Police seeking teen in fatal Jeep crash

Pushed vehicle killed sleeping woman, 28,

February 14, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki and Andrew A. Green | Joe Nawrozki and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Police are seeking a young man for questioning in the death of a Cockeysville woman who was crushed when a Jeep Wrangler was sent crashing through the wall of her bedroom while she slept Tuesday morning.

Baltimore County homicide detectives described the man as white, 15 to 19 years old, nearly 6 feet tall with a medium build and blond hair cut short on the sides and long on top and worn straight up.

Police believe the man -- seen near at least 10 other Jeep break-ins in Towson, Cockeysville and Parkville during a recent three-day period -- could have been driving or riding in a late 1980s or early 1990s red or maroon Jeep Cherokee.

The victim, Melanie Wentz, 28, a public relations manager for the Baltimore Zoo, died of "compressional asphyxiation," the state medical examiner's office ruled yesterday. The Jeep, parked in a nearby lot, was pushed down an embankment and into the wall of Wentz's first-floor unit in the Century Apartments in the 300 block of Limestone Valley Drive.

Meanwhile, Wentz's neighbor, who called 911 to report the incident, said yesterday that the woman struggled for her life for "30 to 40 minutes" after the crash but that county dispatchers initially sent police to the scene, not an ambulance.

Andre A. Butler, 26, a computer science student at Towson University who lives upstairs from Wentz, said he was asleep when he heard a boom that shook his apartment.

Thinking that a bomb had gone off or that someone's gas stove had exploded, he ran outside and saw the Jeep stuck in the wall below. He said he heard a woman screaming and initially thought it was the driver of the Jeep.

Within seconds, he realized that the Jeep was empty and that it must have crashed into his neighbor's bedroom.

"I heard her yelling for help frantically," he said.

He ran back to his apartment and called 911. He said he explained the situation to the emergency operator and went back outside.

Butler notified 911 at 2:04 a.m. and reported that someone had been injured, said Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a police spokeswoman.

Butler said that he was surprised when police, not emergency medical workers, arrived at the scene. The police had to call for an ambulance, he said.

"She was screaming, I could see her legs kicking," Butler said. "I actually saw her die right in front of my face."

Capt. Glenn A. Blackwell of the Fire Department said yesterday that the Texas Station in Cockeysville received a call about the incident at 2:09 a.m. An ambulance and a ladder truck -- equipped with the necessary rescue equipment -- arrived at the apartment at 2:14 a.m.

Officials are reviewing tapes and records to document the sequence of events in the woman's death, Warehime said.

A trauma surgeon said yesterday that the human body can temporarily withstand massive trauma to the airway and lungs in a crushing injury, but that the injured person must be treated in medicine's "golden hour" of life, that critical time before shock sets in and can cause death.

"Depending on the severity of the crushing injury, a person can hang on, but the window of opportunity is slipping away," said Dr. Cornell Cooper, a surgeon at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Warehime would not say whether Wentz was trapped under the Jeep or the debris from the wall, noting that records in the case are sealed as part of the investigation.

Wentz lived on the first floor of the building, which is at the bottom of a ravine, about 7 feet below the level of the parking lot. The wall hit by the Jeep is 6 feet from the foot of a 20-degree embankment that rises to the lot where the Jeep was parked.

Once the Jeep's front wheels were pushed over the 2 1/2 -inch curb, the steep slope would have caused it to accelerate rapidly before crashing into Wentz's wall.

Police said that in the Cockeysville case, and in several other incidents in recent days, someone has broken into Jeeps, put them in neutral and pushed them.

Wentz was from Bridgeton in southern New Jersey. Her family declined to comment yesterday.

Friends and co-workers at the Baltimore Zoo continued to wrestle with their anger and grief over the loss of a woman described by Mindy Shackelford, a marketing assistant, as "beautiful, inside and out."

Paula Kirby, special events coordinator, said, "I loved her, we all loved her. She was interested in your life as well as what we did in the office. Once, I had a series of telephone calls from [an ex-] boyfriend. The next time the telephone rang on my desk, Melanie picked it up, identified herself and confronted him.

"She hated to see anyone hurt," Kirby said. "She called me that weekend to see how I was doing."

Police ask anyone with information to call 410-887-2198.

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