Staying hot on trail of cold case

Police investigating unsolved crimes say they feel pain, too

Anne Arundel

March 25, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Mary Elaine Shereika got up before sunrise May 23, 1988, laced on her running shoes and headed out - passing the nearby Colonial houses, Four Seasons Elementary School and the neighborhood swim club. Those who knew her say in all likelihood she was humming her favorite song: "Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride. Ain't nothing gonna slow me down. Oh no. I've got to keep on moving. ... "

The chorus of the Matthew Wilder song embodied Shereika's theme for living, her friends and relatives say. After a divorce and a change of roles from housewife to working mother, Shereika was on track to being happy again.

But that day, her stride was broken. The body of the 37-year-old paralegal and mother of two was found in a rye field in Gambrills, about a mile from her home. She had been raped, beaten, stabbed and strangled.

Nearly 13 years later, police have not given up on solving Shereika's killing. This month, they released previously withheld details about the case, hoping to renew interest in the killing long unsolved.

The case highlights the range of problems that cold-case investigators throughout the region face as they battle fading memories and waning public interest in thousands of unsolved homicides.

Relatives are weary. Witnesses have moved. Crime scenes have been paved. DNA evidence sits in freezers while detectives wait for a match.

But the victims are not forgotten by police.

In district police stations throughout Anne Arundel County, for example, the picture of Mary "Kathy" Grant still hangs as a reminder of her unsolved killing. The 15-year-old's body was found in an overgrown athletic field near Jumpers Hole and West Pasadena roads in January 1989.

And detectives continue to discuss with a sense of urgency the killing of Pamela Lynn Conyers, although the 16-year-old Glen Burnie High band member was killed in October 1970 - long before most of the detectives were on the police force.

"You just wonder how someone could walk this earth knowing they killed someone's daughter or mother," said Anne Arundel County Detective Shelly L. Madison. "You try to clear your mind - hoping each time you look at the case something will jump out at you."

The detectives tell themselves nothing will be overlooked. They will pursue every possible angle. The clock doesn't tick the same way as it does in the initial crush of the investigation.

"You don't want to miss anything," said Madison. "We have the luxury of time. We intentionally go slow."

Cold cases abound in city

Anne Arundel County has about 20 unsolved homicides and two full-time cold-case investigators. But in Baltimore, where the homicide tally last year dipped below 300 for the first time in a decade, detectives have literally lost count.

"We don't know how many there are. Every unsolved case where the primary detective is no longer available is considered active," said Sgt. Roger Nolan, head of the city cold-case squad, where seven investigators work several dozen cases at a time.

Still, he said, "people call in on a daily basis with information. We have to dig [the case file] up and see what we can do with it."

Cold-case squad detectives pick apart the most promising cases. They review the notes, reports and crime scene photographs again and again. They re-interview suspects and witnesses.

Spending so much time with the details, detectives become intimately familiar with the victims. "You get to know them so well, you wish you had known them before," Madison said.

Take the case of Lisa Kathleen Haenel, 14, found dead in January 1993 after she was attacked on her way to Old Mill High School. Police have a DNA sample from a cigarette butt found next to her body and a composite sketch of a man who might have witnessed the bludgeoning of the straight-A student, who was a member of the school band and tutored classmates - and who loved ladybugs.

To this day, Madison cannot look at a ladybug without thinking of Haenel. "I see [a ladybug] walk across the desk, and say, `Hi, Lisa.'"

Shereika's case is having a similar effect on Madison and on Detective Michael Regan, who is also working on the homicide. But the renewed investigation is especially haunting to those who knew Shereika.

She was a cross between Martha Stewart and Erma Bombeck, said best friend Cathy Nell.

"Elaine could cook a lasagna dinner and never dirty a pot," Nell said. "She was the original soccer mom. Her kids were perfect. Her husband was perfect. She had white carpet with two small children, for God's sake."

The two young mothers, who were married to District of Columbia police officers when they first met, became instant friends. They laughed at the daily mishaps of raising children. They shared dieting secrets and fears about the future. They consoled each other through divorces and burned cookies.

For Nell, nothing about Shereika's killing makes sense.

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