For parents of slain woman, apathy adds unsult to tragedy

This Just In...

June 21, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

Some friends, it turns out, draw closer and their love intensifies. Others -- actually, many others -- drift away. They don't feel comfortable anymore. Or they grow weary of your story and your complaints about the police. They think you're obsessed. And maybe you are. How do you ever get over the murder of a child?

Especially if her killer is still out there -- unknown, unnamed, unseen.

Bill and Fran Sirbaugh, reflecting on all that has happened since that horrific night in 1995 when their daughter was attacked, say the other men and women in their monthly bereavement group have had the same experience -- friends drifting away. It happens a lot to people who've lost a child to violence. Fran Sirbaugh thinks murder stigmatizes the victim and the victim's family.

There's something else the Sirbaughs share with people in their bereavement group -- half of them live with crimes with no legal resolution, which makes it all worse. "Half of the cases are unsolved," Fran says.

I spoke with her and her husband two weeks ago in Harford County. That's where they've moved since the killing. They used to live in Parkville, Baltimore County.

Their 21-year-old daughter, Keri, was beaten and strangled four years ago today and, with the date approaching again, the Sirbaughs decided to take a trip to Europe. They didn't want to be here on the anniversary of Bill Sirbaugh's discovery of his daughter's body in a wooded area near her apartment on Everall Avenue in Hamilton, Northeast Baltimore. Keri Sirbaugh was believed to have been killed after returning home from a date early on the morning of June 21, 1995.

For 10 months after his daughter's death, Bill Sirbaugh, a rugged man, then 48, could barely speak. He was in shock. A home improvement contractor with strong hands to show for it, he's been able to work full time again only since January. He's had a long slow climb out of a dark emotional hole.

Fran Sirbaugh kept her job in a dentist's office. But she closed her little antiques shop on Harford Road. Too many memories of Keri -- a slip of paper with her handwriting on it, something like that -- would surface there. Until recently, she's been consumed by the police investigation into her daughter's death.

"Don't let anyone tell you that you get over it," says Bill Sirbaugh. "You don't. . . . I never cried until now."

Until the last four years of his life. Until the brutal death of a daughter he adored.

I step into the place where the Sirbaughs live without any real concept of the amount of pain inflicted on them by this crime -- or the number of hours they've spent, sleepless and anguished, wondering about the killing, trying to picture the killer, making phone calls, talking to police, to friends of their daughter, to people who worked with her at Louie's Bookstore Cafe on North Charles Street. They printed and distributed fliers. They raised thousands of dollars in reward money. They set up a hot line for tips. They organized efforts to canvass the neighborhood where their daughter had lived, hoping for a lead.

They talked a famous psychic, Dorothy Allison, into coming to Baltimore to divine clues from their daughter's old haunts.

For decades, Allison has worked with police in various states on homicides and missing-persons cases. In the late 1970s, she came to Baltimore County and, while trying to help detectives with three unsolved cases, described another killing that had not yet happened, making true believers of veteran detectives when it did a few days later.

In November, she arrived here by train, traveled from Louie's to Fells Point, and to Keri Sirbaugh's grave. Allison conjured an image of the man she believed had killed Keri and worked through the night in a Towson motel with an artist, a former police officer from Minnesota, to come up with a sketch of a suspect. The Sirbaughs gave me a copy. The Baltimore police, they say -- and police confirm -- are not interested in a psychic-inspired sketch.

That's a bitter subject -- the police. The Sirbaughs haven't lost hope their daughter's killer will be found, but they don't expect an arrest because of dogged work from detectives of the city homicide unit's Cold Case Squad.

"They have no skills for this [kind of crime] whatsoever," declares Fran Sirbaugh's brother Steve Weaver, who has closely monitored the investigation. "They're used to doing drug murders. . . . If they don't get a call telling them who [the murderer is], they're not going to get anything. They're beyond hope."

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