Trial to start in mercury assault case

Frederick chemist accused of putting the element in a car

Suspect on home detention

Testimony expected to involve complex explanations

September 04, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A Frederick chemist accused of pouring mercury into the air ducts of a former co-worker's car last year is scheduled to go on trial today in Howard County Circuit Court in what prosecutors have said is "not an ordinary case."

Alan Bruce Chmurny, 57, of the 6200 block of White Oak Drive has been on home detention since June last year, when he was accused in court papers of an assault that prosecutors have characterized as the culmination of a several-year harassment campaign against Marta Bradley of North Laurel, a woman he once worked with at a biotechnology firm.

The case is expected to rely on scientific explanations of the danger of the toxic metallic element, while prosecutors paint Chmurny as a man so obsessed with Bradley that a search of his home turned up keys to Bradley family members' cars, maps of their house and garbage taken from their home.

Despite Chmurny's home detention, which allows him to leave his Frederick residence only for certain scheduled appointments, Bradley "lives her life under a very dark shadow," according to a letter from her lawyer, Steven B. Vinick. The letter is contained in a two-volume court file on the case.

"She keeps her shades drawn during the day, is often afraid to go anywhere alone, and has even stopped going on walks with her baby daughter because of her fear of Mr. Chmurny," Vinick wrote to Assistant State's Attorney Jim Dietrich in March.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin today and the trial scheduled to last at least a week.

Dietrich said he would not comment on the case beyond what has already been presented through court filings and in motions hearings. Chmurny's lawyer, Dino Flores, would not discuss the defense strategy, but said he intends to present a "vigorous defense" - including expert testimony - to rebut the state's case.

Flores did say, however, that after a "thorough" search, "we haven't found any case like this in the country," and he noted that the highly technical nature of the evidence has required extensive research by the lawyers.

According to prosecution expert reports in the case file, exposure to mercury vapor at the level found in the Bradley car would initially cause respiratory problems and, after several hours' exposure, would affect a person's mental and physical state - with the likely result of death.

From the time Marta Bradley told police that she walked from her house to get tax papers out of her Ford Taurus station wagon on April 16 last year and noticed a silver liquid on the seats and dashboard, the case has commanded a high profile and resulted in three separate criminal cases stemming from the incident.

Today's case, with charges of assault, reckless endangerment and malicious destruction, focuses on the placement of the mercury and the intent behind it. A separate trial will involve charges of stalking and harassment that were split from the original case; that trial is scheduled to begin today, but likely will be postponed.

A third set of charges, filed last month, sought to add an attempted murder charge - carrying a potential life-in-prison penalty - to today's case. On Aug. 24, Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney denied prosecutors' attempt to attach the attempted murder charge to the assault charges, agreeing with Chmurny that prosecutors had not given him enough time to prepare a defense on the new charge.

What happens to the other two cases likely will depend on the outcome of the trial commencing today, Dietrich said.

Chmurny, who holds a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles and was working for a Beltsville biotechnology company at the time, was a suspect in the mercury discovery from the start. He was suspected in large part because of previous harassment complaints - and criminal cases for burglary and assault - involving Bradley over a three-year period.

He was on probation for harassment and under a court order to stay away from Bradley when the mercury was found.

With mercury in the heating and air-conditioning ducts, the Bradleys' insurance company totaled the car, but investigators left it in front of the Bradleys' house and trained a camera equipped with night vision on the car, hoping to catch the perpetrator, according to court documents.

Six weeks later, a neighbor of the Bradleys' on Jeanne Court was returning home and saw someone standing next to the Bradley car, according to charging documents. The neighbor later identified Chmurny in a photo lineup, the documents state.

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