A Dundalk man is not guilty of killing his 89-year-old neighbor, a Baltimore County judge ruled Wednesday after two days of testimony in a 2010 murder case.
Michael W. Hester, who was charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Eleanor Marie Haley, said he is eager to rebuild his life. He said he entered Haley's house and found her dead after seeing water coming from her back door. He then called 911.
Prosecutors argued during the trial that he killed Haley and turned on the water — a lawn sprinkler — to explain his presence at her home in the 7200 block of York Drive.
Baltimore County Circuit Judge S. Ann Brobst's decision concluded the second trial for Hester. The first ended last April in a mistrial.
Hester, 56, said he spent the last 10 months "hunkered down" in his house with his wife of 19 years and their three young daughters, who range in age from 7 to 13. He had been imprisoned from June 22, 2010, to April 26, 2011, leading up to his first trial, he said.
"It was an emotional tidal wave somewhere between joy and sorrow," Hester said of his reaction to the verdict. "I have been through so much, and my family has been through so much."
Brobst encouraged police to continue the search for Haley's killer, said public defender James R. Dills, who represented Hester.
Police recovered a weapon at the murder scene that bore traces of a female's DNA, and Dills said he believes that evidence led to Hester's acquittal.
Scott Shellenberger, the state's attorney for Baltimore County, said the verdict does not diminish the work police and prosecutors put into the case.
"I thought the police and the prosecutors did an excellent job with the evidence they had," he said. "The judge gave us a fair trial, and we certainly respect her decision."
Hester said he wants the police to find the person responsible for Haley's death.
"I believe they owe it to Miss Haley and me to find out what the real deal is — who did it," Hester said. "You can't imagine, my entire life has been reduced to rubble."
Haley had paid Hester $3,000 a year to do yard work and other odd jobs. She also paid for the Hesters' children to attend summer camp and for the family to take vacations, according to public defender Kimberley McGee.
Hester said he has to "start all over again." He said he had to resign from his job as a steel fabricator at A.J. Sackett & Sons and cash out his retirement fund to support his family while he waited for the second trial.
He planned to spend Wednesday night calling family and friends to tell them the news.
"I was to tears, not only for me, but for my family and Miss Haley," Hester said. "It's unreal. It's unbelievable. I said that way back then, when they first hung me. I was trying to help them."