Nowhere's Safe

The senseless robbery and killing of a nearly blind elderly man change Huyetts Crossroads forever.

In the middle of nowhere, rotten, dimwitted crimes happen. But this one crossed the line with a community

August 13, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN - In the blink of a neighborhood called Huyetts Crossroads, the man's house seems alive. A garden hose seems ready to water. A double-bowled cat dish appears ready to feed. The lawn looks recently mowed in customized lines. The Sunbeam thermometer - with a deer's likeness on the big dial - displays a temperature of 100 degrees. By the back door, a sticker says, "Active Supporter of Maryland Fraternal Order of Police."

John Roy Ward lived on this dead-end street until June 30. On July 1, he was found dead on his kitchen floor with multiple wounds to his back and the back of his head. "A search of the property revealed a 22-ounce Coors Light beer bottle behind one of the four outbuildings," the police report said. The beer bottle helped police quickly make a case against two local men arrested for the slaying and robbery of Ward.

This was not the work of master criminals. Neighbors took to calling the two suspects "Dumb and Dumber" for the highway trail of evidence they allegedly left behind. Dumb, greedy and evil, neighbors say.

Ward was an easy target. He was 87. He was legally blind. He walked with a cane. He was a thin man with thin hair who lived alone. Ward was widowed in 1997 when his wife of 53 years, Catherine, died. Since her death, Catherine was all he talked about - when he talked, neighbors say. She was the outgoing one, a woman who loved her flower garden. He was a keep-to-himself man, a machinist by trade.

For five years, he lived in the only house on South Huyetts Lane, the house where Catherine died in her sleep. He had only a cat for company.

"The cat was so traumatized it wouldn't come out of the attic, and it was over 100 degrees in there," says Cpl. Otis Whitaker, the Maryland State Police officer heading the homicide investigation.

For Ward's survivors, mainly a daughter in Hagerstown and a sister in Florida, his death was a personal loss, and not something to discuss with a reporter. For others in the community, it was a reason to be scared. A neighbor of Ward's, 85-year-old William Byers, now keeps a loaded shotgun by his bed.

Byers, who owns a farm across Route 63 from Ward's property, has been married 56 years.

"I told Ruby this makes our decision easier," Byers says. "When one of us dies, the other is not going to live here by themselves. You'd be very stupid to try to do that."

In the middle of nowhere, rotten, dimwitted crimes happen. But this one crossed the line with a community. A widowed, nearly blind man was bludgeoned to death for his lawn mower, a pair of Timex watches, cash and deer meat. People who wouldn't ordinarily talk to the police came forward to help with information. Others started locking doors and loading guns and eyeballing any strangers walking along the street. Huyetts Crossroads started talking to itself: The old man couldn't see well enough to have identified his killers. Why not just tie him up? Why beat him to death?

The old man on the lawn mower is gone. And his neighbors came to learn once again that nowhere is safe and nothing stays the same.

Sunday, June 30

It's becoming rare for grown children to live near their parents. But what a source of comfort, familiarity and convenience. John Ward's daughter, Sharon Blickenstaff, and her husband, Danny, live up Route 63 from her father's home. She called her father twice a day and would drive him to the grocery store. Other days, her father would drive his mower to the Cross Roads Liquor store on U.S. 40 to pick up a bag of chips or some other things. His poor eyesight prevented him from driving a car, so the red riding mower was his only wheels.

At the liquor store, he'd pass along to the store owner the women's catalogs that still came addressed to his wife. Then he'd drive his mower back home. On any given day, anyone who frequented the store might have seen Ward there, and maybe noticed the direction he took home.

In 1950, John and Catherine Ward had moved to Huyetts Crossroads, four miles west of Hagerstown. Route 63 wasn't where it is today. Ward, a Hancock native, worked as a machinist for an ironworks company and was a weekend cattle rancher; he had six acres, where he kept maybe four head of steer in the summer months. His young daughter would play with William Byers' daughter. The two men became friends - not hunting or fishing pals but more the kind of neighborly friends who exchange favors. In all their years as neighbors, they never shared a meal.

"I'd have to call him a friend," Byers says. "But he was not a guy you go over to see. Not much excitement in his life."

Ward didn't swear or drink. Very conservative fellow, Byers says. His friend didn't hunt, fish or travel. But he was always there if you needed something - even if he kept to himself for the most part. A man has a right to be that way.

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