Memorial honors pair shot, killed in arson

Friends mourn a slain couple, and police in York, Pa., remember tha man who helped solve a murder

December 03, 2005|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

For years, Michael E. Wright lived on the streets of Baltimore, shuffling along the anonymous fringes of society with the homeless near City Hall, begging for food and money and drinking the days away.

He and his girlfriend, Thomasine Evans, escaped their predicament and, with the help of a nonprofit group, moved into a small apartment in West Baltimore. The brief stroke of good fortune ended in tragedy -- Evans and a man believed to be Wright were shot and burned in an arson fire that claimed both their lives.

Their deaths two weeks ago are easy to miss in a city where murder seems routine and the homeless can be an afterthought. The badly burned body of the man pulled from the apartment has yet to be identified and lies, officially at least, nameless in the city morgue.

But Michael E. Wright is not unmourned. Nor is he forgotten.

Two years ago, Wright, who is black, admitted that he, his brother and another man participated in the 1969 race riots and killing of a white police officer in York, Pa. Prosecutors reopened the case several years ago, and, with the help of Wright's confession and testimony, solved a mystery that had troubled the town for more than three decades.

"He caught me by surprise," said Bill Graff, York County's chief deputy prosecutor who worked on the case of Officer Henry Schaad's killing. At the trial in March 2003, he presumed Wright would testify about seeing another man at the scene; instead, Wright confessed to being part of the plot and implicated his brother.

It stunned the courtroom.

"I've tried 500 cases, and I never had a Perry Mason moment like I did on that day," Graff said. The testimony, he said, "was crucial, and I owe him a debt of gratitude."

In April 2004, Wright pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to the time he had already served in a county jail -- three months. He returned to Baltimore last year and met up with an old friend, Evans, and returned to his old way of life, living on the streets.

Last night, as police worked to confirm that Wright, 55, is indeed dead and chased leads to figure out a motive for the killings, friends, social workers and others who knew the couple gathered at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore for a memorial service.

Some recalled Wright as a "go-getter," a smart, deep and intense man who could hold conversations on wide-ranging topics. They remembered Evans as a sharp, generous and caring person who nonetheless struggled mightily with drug addiction, which friends fear prompted the killings.

No one mentioned Wright's role in that critical moment in York, Pa.'s history. It began July 18, 1969, when the city was embroiled in racial discord. Wright, his brother Leon F. "Smickel" Wright and Stephen Freeland each fired shots from rifles at an armored police van that they and other residents believed was menacing their neighborhood. Blacks had grown frustrated with white street gang members who taunted them and beat them up, according to news accounts.

A 22-year-old rookie officer, Henry Schaad, married with a 5-year-old daughter, was struck by at least one bullet as the van cruised along West College Avenue. He died two weeks later.

The case remained unsolved, and Wright moved on, though many details of his nomadic life remain murky. He moved south to Baltimore. He bounced from address to address in the region, and friends said that at one point he served in the military, but his service history could not be verified.

Some said Wright had several children, but that too could not be confirmed. Others said he, at times, held odd jobs. He was known as "Three-fingered Mike," because he had lost two fingers on one hand in an accident.

Meanwhile, in York, authorities began receiving new information from witnesses about the murdered officer and reopened their investigation in 2000. They interviewed 480 witnesses, and Michael Wright's name came up as a possible suspect during the investigation.

Police found Wright and interviewed him, though he implicated only Freeland. It wasn't until his brother and Freeland were on trial in 2003 that he confessed that all of them had shot at the van. Freeland, who prosecutors said they believed fired the fatal shots, died in October of natural causes at a Pennsylvania prison; Leon Wright remains incarcerated on a 4 1/2 - to 10-year sentence.

Michael Wright left York after the trial, but prosecutors later charged him in the killing of Schaad. Police caught Wright outside a homeless shelter in New Orleans in January 2004. After sitting in jail for three months, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was sentenced to time served by a judge.

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