A `pop,' and death in a quiet neighborhood

September 28, 2006|By Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes | Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN REPORTERS

This was her routine: In the mornings, a friend would pick up Janice M. Letmate and take her to her job at a downtown Baltimore law firm. In the evenings, Letmate would catch a bus, then walk a couple of blocks to her home in Waltherson, a quiet neighborhood off Belair Road.

Tuesday evening, a teenage friend happened to see Letmate after she got off the bus and offered to accompany her home. The pair walked side by side and chatted about Letmate's white toy poodle named Holly - a dog that always waited in the window for her owner to come home.

As they turned off Belair Road, "something just went pop," the friend said.

Letmate, 67, fell face forward. Police say that she was shot once in the head on Biddison Lane.

"We were together for five minutes before I heard the pop," said the friend, whom The Sun agreed not to name because the person is a witness to a killing and no suspect has been arrested. The friend didn't realize Letmate had been shot, but ran for help.

Another neighborhood resident was the first to call 911 about 6:45 p.m. The Fire Department sent paramedics out for a "collapsed woman," said spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright. Police said there was no indication from the 911 calls that shots had been fired.

Paramedics took the victim to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 8:05 p.m. It was then, according to Police Col. Fred H. Bealefeld III, chief of detectives, that a doctor noticed a suspicious wound in the back of her head and called police.

Police said they did not respond to the initial call on Biddison Lane; the first time police became involved in the investigation was at the hospital.

Bealefeld said two homicide detectives talked with a doctor at the hospital about 9:10 p.m., examined the wound and determined the case was suspicious enough to return to Biddison Lane.

A police spokesman, Agent Donny Moses, described the wound as an abrasion.

The detectives arrived about 11 p.m., the colonel said, and met firefighters, who showed them where Letmate had fallen.

That was the first time that the sidewalk where Letmate had fallen was treated as a crime scene. Police said they found two small-caliber casings in a nearby alley.

A bullet was found lodged in the woman's skull during an autopsy yesterday, police said, and the death was ruled a homicide.

Bealefeld said investigators have "very basic descriptions" of some people in the area about the time Letmate was shot. He said investigators are trying to identify, locate and interview these people, and noted that it remained unclear whether she had been targeted.

Police said it did not appear that she had been robbed. They said her cell phone and purse were found at the scene.

"I'm putting everything I got up there," Bealefeld said. "We're getting [police] to go door to door. These cases are made up of legwork. We're going to invest a lot of legwork."

Maj. Antonio Rodriguez, commander of the Northeastern District, said the shooting appeared to be an isolated incident in a diverse, stable community. "I don't know what to say about this one," Rodriguez said. "This one is just senseless."

He said he has reached out to community groups and increased patrols in the neighborhood. "There's just no rhyme or reason for [the shooting] right now," the major said.

On the street where Letmate lived, neighbors were in shock.

"It is a senseless, senseless killing," said Delores Shah, who lives across the street from Letmate's squat white home on Oaklyn Avenue. "She was an angel, a walking angel." Shaw said Letmate lived alone and worked as a receptionist at a law firm.

Like the other houses on the street, Letmate's is detached and has evenly cropped grass on the front and both sides. She liked to sit on her front porch with a book in the evenings and on weekends. She recently lent Shah one of her Danielle Steel novels.

When her nose wasn't in a book, Letmate was known to organize neighborhood yard sales, Shah said. She would chat with all the adults in the neighborhood but also made an effort to talk to all of the children.

Flowers grow in neat beds on Letmate's front lawn, and a Halloween decoration was already tacked up on the front of the house. Shah said she didn't miss a holiday.

"Every Christmas, she lights up the whole block," Shah said. "I can't believe someone would do something like this."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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