Arrest revives memory of forgotten man

Baltimore Crime Beat

August 27, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Not too many people remember Charlie Neeper anymore.

Certainly not the new generation of homeless who now occupy Veterans Park in Dundalk, Charlie's home for 26 years before he was beaten and strangled in 1986.

Two men who have turned park benches into beds using soiled linens simply shook their head when they heard Neeper's name yesterday. They had only been there five years.

But Fred Shiflett remembers. He was a Baltimore County patrol officer assigned to Dundalk 22 years ago. He kept a close eye on the park because Neeper and his friends would sometimes harass the elderly on their walks.

Still, Shiflett felt sorry for them. When it got cold, Charlie would break a window to get himself locked up someplace warm, and Shiflett would accommodate him by slapping on the cuffs. And when Charlie turned up dead in the park on June 14, 1986, the officer told everyone who he thought was responsible.

Two men gave Charlie money for a bottle of wine. Charlie bought the bottle but kept it for himself. The next day he was killed.

Shiflett, who is now 62, offered the name of a suspect to detectives that day. "I told them back then who did it," said the retired officer, now a sergeant with the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Department in charge of security at the Circuit Courthouse in Annapolis.

"I told them they had an argument over a stupid bottle of wine," Shiflett said. "I knew those guys front and back. Everyone told me the guys in the park didn't make good witnesses, that they were winos and drunks. I said they are good people, but nothing ever came of it."

Shiflett was briefly quoted in an Evening Sun profile of Charlie, which recounted his sad life shortly after he had died. "Charlie diluted by alcohol, deluded by past," the headline read.

On Aug. 19, Baltimore County police arrested a suspect in the case. Court documents say that Charlie's brother, Ray, talked with people in the park shortly after the killing and got a confession from one of the men. But it wasn't until recently that police said they reopened the case and found a witness who said she saw the killing.

James Exley Wickham III, 60, stands charged with first-degree murder and is in jail awaiting trial. Authorities say another suspect died many years ago.

The name Wickham is also familiar to Fred Shiflett. It is the name he offered up to detectives 22 years ago. "It's about time," he said of the arrest. "I felt they had enough to make this case back then, but everybody told me no."

A plaque in Veterans Park, under a row of flags honoring the men and women lost in wars, ends with this prayer: "May the living be blessed and the departed rest in peace."

I couldn't reach Ray, but I imagine the past 20 years have been frustrating for him. Back in 1986, he talked with the Evening Sun about his own alcoholism and living on the streets for eight years. He was one of only eight relatives who attended Charlie's funeral, and he promised then to stop drinking.

Ray had tried on his own to find the man who killed his brother, and according to court documents had long ago talked with the very man now under arrest.

Maybe Charlie and his brother can rest.

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