As detectives began investigating the recent fatal shooting in Towson Town Center's parking garage, they appealed to the public - to anyone with knowledge of the shooting - to call with any leads.
But the call that came, the one that really mattered, was from someone who was not in the garage, had not seen the gun and did not even know the importance of his information when he jotted down the license plate number of a Mercury Cougar that had caught his attention, police said yesterday.
It was that information - provided by a witness who was apparently on an apartment building parking lot near the mall garage and who saw the suspects' car a second time minutes later on Joppa Road - that enabled detectives to track the two men now charged with first-degree murder in the shotgun killing of private school educator William A. Bassett during a botched robbery attempt Friday night.
"It was absolutely essential and vital," Bill Toohey, a Baltimore County police spokesman, said of the tip. "Without it, we would not have been led so quickly to suspects. We might eventually have gotten them, but I don't think we would have gotten them so quickly."
As hundreds of friends, colleagues, students and strangers gathered yesterday for a memorial service to celebrate the life of Bassett, 58, a popular science teacher and dean of faculty at St. Paul's School, police released the new information about the tip that led to the arrests of John Edward Kennedy Jr., 18, of Essex and Javon Clark, 18, of Middle River.
Kennedy has also been charged in an armed robbery that occurred in the Overlea area the night before the Towson Town Center shooting.
Police did not name the witness in the mall shooting, saying that he has asked to remain anonymous and "just wants to live his life," Toohey said. But they did end the mystery of what prompted the witness to write down the make, model and license plate of an otherwise unremarkable mid-1980s Cougar.
According to police, the witness was in an "adjacent parking lot" Friday when he heard what he later would discover was likely the shot that killed Bassett. Looking in the direction of the mall garage, he saw a man running toward a Mercury Cougar.
Minutes later, police said, the witness saw the same car on Joppa Road and jotted down its description and tag number as the car passed him. It wasn't until the next day, when he heard about the shooting in the mall parking garage, that the witness realized he might have heard the gunshot and passed along the vehicle information to a friend who is a county police detective.
"When he first heard the bang, he didn't see anybody fall nor did he see a gun. He wasn't thinking, `shot,'" said a law enforcement source, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He thought the Cougar might have hit a parked car. When he saw the car [on Joppa Road], he thought he'd write the tag down."
Although police did not identify the parking lot from which the witness first spotted the Mercury Cougar, the only one near the end of the Towson Town garage where Bassett was killed is the private lot behind the Hampton House apartments.
At a packed funeral service at Old St. Paul's Church in Baltimore, mourners who filled every pew, spilling into the church basement and out its front doors, remembered Bassett's life rather than dwelling on the details of his death.
Colleagues spoke of Bassett's contributions to St. Paul's School over the 31 years he taught there - how he increased diversity among the Brooklandville school's faculty, sought to increase diversity on the school's board and helped equalize pay and responsibilities among male and female faculty members.
"Bill listened openly to our concerns," math teacher Kent Darrell said. "Incidentally, he didn't burden us with his concerns."
Those who spoke at the service also remembered Bassett's humor, even temper and kindness and recalled his unending quest as a bargain hunter.
"He knew these items were out there and he wanted to find them. If they were on sale, even better," said Bill Durden, a St. Paul's faculty member and longtime friend of Bassett's.
Although colorblind, Durden said, Bassett was known for his fashion sense.
"He would tell me if my tie didn't match my suit, or if my glasses were unfortunately mundane," Durden said.
Classes were let out early for yesterday's service and members of the senior class wore bow ties in Bassett's honor.
The Rev. Michael G. Wallens, chaplain at St. Paul's School, who is acting as a spokesman for the Bassett family, said relatives are very thankful that the tipster thought to take down the vehicle description and then called police when he heard news of the killing.
"I think we're all grateful to him that he had the presence of mind to write down the information. I'm not sure I would have had the presence of mind to do that," Wallens said.
Detective Bernard Crumbacker Jr., the primary investigator assigned to the Bassett homicide case, expressed similar gratitude.
"I'm just glad the guy saw what he saw," he said. "The spectacular part is that the guy thought he saw something funny and was bright enough and smart enough to report it instead of just doing nothing."
Sun staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.