Harford laborer indicted in killing

Victim is one of four women found slain in area since June

November 01, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

A 35-year-old man jailed on charges of assaulting alleged prostitutes was indicted yesterday in the killing of one of four women found in remote areas of Harford County in recent months - crimes that authorities have said might be linked.

Charles Eugene Burns, a sixth-grade dropout who one acquaintance said acknowledged a fascination with books on serial killers, was charged with murder in the death of Lillian Abramowicz Phelps.

The a 43-year-old Elkton woman was last seen alive in May and her body was discovered near Havre de Grace on June 14.

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said yesterday that prosecutors had not completed their investigation and would not divulge details of how Phelps died or how Burns was connected. He declined to say whether Burns is suspected in other killings.

However, a month ago Cassilly said the four killings appeared to be linked and that a suspect was in custody.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County police said yesterday that they have looked into a possible connection between the killings and the 1999 discovery in the Bradshaw area of the body of a woman who had previously lived in Aberdeen.

Burns' public defender, Lloyd G. Merriam, did not respond to a request for comment yesterday. Previously he had said it would not be appropriate to discuss his client's case but "reliable information isn't necessarily coming out."

Burns has been held in the Harford County Detention Center since June after six women, all described by police as prostitutes, came forward and told police they had been sexually assaulted and robbed. One woman said she had been taken to a cemetery where she was attacked and left for dead, police said.

A review of court records and interviews with family and friends show Burns as a troubled man who was abandoned at a young age. According to a family member, who did not want to be identified, Burn's mother had several children and was unable to care for Burns, who bounced from home to home before being adopted.

A 2002 bail review report listed sixth grade as his highest level of education.

That year, Burns spent six months in jail awaiting trial for allegedly violating a protective order against an Edgewood woman, who said he broke her finger and was harassing her. He was later found guilty and fined $1,000.

That woman, Sherry DeHaven, had dated Burns and lived with him for a time. She said she saw him again in 2005 outside of a church.

"He said that while he was in jail, he read every serial killer book that was in there," DeHaven told The Sun.

The first of the four bodies to be discovered, that of 42-year-old Sheila Ann Turner, was found June 2 in a remote field in Perryman. Phelps was found three weeks later.

On Sept. 15, a passer-by discovered a badly decomposed body near Boyer and Chelsea roads in the Perryman area and notified the Bel Air barracks of the state police. Investigators combed the area throughout the day and found the remains of another body.

The identities of two of the bodies remain unknown.

Police have said they are searching for five other missing women, including Jennifer Lynn Blankenship, 25, of Perryman, who disappeared in early June.

Burns, of Kingsville, was arrested after a mother and daughter - both admitted prostitutes - told police that a man had taken them to the same area and attacked them in separate incidents.

The daughter told police the assailant, who drove a gray Dodge Neon with bedsheets on the seats, took her to a secluded location and sexually assaulted and choked her. The attack caused blood vessels in her eyes to burst, as well as severe bruising on her neck, and she told police she believed she was going to die.

The mother alleges that three weeks later her assailant drove her to St. Paul's Lutheran Cemetery, where he choked her until she lost consciousness, according to charging documents.

"I prayed - I fought him like crazy," she said in an interview this week, standing under a flickering streetlight outside a diner on Route 40. The woman, whose name is being withheld by The Sun because she is the alleged victim of sexual assault, described her attacker as "very strong."

She said she awoke and discovered items had been taken from her purse, including a birth certificate, Social Security card and photographs. She provided a license plate number to police that led them to Burns' car, according to court documents.

Four other prostitutes also came forward to allege similar attacks, according to court records.

Burns faces multiple assault and sex offense charges, and one attempted-murder charge, in the six cases, which prosecutors said could be tried separately.

Another woman, 27-year-old Tesha Fox, who said in an interview that she used to be a prostitute, said women had been on edge when word of the alleged attacks spread.

"Most just kept doing what they were going to do," Fox said. "I don't think anybody thought it was as serious as it was."

Burns was married in a civil ceremony in 1995, but the relationship ended in 2001 when the woman abruptly left the area, according to court records. That's when his legal problems apparently began.

DeHaven said she was friends with the couple and began seeing Burns after his marriage ended. But as they grew closer, he started exhibiting strange behavior, she said, and she sought a restraining order against him.

In a bail review report from the 2002 case, Burns lists previous bouts of drug and alcohol abuse and is described as being treated for depression. The report said he had been laid off three weeks earlier from a job as a laborer.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nick Shields contributed to this article.

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