On a dark road to justice

Retribution: Chuck Poehlman, who saw his daughter's killer sentenced to death last week, has been fixed on revenge.

February 13, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Chuck Poehlman waited a year and a half for this moment.

From the instant he'd learned of his daughter's killing, when the Baltimore County police knocked on his door and he reeled to the floor, feeling like he'd been shot with a cannonball.

Through the night at the Sykesville funeral home, when he ignored his family's pleas and unzipped the body bag, seeing but not seeing the autopsy scars as he searched for a pulse.

During those days in the courtroom, when he endured repulsive testimony, and devised plans to lunge toward the trial table and gouge the defendant's eyes. And at the family meetings where he, and he alone, refused to accept anything less than a death sentence for his daughter's killer -- even if it meant enduring a painful trial.

Last week, he sat nervously in a courtroom, waiting to hear whether a jury would condemn this murderer, this man who violated and strangled his Shen.

Many thoughts weighed in Chuck Poehlman's mind.

Foremost: "Kill the bastard. Somebody has to if I can't."

But he also considered the possibility that the sentence would be life in prison, and he dreaded his family's likely reaction: "See? You made us go through all this."

The rest of the Poehlman family had been willing to accept a plea agreement. They wanted to avoid a trial laced with grisly details of sexual assault and death by strangulation -- not to mention the unseemly suggestion, sure to come from the defense, that the teen-age girl might have consented to a sex act with her killer.

It was late last summer when prosecutors approached the family to say that John A. Miller IV had offered to plead guilty to the 1998 killing of 17-year-old Shen D. Poehlman. The proposed deal: a guilty plea for a sentence of life without parole.

"I was ecstatic," the slain girl's mother, Janice Poehlman, recalls. "Anything to not go through the trial. Throw away the key. That would be wonderful."

Although prosecutors make the final decision on whether to accept a plea or take a case to trial, in Baltimore County they consider the victim's family's fears of a traumatic trial, says Robin S. Coffin, one of two assistant state's attorneys assigned to the case. "If the family had said, `Please spare us this,' we surely would have."

But prosecutors proceeded with their pursuit of the death penalty after Chuck said he was not willing to sign off on a deal.

"Do we permit these sexual predators to attack our children and give them limited punishment, and not punish them to the full extent of the law?" he asks.

His family was not happy. Janice Poehlman, a massage therapist at an Eldersburg salon, who was divorced from Chuck about three years ago, recalls: "I was angry. Then I was frustrated."

"The family just bent my ear and said, `How can you be so selfish?' " he says. His answer: "I love you all and I want to protect you all, but I can't close my eyes at night and give him what he wants."

Beneath the rage, 48-year-old Chuck Poehlman possesses a creative, even nurturing side. He loves plants. He is, by trade, a landscape designer.

"I call myself more of a horticultural therapist than a landscaper," says Poehlman, a man of unremarkable size, who speaks with traces of a slow drawl. "After I create something beautiful in someone's yard, they can touch their natural, calm self. It's my job on earth to create these environments for people."

Memories of his daughter

His home is adorned with Mexican clay pots, with fern and ficus plants -- including some grown from arrangements at Shen's funeral.

It's a newly built house, a two-story chalet amid the farmland of Finksburg. "It is," he says, "a good place to lick my wounds."

An oil painting made from a photo of Shen was the first item he placed in his new home. It rests atop a stone hearth. The home is filled with reminders of a daughter who, he says, "wasn't a cookie-cutter kid."

There are newspaper clippings of her three years as the girl's tennis champion in Carroll County high schools. There are family snapshots, and a photo of Shen swimming with dolphins. An honor student at Liberty High School, she had won a scholarship to study marine biology at Florida State University.

He keeps a lock of his daughter's hair, snipped that night in the funeral home. It's tied to a leather cord with a pewter medallion in the shape of two dolphins.

Shen lived with her father after her parents divorced. On the last morning he saw her alive, he lingered with her, knowing she was due to leave for college within two weeks. He stroked her back, smelled her hair.

She told him that she was going to baby-sit for a friend of a friend -- which was fudging the facts.

She had agreed to baby-sit for a stranger, someone she'd met the day before. That morning, she went to an apartment in Reisterstown, never to be seen alive again.

`I didn't have a vibe'

Chuck went to work.

"Here she is being murdered, and I'm going about my normal business," he says. "I thought God would have told me. I didn't have a vibe."

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