Parents, police still wonder why a sheltered Va. girl died in Baltimore

Crime Beat

December 07, 2008|By peter hermann | peter hermann,

The Christmas gifts Mary Jane McCann bought for her 16-year-old daughter remain unwrapped in a cardboard box under a small billiard table in the basement: The Office DVD game. An iTunes gift card. A doll based on the children's Madeline book series - her secret bridge between youthful innocence and fledgling adulthood.

Annie McCann isn't here to see her presents, or to help set up the tree, or help her mom make the turkey stuffing.

The Virginia teenager was found dead in Baltimore on Nov. 2 in a lot by a trash bin in a public housing complex between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. Her car was parked five blocks away. Three days before, police found a note on a pile of books in her bedroom saying she had run away, pleading "to please let me be free."

More than a month later, the case remains a mystery. Her mother, Mary Jane, and father, Daniel, say they have no idea why their daughter left home. They use the words "apparently ran away" or "allegedly ran away" - unconvinced she left of her own volition and convinced she was killed.

"Somebody got to my daughter," Daniel McCann says.

An autopsy has failed to reveal a cause of death, and more tests are pending. She had a bruise on her forehead, but police say it wasn't enough to kill her.

Her cell phone had only a handful of calls - to her father, her brother in college in Ithaca, N.Y., and to a friend who lived down the street. Police are still analyzing her computers for clues.

There are too many unanswered questions.

The McCanns have hired a private investigator. They search the Internet looking for clues. They discovered that another teen ran away from Fairfax County and was found dead in Burtonsville. A coincidence? Probably. But a father wonders. "I've solved this case five times," he says. "You wouldn't believe the suspects I've rounded up."

He is hesitant about disclosing what he's been told by authorities - his wife calls city homicide detectives "angels disguised as police" - and they would only say they learned encouraging news from investigators on the evening I visited last week.

Police told me later they still have no idea how Annie died or what she was doing in Baltimore.

The McCanns invited me to their modest home on Vantage Drive in Alexandria to talk about their daughter. I met the family beagle, Breezy Max, and saw Annie's room filled with tributes to New York - both the city and the Yankees. A table downstairs is filled with scrapbooks chronicling family vacations to the Jersey Shore, New York and Boston. Poster boards are filled with accolades from friends at West Potomac High School. There are snapshots of her at her First Communion, as an altar girl and embracing Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick at his church in Washington.

Mass cards take over a dresser top in the dining room; the overflow is taped to a wall. Pictures Annie drew with pencil and pastel are everywhere; a version of a lighthouse she didn't like hangs on the back of her parents' bedroom door; the version she liked is framed over the kitchen table.

She wrote poems, one just days before she died filled with personal memories celebrating her Irish and Czechoslovakian heritage and her love of music from Led Zeppelin to Coldplay. The final stanza: "I'm from the one-dimensional blank piece of paper / To the three-dimension skyscrapers of New York / Where I hope to be one day."

Is this what she meant when she wrote, "Please let me be free"?

The McCanns have been to Baltimore for baseball games and to visit the Maryland Science Center. A few years ago, they took a water taxi across the harbor and joked about coming back to stay at the new waterfront Marriott. Spring Court, where Annie was found dead, is only six blocks north of there.

Daniel McCann says he is prepared to learn what could be awful secrets his daughter might have harbored, and kept so well from parents who admit she led a sheltered life.

Annie preferred club sports to organized basketball because she wanted to be home shortly after school ended to spend time with her family. She had a car but rarely ventured beyond school and nearby shopping centers.

Until a few months ago, her only e-mail account was her family's, and even when she got her own address, her mother had access, read her messages and viewed her Facebook page.

Why and how did she leave the comfortable, sheltered life on Vantage Drive and end up dead in a drug neighborhood in Baltimore? Or was it the sheltered life she was trying to escape?

Sixty-six miles separates Annie's house from Perkins Homes. "How did she get from here to there?" her father asks.

It's a question that even a cause of death won't answer.

"There is a huge hole in my heart," Daniel McCann says. "I can't cover it up until I find out what happened to my little girl. This story does not end at a Dumpster on South Spring Court in Baltimore."

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