Suspect in home invasions has record of violence Similarities found between recent cases and 1984 allegations

November 27, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

He was a septuagenarian who lived by himself, small of stature and in poor health. Is this a description of one of the victims of the recent string of home invasions that targeted elderly residents in four midtown and North Baltimore neighborhoods?

Not exactly.

Ralph Hagenbuch, 77, was a victim, but in 1984, not 1998. His East Baltimore rowhouse was burglarized, and he was beaten to death.

But more than mere circumstance links Hagenbuch's case and that of the six recent break-ins and beatings in October and early this month.

Michael Patrick Stewart -- convicted of breaking into Hagenbuch's house 14 years ago and trying to rob him, but acquitted in his death -- is the man charged by Baltimore police in two of this fall's break-ins and is a suspect in the other four, including one in which the victim died after being in a coma for 12 days.

Court and parole records and interviews with those involved highlight the similarity between the Hagenbuch case and the crimes with which Stewart is now charged. These also offer new, if still sketchy, details about Stewart.

Having twice been turned down for parole, Stewart, 45, was freed in March on mandatory release after serving nearly 14 years of his 20-year prison sentence in the Hagenbuch case. He has been held in jail without bail since Nov. 10, when he was arrested and charged in two incidents.

In the first incident, on Oct. 28, Maryann Provenza, 83, answered a knock at the door of her East Cold Spring Lane home. Someone forced his way inside, demanded money and struck her several times in the face, leaving her unconscious.

On Nov. 1, the second incident, someone forced his way into the Charles Village home of Eunice Heath, 70, and her husband, David Johnson, 79. The person struck both several times in the face and head.

Stewart had a long record of assaults, break-ins and thefts when he was charged in 1984 with forcing his way into Hagenbuch's home near Patterson Park, according to records and interviews.

When Stewart was charged in the Hagenbuch case, he was on supervised probation for a store break-in and a separate case involving assault and attempted theft, according to Maryland Parole Commission records.

Heroin addiction

A muscular man at 5 feet 11 inches tall and 175 pounds, Stewart had something besides a criminal record: a 12-year addiction to heroin.

He underwent detoxification in fall 1983, but failed to follow up on a program for methadone maintenance. The reason, according to a report in his parole file, was that Stewart "did not want to exchange one type of addiction for another."

On June 15, 1984, Hagenbuch's bloody and battered body was found in his North Linwood Avenue rowhouse. He died from being beaten in the head and had cuts and bruises on his arms, legs and chest.

Police found no sign of forced entry, the outer door was unlocked, and the house was ransacked.

Mildred R. Cuffey remembers talking to Hagenbuch on the telephone the morning of his death before she left for a weekend trip. Cuffey, a home nurse who took care of Hagenbuch, gave him last-minute instructions.

"I said, 'Be careful, don't open the door' " for anyone, she said. "He said, 'I promise, I won't.' I never saw him again.

"I was so hurt that somebody would do that to him," she added. "He was too old for that. He was a special man. He was just so nice."

Hagenbuch, who used a walker and had recently undergone a hip operation, might not have ignored his nurse's instructions. Trial testimony noted his penchant for taking walks between 10 a.m. and 10: 30 a.m. and put the time of death after 11 a.m., suggesting he might have been followed home.

A retired machinist, Hagenbuch had played the organ in his church for years, said John J. Franke, co-executor of his longtime friend's estate. Hagenbuch's wife had died a few years before him and the couple had no children or other known relatives, Franke said.

"He was a very likable person, very mild-mannered," said Franke.

Acquitted of murder

Stewart was linked to the crime by fingerprints found on a metal cash box and a coin box in Hagenbuch's home. Because an underlying crime was involved, Stewart was charged with first-degree murder.

After a weeklong trial in which Stewart did not testify, a city

Circuit Court jury found Stewart guilty of daytime housebreaking and attempted robbery but acquitted him of the murder charge.

Linwood Hedgepeth, Stewart's attorney in the case, said the jury did not believe his client committed the murder.

"It was a vicious attack," Hedgepeth recalled. "Stewart was not a vicious person."

Lawrence Doan, who prosecuted the case and is director of training for the city state's attorney's office, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the 1984 case because of the pending charges against Stewart.

Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes, who presided over the case, said the jurors "were convinced [Stewart] was there. But they couldn't make that next step to the homicide."

Sentenced to maximum

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