Murder mystery's Act 2 starts in Easton

Trial: Town again in spotlight as Laurel woman faces murder charge in alleged plot to drug and burn her husband after they attended Valentine's Day play.

January 12, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- Act 2 of a real-life murder mystery that reads like a bad Hollywood script opened here yesterday, offering a sequel to the drama that made national headlines last winter and continues to pique the macabre curiosity of the media and locals.

The mundane details of jury selection and evidentiary ground rules failed to dampen interest in the proceedings that are expected to continue all week at the stately Talbot County Courthouse.

Kimberly Michelle Hricko, 32, is charged with murder, arson and attempted arson. She faces a possible life sentence in the stranger-than-fiction death of her 35-year-old husband, Stephen Michael Hricko, who died in a burning hotel room after a 1998 Valentine's weekend murder-mystery dinner and play at a posh Eastern Shore resort.

Eleven months after the Laurel couple attended the interactive whodunit, in which 100 couples paid $239 to attempt to solve the mystery, Kimberly Hricko continues to hold center stage.

As television trucks began lining the narrow streets around the two-story, circa-1794 court building, residents, shopkeepers and others in the downtown business district conceded they've had little success ignoring the sensational story that has dominated the front page of the county paper for almost a year.

"This really is a small town and when something like this happens, it is like `Peyton Place,' " said Libby Hubbard, who runs a craft shop across the street from the courthouse. "It was all everybody talked about when it happened and I suppose it'll be that way now that the trial's starting."

Next door, at Rowen's stationery store, owner Herman Seiter says he can't remember a local story that has received so much attention. "It was like a real murder mystery."

Indeed, police say Hricko followed a script for killing her husband and making it look like an accident.

According to charging documents, Hricko, who has worked as a surgical technician at several Washington-area hospitals, had described to a friend how she could inject her husband with a drug that would paralyze him and stop his breathing. Then, police say, Hricko told her friend she would set a fire using a cigar or a candle.

According to court documents, the couple had been seeing a marriage counselor, and police say they have interviewed a man who admitted having an affair with Mrs. Hricko.

The documents show that she took out a $200,000 life insurance policy on her husband in which she described him as a smoker. Police also have interviewed a hospital co-worker who says Hricko approached him about helping her hire someone to kill her husband. He notified police when he heard that Hricko's husband had died, police said.

After leaving the murder mystery last Valentine's night, Hricko told police she and her husband took drinks back to their room at the Harbortowne Golf Resort and Conference Center near St. Michaels. Hricko said her husband began drinking heavily and they argued. She said she then left in her car but got lost driving to Easton.

Hricko told investigators she saw smoke when she returned to the couple's waterfront room around 1 a.m. Feb. 15. As she ran for help, a hotel employee and a guest pulled Stephen Hricko's body out of the room. He was severely burned on his head and upper torso and was declared dead.

Fire investigators said the fire apparently started on or near the bed. Hricko told police that her husband often smoked cigars when he had been drinking, but co-workers, friends and family of the dead man told police he had never smoked.

An autopsy showed that Stephen Hricko had no alcohol in his system and that no carbon dioxide was detected in his blood. The man's respiratory system showed no soot or burns, which indicated he may have been dead or not breathing when the fire began.

A state medical examiner's report found that Stephen Hricko probably died of poisoning, but did not say what substance killed him or how it entered his body.

Yesterday, defense lawyers Henry Trainor Jr. and William Brennan Jr. argued successfully before Judge William S. Horne that a hypodermic needle found at the Hricko home and a syringe found at the St. Michaels resort should not be admitted as evidence.

"There is no evidence Mr. Hricko was ever injected with anything," Trainor said. "It suggests something that is not in evidence."

Robert Dean, a former Montgomery County state's attorney who was hired as a special prosecutor, said he will call medical examiner Dr. David Fowler to explain Stephen Hricko's "probable poisoning."

Dean was brought into the case because Talbot County Assistant State's Attorney Henry Dove was a participant in the murder mystery play and happened to be seated at the same table as the Hrickos. He is likely to be called as a witness.

In a nine-hour session yesterday in which almost 140 prospective jurors were interviewed, a panel of three men and nine women was selected for the trial. Horne said he plans 11-hour sessions each day in an effort to complete the trial by the end of the week.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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