`Serial' carjacker given life term in federal prison

July 23, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Yesterday, for the second time in five years, Robert Lane pleaded guilty to carjacking. This time, federal officials made sure he will spend the rest of his life in prison instead of the 2 1/2 years he spent incarcerated on the state's watch.

In U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Lane admitted to four carjackings, including the one in which 86-year-old Ernest Hildebrandt of Bolton Hill was bludgeoned to death for his 17-year-old Chevrolet Citation. The killing stunned the community last year for its brutality.

"The evidence showed Hildebrandt was beaten at least 14 times in the face with a hammer," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio.

Hildebrandt died eight days later of head injuries. Court records say Hildebrandt was beaten so badly as Lane pinned him inside the car behind his home on Park Avenue that Lane and his accomplice, Janet King, had to twice wipe splattered blood from the windshield as they drove away. King, Lane's then-girlfriend, pleaded guilty in the case and is awaiting sentencing.

The Hildebrandt case was one of seven carjacking or car-theft incidents Lane and King were accused of carrying out between December 1997 and January 1998, court records show. The two would usually beat or cut their victims before stealing their cars, federal prosecutors said.

In three of those cases, Lane and King forced their victim to get into the car with them while they drove around the city using the victims' automated teller machine cards to withdraw cash.

"This was a serial carjacker," DiBiagio said of Lane. "The two of them were specifically walking through the city looking for an isolated, vulnerable victim."

As part of a deal, Lane agreed to plead guilty and accept a sentence of life in prison plus 55 years. In exchange, the U.S. attorney's office said it would not seek the death penalty.

Lane and King were arrested Jan. 28, 1998, while driving their last victim's car.

This was not Lane's first experience with carjacking charges though.

According to Baltimore court records, Lane assaulted, kidnapped and robbed Alison Barnes in 1994 after forcing her into her car with him at the corner of Madison and Howard streets. He drove her around as he used her ATM card and shot up heroin in the driver's seat. He later left her under a bridge, after telling her he had decided not to kill her because she "had been nice."

After he was arrested driving Barnes' car, he was charged with seven felonies. ATM photos had captured him in the act. In the end, the state's attorney's office dropped six charges and let him plead to one count of carjacking.

He was sentenced to five years in prison but served less than three years. Six months after leaving prison, Lane met up with King and began carjacking again.

"The worst part of all of it for me was seeing his picture on TV when they were looking for him after he had gotten out," Barnes said in a interview yesterday. "It leaves you with a sickening feeling in your gut. The court system let me down. And then when I found out what he had done this time, it's tragic."

Robert Dickerson, Barnes' stepfather, said: "The [state court system] let it happen again. He got 2 1/2 years even though they said they wouldn't let him plea."

Haven Kodeck, deputy state's attorney, said the most time behind bars Lane would have faced had he gone to court was 10 years, given that he had no prior record and Barnes was unharmed. The additional felony charges would not have added additional prison time, he said.

"His plea was within the sentencing guidelines we had available to us," Kodeck said. "He pleaded guilty because the evidence we had was overwhelming."

Still, Barnes said even 10 years would have been better than five.

Yesterday, Lane said little other than that he understood the arrangement. He nodded as U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blaketold him he would never be eligible for parole, which is not available in the federal system.

"We have a very serious and brutal murder committed in a series of offenses," DiBiagio said. "The government had built a solid and substantial case."

Lane had been photographed using his victims' ATM cards. In addition to his victims' identifying him, Lane's fingerprints were found in Hildebrandt's car.

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