $2,000.

Police said the caller provided enough information for them to secure an arrest warrant. Frazier said several city pawnshops had filled out the required paperwork for pawned items, enabling police to trace property stolen from the victims to the suspect.

"We had lots of pieces of evidence, and once we were able to focus on a particular suspect, the case came together very quickly," Frazier said.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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