Mystery of missing man solved after 13 years

Courtroom confession stuns onlookers

  • Henry Ackerman
Henry Ackerman (Baltimore Sun )
July 09, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Henry Ackerman had plans — big, cross country, into-the-wild plans.

It was 1998, and he was 48 years old, alone, sad and somewhat peculiar. He lived with threecats and a big, sandy-colored dog in an unkempt Baltimore County apartment and worked as a child psychologist in the city school system.

His beloved wife had died of leukemia four years earlier in Memphis after a long illness, and he had moved immediately afterward, first to Oregon and then to Maryland to be closer to his sister's family, acquaintances said.

But he yearned for Alaska. He reached out to a tiny school system there in the eastern part of the state, in a town called Circle, and was in the process of quietly securing a new job. He planned to live in a camper out there, in the Last Frontier, a former neighbor told police.

He made all the arrangements, and on June 18, 1998, he set out to purchase a used GMC. He never came back.

He just went missing.

Thirteen years would pass before his family found out what happened, through a stunning murder confession disclosed last week in aMemphis courtroom.

A Tennessee man admitted bludgeoning Ackerman to death over a debt. The revelation solved a long-cold missing-person case, even though his body has not been found, and likely never will.

"It's just too painful," his 73-year-old sister said over the phone from her home in New Jersey, declining to discuss details of her brother's life or his death. "He was a wonderful human being, and nobody deserves to die like this, certainly not him."

Baltimore County missing-person's records, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request, and conversations with some of those who knew Ackerman show him to be a largely likable, if odd, scholar who mostly kept to himself.

He received degrees from schools in three states over a 25-year period. He had no criminal record. And the worst anybody said about him was that he was prone to exaggeration and half-truths. He told several people — including a former professor and a medical doctor — that his sister had cancer, but her family later denied that to police and others.

He was devastated by his wife's death, and spoke of her lovingly and often, according to Reva Chopra, who lived in an apartment above Ackerman in 1998 when she was a young law student. She took extra care to engage him when they ran into one another in the halls.

"He always seemed to me to be really kind of depressed a little bit, like sad," said Chopra, who's now a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County.

She twice cared for Ackerman's pets. The first time was when he went away for a few days, and the second was when he went away forever.

His apartment was filthy, Chopra remembers. He stored vast quantities of canned food in huge coolers, as if preparing for natural disaster or war, she said. And he collected Army figures, which may have tied in to another hobby: Ackerman was into guns.

He had earlier befriended a Memphis gun dealer named Dale Mardis, whom he met at a gun show. Ackerman made plans to catch up with the man on the June truck-buying trip, prosecutors said last week.

It would turn out to be a fatal mistake.

The killer

Not much information about Mardis' early years is publicly available.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a young man, serving honorably until being discharged at age 20 in 1973, and then worked full time for the Army Corps of Engineers at its Ensley Engineering Yard, eight miles southwest of downtown Memphis.

Mardis married a woman named Patsy and helped care for his dying mother-in-law. A 1991 car crash ended his shipyard work and changed his life mentally, emotionally and physically, court documents show. It left him with "nerve issues" and Meniere's disease, which is typically marked by ringing in the ears and vertigo.

He has "a long history of drug use and abuse," drinking and smoking marijuana to excess, court documents state. He also has an assault conviction on his criminal record, from an incident that his attorneys claim "arose out of fear for his safety as well as the safety of his friend."

Prosecutors would later describe him as a cold racist without a shred of humanity.

In the mid 1990s, however, that side hadn't yet been revealed.

He ran a gun business then, first out of his home and then out of property he owned nearby on Lamar Avenue.

He was at constant war with code enforcement officers over various violations, and he ultimately shuttered the business several years later. But not before he met Civil War buff Henry Ackerman.

Where and how and when they met isn't clear. It was at a series of gun shows, prosecutors said, but they offered little more.

A private man

Ackerman's personal life is also largely private. Few people seemed to know him well, and most of those who did were mum.

He lived in New Jersey during his youth and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., according to a 1996 resume provided to The Sun.

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