Promise keeps man seeking truth behind sister's death

This Just In...

January 06, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

I HAVE BEEN thinking about Karl Fischer, off and on, for more than a month now, and he came to mind again the other day when I tossed a stick into a creek on a Baltimore County farm and watched it disappear through a frothy riffle downstream.

Some things are easy to cast away. Some things, like the promise Karl Fischer made 24 years ago, remain at hand forever.

Fischer holds fast to something from his past -- the death of his sister -- and he can't let go, can't accept the final speculations of the coroner and the Baltimore County police, who moved on to other matters after an investigation in the winter of 1979. But Fischer clings to the belief that his sister's death was no accident.

He can't let go, can't drop the stick in the creek.

I think I'd feel the same way.

Fischer, a retired veterinarian in California, has twice placed ads in Baltimore newspapers, including The Sun, offering a $50,000 reward to anyone offering information leading to a conviction in the "suspicious death of Hanne Fischer Plum" on Dec. 11 or 12, 1978, on Benson Mill Road in an area known locally as Berean (more generally as Sparks), Baltimore County. The first ads, in The Sun and News American, ran in February 1979. Another ran in the Sun classifieds in November 2002.

"I know other people know what happened," Fischer said the other day. "After more than 20 years, alliances break down, and people will talk who didn't talk before."

Twenty-four years after his sister's death, Fischer still believes Plum was beaten to death -- and not the victim of a car accident. He thinks that the medical examiner botched the case and that the police investigation was cursory.

Hanne Plum's body was found behind the steering wheel of her beige 1966 Pontiac. The car had come to rest in a shallow ditch near a stream along Benson Mill, at Dubbs Road, not far from Plum's former home, during the night of Dec. 11 or the morning of Dec. 12.

A passing motorist spotted her car about 7 a.m. and the responding ambulance crew discovered bruises on her head and scratches on her face.

At first, police believed Plum, who was 54 and estranged from her husband, could not have died from trauma related to the accident.

"We are not convinced the bruises came in the accident," a Baltimore County police spokesman said shortly after Plum's death, heightening the aura of mystery around the case.

But by January 1979, police were dismissing suggestions that Plum had been killed by someone and placed in the car. The case was said to be open but not under "active" investigation.

By May, a story in The Evening Sun, appearing under the headline, "Her death no longer suspicious," reported that police appeared to be convinced that the bruises on Plum's head were consistent with those caused by a car accident.

Though the cause of death remains to this day officially "undetermined," police went to some effort in the spring of 1979 to put the case to rest.

They said Plum's head might have struck a chrome strip between the front window and roof of the Pontiac. The bruise on Plum's arm could have been caused by a window knob in the car's interior. Police even speculated that exposure -- the overnight temperatures had been in the teens -- might have contributed to Plum's death. Scratches on her face might have been from contact with bushes around the ditch where her car came to rest.

"Ludicrous," Karl Fischer says from his home in San Anselmo, Calif. "Her [driver's side] window was open only slightly and there were no bushes on the embankment. It was an open meadow."

Fischer has never accepted the police and coroner conclusions. He believes his sister's injuries -- particularly the two strange-looking bruises on her head -- were too severe to have been caused by the Pontiac's rolling off a road, down a mild embankment and coming to rest with only $100 worth of damage done to the car.

And there's another reason Fischer has always suspected foul play -- several days before her death Plum told him that she feared she would be killed.

"Her last will and testament was in the typewriter at her lawyer's office, incomplete, when she died," Fischer says.

Since his latest ad appeared in The Sun, Fischer has received "very helpful" phone calls and letters, one of which named a woman in North Carolina and suggested she be questioned about Plum's death. Another letter was from a man who had been a neighbor of Plum's while she lived on Yeoho Road, near where her body was found.

Fischer is still deciding what to do with the new information; he's worried that police will not be willing to take another look at the case -- nearly a quarter-century after they dropped it.

But Hanne Plum's younger brother can't drop it. He lives with it. He made a promise.

"If I get killed," Plum told Fischer in a telephone conversation just days before her death, "please investigate it thoroughly."

"If anybody kills you," Fischer told his sister, "you can bet your bottom dollar that I will."

He's betting $50,000 that an elusive truth will finally flow his way.

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