One by one last summer, the bodies of four women were found in remote areas of Harford County, dumped in grassy fields in a largely rural county that typically registers only a handful of killings each year.
Then came more shocking news: Police thought the deaths might have been the work of one person.
Jury selection began yesterday in a Bel Air courtroom in the trial of a 35-year-old laborer charged with first-degree murder in the killing of the first woman found. He is also charged separately in the sexual assaults of six more women.
Charles Eugene Burns, a sixth-grade dropout who, records show, has bounced among a number of addresses in Harford and Baltimore counties, pleaded not guilty, and police and prosecutors have been tight-lipped about potential evidence. Burns apparently did not make any incriminating statements to police, and there are no known witnesses in the murder case. His lawyer refuses to comment.
The trial will focus on the death of Lilly Phelps, a 43-year-old mother of two who did not return after heading to Havre de Grace on May 26 for a night of partying. But friends and relatives of the other women found in those grassy fields are following the case closely, hoping for answers to the agonizing questions surrounding the deaths of their loved ones.
No one has been charged in the other deaths, and they have not officially been classified as homicides pending the completion of autopsies begun months ago.
There is no evidence that the women had known one another, and they came from a variety of backgrounds. One was a former small-business owner, another was an aspiring artist. One was a born-again Christian.
But interviews with their families and investigators indicate they shared some things in common. They struggled with dangerous addictions and were often lured to desolate areas along U.S. 40 that were known for prostitution and drug dealing. They also had hopes of righting their troubled lives.
Evidence of the other deaths will not be admissible in the trial. And relatives say investigators have told them little about the progress of the cases.
So for now, the families must wait.
"It bothers me every day - it puts a burden on my life," said Felicia Vaughn, 19, whose mother's body was the second found in June. The body was discovered in a Perryman field near train tracks. "I'm scared to do a lot of things now. I have a friend go with me everywhere, to the grocery store, everywhere."
Authorities have declined to discuss any possible links connecting the cases, beyond a statement last year by Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly that a person he declined to identify was believed responsible for the string of killings and was in custody.
"I've made my statements," Cassilly said, adding, "I'm not changing anything that I've said before."
The only evidence to emerge that publicly links the deaths is blood police say they found on the underside of Burns' Dodge Neon. Authorities say it matches that of Phelps and another woman.
Ted Dawson, the stepfather of the other woman whose blood police say they found under Burns' car, said the notion of a tragic ending was not far-fetched, given her struggles with substance abuse. But the possibility of a brutal killing went far beyond his worst fears.
"Nobody deserves that," Dawson said. "I warned her a million times, but it doesn't make it right."
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Lillian Abramowicz Phelps enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. She attended Catholic school and upon graduation attended a university in her parents' native country. She returned to Maryland, and her parents promised to give her money to start a cosmetology business if she completed a degree at Towson University.
By age 21, Phelps was married with a daughter and running a business in Elkton called European Skin Care. But she was struggling. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression, she was deeply affected by the death of her eldest brother in a car crash and began abusing alcohol, family members said.
She started to withdraw from work, and the business failed. Her drug use escalated to crack and heroin, and she would disappear for long periods of time.
Through it all, her mother said, Phelps often called home and returned when she needed a place to stay. She was aware of her problem and sought help, twice checking into Father Martin's Ashley, a posh rehabilitation facility in Havre de Grace.
"Probably biannually, she'd realize she had gone too far and would seek help, but she always found her way right back," said her brother, Robert H. Abramowciz.
Phelps was found June 14, and her death was the latest in a series of tragedies that have befallen the Abramowicz family. A year earlier, her father, a retired engineer who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, wandered off while getting the mail. Despite a police search of the wooded area around the house, he has not been found.