A true detective remembers the Lebowitz case

45 years later, girl's murder still stirs in Nick Giangrasso's memory

April 17, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Among the many Baltimore long-timers who had an old, sad anger awakened by the recent mention of Esther Lebowitz in the news was Nick Giangrasso, the detective in charge of the crime scene the day her body was found.

"Some cases never leave you," he said, "and that's one of them. The years go by, and something flashes here and there in your memory."

It was 1969, and Giangrasso was a 26-year-old detective. A call came in the middle of a late-September day for a detective to respond to a tree-lined place in Northwest Baltimore that Giangrasso knew as a lover's lane on the edge of Mount Washington, across from Pimlico Race Course. Two police officers had stopped in the shady spot to have lunch in their car; one of them discovered the girl's body in tall grass.

Esther Lebowitz, 11 years old, had been missing for two days, last seen alive by a rabbi who had given her and two other children a ride from their school. The girl had been dropped off on Park Heights Avenue so she could buy some school supplies at a drugstore. She lived nearby, but she never made it home.

A crime-scene photo shows detectives and officers standing along the grassy area where Esther's body was found; Giangrasso is hunched over the body, examining it. The girl had been bludgeoned.

One of the things he noticed was a sandy substance on the girl's head and body, which seemed out of place for the area.

"Like sand from a [sand trap] on a golf course," Giangrasso recalls 45 years later. He remembers instructing other detectives to check local golf courses; perhaps groundskeepers had seen blood in a trap.

That sand, or fine gravel, turned out to be key to solving the case. Detectives matched it with the kind of fine gravel used in fish tanks. That led them to a tropical fish store on Park Heights and to a 23-year-old man who operated it with his mother. The pet store was near the drugstore where Esther had been headed.

The man, Wayne S. Young, is now 68. He has been serving a life sentence for Esther's murder since 1970.

The case returned to the headlines last month when about 200 members of Baltimore's Jewish community packed gallery benches and lined the walls of a downtown courtroom as a judge heard Young's plea that his case be reconsidered under a 2012 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

In the so-called Unger ruling, the state's high court concluded that many convictions before 1980 were invalid because jurors had been given unconstitutional instructions by trial judges. One of those convictions was Young's. The judge has not yet issued a ruling on Young's appeal.

The case revived painful memories for many people who grew up in and around Park Heights. Some of them have followed Young's requests for parole for years, and their sustained vigilance and outrage have been instrumental in getting those requests denied. The commission has rejected Young for parole a dozen times.

Giangrasso would be pleased to see him stay in prison.

It's one of the cases that still rises from his memories, along with the 8-year-old boy who was stabbed and beaten by a teenage bully in Southeast Baltimore (case closed by arrest); the young woman stabbed by an intruder in a house in Waverly (case still open); the killer undone by his unique manner of extinguishing cigarettes, some of which he left at the crime scene.

Giangrasso resigned from the Police Department in the early 1980s, and he had a full second career. He was an executive with Jos. A. Bank clothiers during some of the company's biggest growth years. He's also been a consultant to police departments on homicide investigations.

He keeps some old crime-scene photos and newspaper clippings; he has used them in training others over the years. He's proud of the duties he performed back in the day: investigating murders, trying to bring killers to justice, trying to help families of victims find that impossibly elusive thing we call "closure."

Giangrasso had written to me just a couple of weeks before the Lebowitz case returned to the headlines. It was after my column on the HBO drama, "True Detective." I had been critical of the acclaimed series for its almost incessant portrayal of depravity.

"I sat down to watch the first night," Giangrasso wrote. "About halfway through, I knew that this wasn't for me. Those of us who have served [as homicide detectives] do not need or desire to see any more bodies of children, adults or police officers who have been beaten, shot, stabbed, tortured or strangled.

"Having been there in the dark of night, in real time, my fellow investigators and I do not see the entertainment or shock value. Standing over an autopsy of a human being and dealing with 'everyday monsters' is true shock value. ... Thirty years later, I feel honored to have been a homicide investigator, but now I'm a 'chick-flick guy.' I want nothing more than love and happy endings."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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