Widower seeks answers in killing

Man accused of '76 death hanged himself in jail cell

March 10, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

After the body of his wife washed ashore on the banks of the Back River in Essex, Ron Campbell endured 27 years of silent stares from people who wondered if he had killed her.

The cause of Edwina Faith Campbell's death was officially listed as undetermined. Police suspected foul play. Some thought Ron Campbell was responsible. Others speculated she had been killed by one of the guys who hung around the bars on Eastern Avenue where 21-year-old Edwina -- who was called Wendy -- liked to go when she wasn't waiting tables or taking care of her 13-month-old son, Ron Campbell III.

Whatever the theory, many thought a killer was on the streets.

But it wasn't until last month that homicide detectives specializing in unsolved cases had enough evidence to arrest someone. On Feb. 6, they charged Paul Brown Clark, 56, a convicted arsonist and thief from Dundalk, with first-degree murder in the 1976 killing.

Last week, Clark, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, hanged himself in his cell at the Baltimore County Detention Center using a cord from the battery of his wheelchair.

"The arrest changed a lot of things," said Campbell, 47, who is remarried and owns a transmission repair shop in Essex. "I went through 27 years of people thinking I killed my wife or me looking at them wondering if they did it.

"This has been hard," he continued. "When the detectives called me [about Clark's arrest] it struck me like the first time I found out" his wife had been killed.

Campbell knew Clark, who drove a black Cadillac, by reputation only. He said his wife and Clark were friends but weren't romantically involved.

"He wasn't her boyfriend," Campbell said. "I saw them together a few times. But it wasn't any different than anyone else. I was with her right before she left to go out that night."

It didn't surprise him that Clark was charged with strangling his wife. What did shock him was that police made an arrest in the case.

"There was speculation it was him back then," said Campbell, who was given a lie detector test and interrogated by detectives. "What kind of [makes me mad] is why can they now say she was strangled? Why didn't they know it back then?"

Campbell's body, discovered near Rocky Point Golf Course on March 27, 1976, was badly decomposed because she had been in the water for about two weeks, police said. It took more than a week for police to identify her from her jewelry and dental records.

"Initially, police didn't have enough evidence to make an arrest," said Officer Shawn Vinson, a county police spokesman. "Foul play was questioned, but there wasn't enough information to make a specific determination about the cause of death."

The state medical examiner changed Campbell's cause of death from undetermined to homicide by strangulation in late January, after police found new information linking Clark to the killing, officials said. Police haven't said what that was.

Clark, who was arrested at his home in Dundalk, was being held without bail in the medical unit of the county jail. He had been released in December from prison after serving 17 years of a 25-year sentence for burglary and theft.

In 1972, Clark was released from the Patuxent Institution, a state psychiatric prison, after serving more than five years for an arson at his girlfriend's house in Dundalk in 1966. No one was injured in the blaze.

Detectives are investigating the disappearance of Clark's wife, Helen Marie Clark, who has been missing since 1985. Police said Clark never cooperated with the investigation and refused to answer questions about the then-27-year-old woman's disappearance.

Ron Campbell said the years of uncertainty surrounding his wife's death have taken a toll on his family. A month after Wendy Campbell's body was found, Ron Campbell's mother died, which made it even harder for him to care for his son.

"The state wanted to take him away from me," he said. "They said I was unfit because I sometimes brought him to work with me in his playpen."

Because Wendy Campbell's death wasn't declared a homicide, Campbell said, he wasn't eligible to collect state benefits to help raise their son or to pay for a funeral to bury his wife's ashes.

The son spent several years in foster care and was also raised by Ron Campbell's sister. Now 28, he is in prison in Hagerstown for stealing cars.

"It messed him up because I was messed up," Campbell said. "It was a rough road. I was lucky I had the people I worked for at the time to help me."

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