Evidence uncollected, crimes undeterred

DNA saga causes families to wonder if crimes could have been prevented

July 16, 2006|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

Raymont Hopewell entered the state prison system on April 11, 2004, for attempting to sell $20 worth of cocaine to an undercover police officer. Under Maryland law, authorities should have taken a sample of his DNA to compare against evidence collected from unsolved crimes.

Had the DNA test been done, it would have matched evidence found at the scenes of two unsolved crimes on Baltimore's west side: the 1999 rape and murder of Constance Wills, 60, and the 2002 rape and murder of Sarah Shannon, 88.

But Hopewell's DNA was not taken in 2004, and the matches were not made. Instead, after five months in state custody, Hopewell escaped without providing a sample.

The next year, police say, while Hopewell was free, he would kill three more people, assault four others and rape one woman before he was arrested in September 2005. His DNA was finally taken and, for the first time, police began to connect him to five killings over six years.

Hopewell, 35, will be tried in those crimes in September. He has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer would not comment for this article.

A conviction would raise troubling questions. If authorities had collected his DNA in 2004, could the later violent crimes have been prevented? And if the police had performed DNA analysis promptly after a 2005 killing, wouldn't they have known that a serial killer and rapist of elderly women was on the loose in West Baltimore?

Those who survived last year's attacks and the families of those who were killed are asking why Hopewell wasn't arrested and charged sooner. They are upset that the state DNA law passed in 2002 - which required collection of DNA from felons - was not enforced when Hopewell entered prison in 2004.

"If it's mandated they do it ... there's a good possibility that what happened to my mother may not have happened," said Roy Mack, whose mother, Sadie L. Mack, 78, was killed in May 2005. "Maybe a lot of other things he's done wouldn't have happened either."

State officials admit to failures in initial implementation of the DNA law. The Maryland State Police, charged with collecting the DNA, did not have the manpower to do the job. They say they have fixed the problem by enlisting state prison workers to help in collection.

"The bottom line is there was a problem. We saw there was a problem," said Karen V. Poe, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. But before the problem was addressed, she said, Hopewell had escaped custody.

"The reality of life is that we and everyone else wish that these heinous crimes had not happened," Poe said. "But the assumption or the misconception that had his DNA been taken ... nobody knows. Nobody is in a position to predict death."

But criminal justice experts say that prompt DNA testing would have saved lives.

"It's really, really tragic because had they tested early enough, they could have prevented these later crimes," said Lawrence Kobilinsky, a biology professor and associate provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Unfortunately, this is a case where tragedies could have been averted."

Hopewell's path

Raised near Gwynns Falls Park, Raymont Hopewell was for a time a kid like others, riding bikes and playing hide-and-seek with neighborhood friends. But he dropped out of school in his sophomore year at Forest Park High and, according to a statement he gave police, began a heroin habit that would continue for two decades.

He sold drugs and broke into homes to support his addiction, he told police. His criminal record shows seven convictions since 1989 for battery, drug possession, burglary, resisting arrest, theft and intent to sell drugs.

But authorities say Hopewell did not turn truly violent until 1999, when Constance Wills was killed.

Hopewell had known the family, and in the 1980s he lived with one of Wills' daughters for several months, according to police. He celebrated birthdays and holidays with the family. But Wills' daughter kicked him out after he ran up a phone bill, and the family broke off contact with him about 10 years before Wills' death.

Her body was found the night of Feb. 21, 1999, by a daughter and a neighbor. She was in a bedroom of her home on North Ellamont Street, her face beaten and ligature marks evident on her wrists. The cause of death was asphyxiation.

Three years later, in November 2002, Sarah Shannon's body was found by her niece in her longtime home at the Greenhill Apartments for the elderly and disabled. At the time, Hopewell's mother lived across the hall from Shannon, and Hopewell was frequently seen in the building.

Again, the cause of death was asphyxiation. Wills and Shannon had also been raped, records show. An internal police memo indicates that by June 2003, investigators had made another connection: Seminal fluid found in both women's bodies contained the same DNA.

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