As Misty Travis steered her gold Nissan toward her parents' North Laurel home during the early morning hours of May 31, 2000, her headlights illuminated Alan Bruce Chmurny, who was crouched next to the station wagon parked in front of her neighbor Marta Bradley's home, Travis testified yesterday.
Travis' testimony, offered just before the state rested its assault case against Chmurny yesterday, provided the first and only eyewitness account to place the Frederick chemist near the Bradleys' car after mercury had been found in its air vents.
Chmurny, 57, is charged with assault, reckless endangerment and malicious destruction in the alleged mercury poisoning attempt.
Travis was the last of 13 witnesses called by the state as prosecutor Jim Dietrich attempted to paint Chmurny as a man so obsessed with Bradley, a woman he once worked with at a Hanover biotechnology firm, that he poured the toxic metallic element into the air vents of her car in an attempt to hurt her.
Defense attorneys are scheduled to begin presenting their case this morning.
In court yesterday, Travis said she picked up her cellular phone to call police and put her car in reverse to follow the man as he walked away from Bradley's car, but lost him.
She pointed to Chmurny when asked to identify the man she had seen. But defense attorney Dino Flores noted that when presented with a photo lineup, Travis wrote that "this guy looks most like the guy I saw last night" on the back of Chmurny's picture.
Travis' observation, six weeks after the discovery of the mercury, would spark a chain of events leading to Chmurny's arrest June 1, 2000, according to earlier testimony. The young woman's call led detectives to review videotapes from two cameras that had been aimed at the station wagon since Bradley noticed a silvery substance on the seats, floor and vents when she went to her car April 16, 2000, to retrieve tax documents.
Four days of videotapes
Tapes from four days - May 26, 29, 30 and 31 - showed the image of a person getting into Bradley's car and stealing her trash. Bradley and her husband, Scot, identified the person they saw on the tapes as Chmurny.
Detectives later found a bottle of mercury, a set of keys to the station wagon, a map showing the Bradley home and other items during a search of Chmurny's house and car, according to earlier testimony.
Through four days of testimony, Dietrich brought in experts who detailed the potentially deadly effects of elemental mercury - and the danger to Bradley, her husband and young daughter if they had been exposed to the level of mercury vapor found in the car almost two months after the April 16, 2000, discovery.
The concentration of mercury in the car was double the level at which an emergency evacuation is called for, Ellen Silbergeld, an expert in metal toxicology, testified Friday. "It's a no-go. You're not supposed to go in there at all," she said. At such levels, a person might experience breathing trouble after a few minutes, she said.
But the real danger of mercury lies in its lasting effect, she said. Because it is an element, it cannot break down further, she said. High levels of mercury have been found in the brains of workers long after they were exposed to the element's vapors in the workplace, she said.
"The hazard of mercury goes with the elemental nature of mercury," Silbergeld said. "It never goes away."
Exposure can cause respiratory distress, memory loss and personality changes, she said. Sufficiently great exposure can be lethal, she said.
As a result, various government bodies have set limits for use of mercury in the workplace, she said.