Officers search for hospital escapee

Woman considered flight risk was held at minimum-security site

September 03, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Authorities continued searching yesterday for a state psychiatric hospital escapee who was awaiting trial on child abduction charges and began questioning why the woman -- who was considered a flight risk -- was being held in the minimum-security institution.

Maria L. Baughman, 49, fled Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville with another patient, Lisa L. Gabbert, 25, of Middle River at 1:45 a.m. Saturday by climbing out a window, authorities said.

One security officer was on duty at the 200-acre center at the time -- which state officials said yesterday is normal on weekend nights.

"It's a very decent security system there," said J.B. Hanson, acting spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office was questioning why Baughman -- who they say abducted a young girl and was on the run for a year -- wasn't sent to a state psychiatric facility with tighter security, such as Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, which specializes in criminal insanity.

"We're looking into that to find out why she was sent to Spring Grove instead of Perkins," said Harford County Detective Cpl. Michael Crabbs, who was leading the search.

Baughman was charged with child abduction and 29 counts of forgery after she was found in Hampton, Va., in May with the girl, 9, whom she used to baby-sit. The girl was reunited with her mother, Donna L. Snyder of Cecil County, in May.

When Baughman appeared in Harford County District Court in June, Judge Mimi R. Cooper denied bail because she determined Baughman to be a flight risk, Crabbs said.

At Baughman's next court appearance in July, the judge appointed an attorney to represent her and ordered a psychiatric evaluation. It was conducted at the Harford County Detention Center in Bel Air, where Baughman was being held.

Howard M. Pinn, a psychologist who conducted the evaluation, determined that another was needed and turned the case over to the state, Crabbs said.

On Aug. 9, Baughman was transferred from the Harford jail to Spring Grove. The hospital had 60 days to evaluate Baughman and send her back to Harford County.

It was unclear who decided Baughman would go to Spring Grove. Officials at the health department say that decision is almost always made by a judge. But Crabbs said he saw the judge's order and it did not specify a facility.

Baughman escaped by using a brass face plate she removed from a hospital telephone to cut through the heavy screen in her first-floor room, ripping open the screen and jumping out with Gabbert, said Richard Bandelin, deputy director for facilities in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

No one saw the women leave the hospital grounds, Bandelin said, adding that their disappearance was noted during the 2 a.m. rounds.

When the Harford sheriff's office learned of Baughman's escape, they notified Snyder and her daughter, 9-year-old Caitlyn Crowther. Snyder could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"She didn't feel as though she needed any protection," Crabbs said, adding that he would go to the girl's school tomorrow morning. The sheriff's office and state police in Cecil County also have been notified to watch the girl.

Yesterday, Crabbs and other Harford sheriff's officers visited Baughman's friends and relatives, as well as places she is known to have frequented, and an all-points bulletin about Baughman's escape was sent to law enforcement agencies along the Eastern Seaboard.

If she's not found by tomorrow, Crabbs said, he will seek a federal warrant on a charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Baughman is accused of going to Baltimore Circuit Court in 1996 with forged documents and signatures and convincing a judge that Snyder wanted to give her custody of her daughter, police said.

Baughman won custody in 1997, police said. Snyder has said she didn't have the money to challenge what she thought was a legitimate court order.

In June last year, Baughman and the girl disappeared. Police caught up with them in May, when a tip led them to Hampton, Va. Baughman was arrested and extradited to Harford County.

Less is known about Gabbert, of the 3700 block of Hurlock Road, the woman who police say escaped with Baughman. According to court records, she was charged June 29 with making a false statement to an officer.

Anyone with information is asked to call 410-836-5482.

Sun staff researcher Dee Lyon contributed to this article.

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