In revived '80s case, grisly killing ruled homicide

Warrant is issued for police suspect

August 08, 2006|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

The circumstances of William N. Gibson's death were curious, to say the least: His body was found inside a trash bag, squeezed inside a metal garbage can that was inside a closet, which had been tied shut with rope. A mattress was leaning against it.

No one had seen the 57-year-old man for about two weeks at his apartment near Patterson Park. Smelling a foul odor, a landlord entered, saw the closet and then called police. A patrol officer discovered the body.

It was the morning of July 31, 1983.

Despite signs that someone else may have held answers to Gibson's death, the investigation remained in limbo. With a badly decomposed body and little forensic evidence to be found, the state medical examiner's office labeled the manner of his death "undetermined" and detectives shelved the investigation for years.

But police revived the case last year, found a suspect and said they obtained a confession. Without a determination of homicide, however, they let the man go and continued to investigate.

Last week, a lengthy review of the case file by the medical examiner concluded that Gibson's death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma.

Police said the examiner's office originally found that Gibson's skull had been fractured but did not know whether it was caused by accident or by another person. The new information from the suspect coupled with the autopsy findings led police to issue a warrant for the man's arrest.

Investigators with the Regional Warrant Apprehension Task Force are seeking the man, who police believe may be homeless and living in the Baltimore region, officials said.

Police declined to release the man's identity until after he is arrested. But a police official said the two men were roommates and lovers who had frequently quarreled over money, according to information provided to detectives by the victim's relatives.

Col. Fred H. Bealefeld III, the department's chief of detectives, said the case was unique and that "barring a confession in this case, it would've been very difficult to prove murder."

He said he believed that the suspect was interviewed around the time that Gibson's body was discovered, but investigators lost track of him.

"Over the course of the next 22 years, there were efforts made to locate him and talk to him again," Bealefeld said. "He was the missing piece."

Bealefeld said that Gibson's body was badly decomposed when it was pulled out of the apartment. But based on information obtained from the suspect's confession, authorities concluded that the fracture had been caused by a wooden board, Bealefeld said.

The state medical examiner's office completed an addendum to Gibson's original autopsy report, which was received by police investigators Aug. 2, according to police.

Bealefeld credited the department's previous homicide commander, retired Maj. Richard C. Fahlteich, and a veteran cold-case detective, Tyrone Francis, with reviving the investigation.

The Police Department has faced criticism and endured conspiracy theories that the agency hides or delays open death investigations by keeping the cases in what's known as the "pending file."

"There is no conspiracy," Bealefeld said. "If we were in a conspiracy, you would never have heard about this case. A commander would have shut this case down. Someone would've said, `You're not re-examining this case. You're not going on a hunt.' It just doesn't happen. Detectives do not get that direction. This case, frankly, should validate that."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said yesterday that prosecutors reviewed the medical examiner's report and the case file, and they authorized a first-degree murder warrant for the suspect.

Gibson's body was discovered on a Sunday, one of two men found dead in the city that day.

He was killed in a year when there were 201 slayings recorded in Baltimore, police statistics show. From 1970 through last year, Baltimore has had only two years -- 1977 and 1978 -- when the homicide count was lower.

Yet Gibson's killing won't go on the books as a murder in 1983. Instead, due to federal crime-reporting guidelines, his slaying will be counted in this year's tally, which stood at 167 yesterday, compared with 170 for the same time last year, police officials said.

Little could be learned about Gibson's life yesterday, and no surviving relatives could be located. Electronic public records show that he obtained a Social Security number in West Virginia, suggesting that he might have been born in that state.

He lived a block west of Patterson Park, in an apartment in a large brick rowhouse in the 2200 block of E. Pratt St. The rowhouse appears to be unoccupied today.

The patrol officer who discovered Gibson's body was Jessie B. Oden, who had been on the force about four years, police records show. Oden, now a major and head of the department's public housing police section, said he remembers responding to the apartment and the bad smell. Fire crews arrived and emergency workers had to use masks to enter the apartment, which was filled with flies, Oden recalled.

The case was assigned to homicide detectives and Oden's involvement ceased, though he never forgot the incident.

"All I remember was getting a call for an awful smell," finding human remains and immediately securing the apartment so detectives can do their work, said Oden, who was in his early 20s at the time. "That was the last I heard about it, until recently."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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