Evidence against defendant questioned

Man charged in killing of Taylorsville psychologist

Carroll County

January 24, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Defense attorneys for a Mount Airy contractor charged in the fatal beating of a Taylorsville psychologist last year asked a judge yesterday to throw out key evidence against the man - including bloodstains found in the suspect's pickup truck.

Arguing during a hearing in Carroll County Circuit Court that the evidence was obtained through illegal search warrants, attorneys for Randall Henry Gerlach also said that financial records showing that he owed the victim more than $300,000 should not be allowed at trial.

Defense attorneys Barry H. Helfand and David A. Martella argued that three search warrants for Gerlach's person, truck and home office were based upon suspicion, not sufficient evidence. Seizing upon testimony by Sgt. Jason K. Merson, who wrote the warrants, Helfand asked,

"You did not feel you had probable cause to make an arrest, correct?"

Merson agreed.

Carroll County Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. said he would issue a written opinion on the pretrial motions. Gerlach, 57, of the 13000 block of Manor Drive in Frederick County, is scheduled to go to trial March 31.

He was charged in June with first-degree murder in the death of Rodney R. Cocking, 59, a researcher and program director at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., who disappeared Feb. 23 from his home in the 2800 block of Sams Creek Road. His remains were discovered June 17 - 12 days after Cocking's arrest - in a watershed area of Frederick County.

During yesterday's hearing, Helfand argued that the same level of evidence is needed for the search warrants as for an arrest. He asked the judge to suppress the evidence seized by police and the interviews Gerlach gave when the warrants were served Feb. 27.

"At the time of the warrants, you were still in the dark as to what the case was - or whether the case was even a case," Helfand asked Merson. "He was critically missing, correct? ... No evidence of murder, kidnapping? Merely suspicions?"

Merson said he felt "probable cause" existed based on evidence found at Cocking's house, including blood and letters indicating a financial relationship with Gerlach.

Senior State's Attorney David P. Daggett said police are not expected to be lawyers and that the basis for the warrants was sufficient, citing several court rulings.

Merson was one of three Maryland State Police investigators from the homicide unit in Columbia called to testify yesterday about their investigation of Gerlach, who was, they said, a suspect from the beginning.

Gerlach owed Cocking money - and the victim had demanded it with interest and late fees, said Sgt. Michael Grant of the homicide unit. These arose from a complex series of transactions from July 1994 to March 2001, and Cocking wanted payment in February on his supposed investments, according to a letter to Gerlach that police recovered.

"Scrutiny of documents in what I'll call a whodunit--type case is extremely important," said Grant, who said he found a significant financial relationship between Cocking and "the last person to see Mr. Cocking alive" - meaning Gerlach.

"And we went from there," Grant said.

The letter from Cocking to Gerlach said he no longer wished to invest with Gerlach, calculated notes totaling $270,000 -- or $312,958, counting interest and late fees - and said "repayment is a matter of urgency," Grant said.

Police had found blood on a bag of birdseed in Cocking's garage and a trail of blood down the driveway, he said. A search of Gerlach's 1993 Toyota pickup truck days later yielded blood that matched the victim.

Gerlach was read his Miranda rights when he was questioned Feb. 27, police said.

But Helfand said that Gerlach's statements to police should be suppressed because he was interviewed based on what the lawyer argued were faulty search warrants.

In his interviews with them Feb. 27, police said the contractor told them he had last seen Cocking the morning of Feb. 23 to discuss damage from woodpecker holes.

Gerlach was calm and cooperative, said Sgt. Ron Cullison, until the officer confronted him with information that a witness said Gerlach had returned to the doctor's home Feb. 23 and had driven Cocking's sport utility vehicle to a Mount Airy shopping center, where it was found abandoned the next day.

Then, Cullison said, "his demeanor changed. He appeared to be surprised. His eyes opened, he sat up."

Gerlach remained silent for a time, the trooper said, then "he asked for an attorney."

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