After The Aftermath

Steve Basu and Heather Williams did not know the Glen Burnie pharmacist killed in a carjacking this summer. But they felt a bond with her. Carjackings altered their lives, years ago and ever since.

October 29, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Steve Basu wanted to attend the August funeral of Dr. Yvette Beakes, whose story was painfully familiar. But the single father couldn't find anyone to stay with his 11-year-old daughter. Basu didn't know Beakes, but he felt as though he did. Tragedy, whether singular or widespread, has a way of connecting people.

It's hard to remember what constituted news before Sept. 11. But in August, Beakes' death made headlines for nearly a month. The 26-year-old pharmacist was followed to her Glen Burnie home where her Acura was carjacked. She was then taken to the woods in southwest Baltimore and shot. Four suspects, including two minors, were indicted on murder charges and are scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow.

Nine years ago last month, Basu's wife was the victim of a carjacking in Howard County. The case attracted national attention and prompted legislation making carjackings that result in death a federal crime carrying a maximumn penalty of life in prison.

Carjacking became a signature big-city crime in the 1980s and 1990s when anti-theft devices made hot-wiring cars difficult and therefore easier to take by force. It is a relatively rare crime that even more rarely ends in death. Of the estimated 49,000 carjackings each year in the United States, 27 people are killed for their cars.

Pam Basu, 34, was killed for her BMW. Daniel Huston, a 31-year-old victim of a carjacking in Montgomery County seven years ago last month, was killed for his Ford Explorer.

In both cases, the killers had wanted a ride back to Washington.

The stories of Steve Basu and Heather Williams, who was shot with Huston but survived, echo the experiences of other carjacking victims and their survivors. Their stories also still reverberate in the lives of the police officers who worked their cases. They, too, can't forget images from those two tragic days in September.

For Basu and Williams, moving on has meant moving to other towns. It's meant letting go of whatever normality their lives once had. What both have discovered is a new normal, a new life they can and must live with.

Part I: Pam's Presence

The story is famous.

On Sept. 8, 1992, carjackers forced their way into Pam Basu's BMW near the family's townhouse in a community called Savage. She was taking 23-month-old Sarina to her first day of pre-school. The abductors drove off with Sarina in her car seat.

Pam's left arm got caught in a seat belt as she tried to get Sarina from the car's back seat. She was dragged nearly three miles to her death. The carjackers eventually tossed the little girl onto Gorman Road. Sarina -- a Persian name for "Serenity" -- landed safely in her car seat.

Moments before the carjacking, Steve Basu had been videotaping his daughter's departure to pre-school. He finished videotaping and told his wife, "I'll see you in a half hour." He never saw her alive again. In the background on the video, Basu learned later, were two strangers walking through the neighborhood -- the men who killed his wife.

The video became evidence in the trials of Pam's abductors. Basu still has the video tape boxed up in his basement, along with his wife's clothes and jewelry and letters. He does not open the boxes.

A year after the crime, father and daughter moved to Columbia. Basu is now 47 and his daughter just turned 11. Her dad bought her a wooden easel. Besides painting, Sarina rides her bike, plays the keyboard, angles for a pet beyond the family goldfish, and thinks her dad needs a hoop earring. She's addicted to The X-Files, enjoys Girl Scouts and wants all the cool, popular clothes her dad thinks she needs to be older to wear.

"She thinks I'm strange," Basu says.

She's in middle school, and he's considered strange -- which is to say, they are doing all right. Basu has ground out a life that appears to function like other single-parent households. The remaining parent has to step up: learn to cook, pay more attention to household details, develop more patience -- especially with an 11-year-old girl and the requisite clothing demands.

Unlike a separated or divorced couple, however, Steve and Pam were a couple split by a deadly force. Basu's wife was wrenched from him, and the conditions of that remain. The furniture in Basu's townhouse looks modern yet old: sinking sections of a bright sofa that Pam had chosen.

"Everything is the way it was before. It makes her presence felt a little more," Basu says. "I keep her wallet, passport, even her library card." Her hand-writing is on those mundane pieces of paper. "Sometimes I look at it and say, `We had a life.' "

A visitor asks if he dates, which is really to ask something else. A man shouldn't have to raise a child by himself, should he? A man shouldn't live his life alone, should he? But when a man is sitting on his deceased wife's furniture, her clothes and jewelry boxed in the basement, the easier question is, Do you date?

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