'The Keepers' recap, Episode 1: Who killed Sister Cathy?

For The Baltimore Sun

From “Making a Murderer” to “Serial,” True crime buffs have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in the streaming age. If you’re fascinated by unsolved cases, you’ve got a wide selection from which to choose — a selection that just got a little larger with the release of Netflix’s “The Keepers.”

I should warn you, though: This one’s different.

“The Keepers,” which was released by Netflix in full on Friday, revolves around two stories local to Baltimore — connected, yet each a fully realized, horrific tale itself. The second story is one we’ll be introduced to in Episode 2.

First, though, we need to hear the story of two 1969 Baltimore murders: 26-year-old Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik and 20-year-old Joyce Malecki.

We first meet freelance journalist Tom Nugent, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, who shows us a crowded attic crammed full of boxes of research and mementos from a 30-plus year career. Freelance writers, Tom tells us, face a never-ending sequence of events: Find a compelling story, convince an editor to let us write it, lather, rinse, repeat.

That’s how Nugent first became acquainted with Sister Cathy, culminating in a 6,000 word article titled “Who Killed Sister Cathy?” published in the City Paper in 2005.

Nugent first heard about Sister Cathy in 1994 when, he says, “the first stories began to emerge.”

Stories of what, exactly? Well, we’ll get to that in the next episode.

For now, we’re told only that a former student at Archbishop Keough High School, identified as Jane Doe, said she’d been taken to see the dead nun’s body shortly after her disappearance — but long before Sister Cathy’s body was ultimately discovered by law enforcement.

We next meet my new spirit guides, the “keepers” themselves — Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins. These women were both students of Sister Cathy’s and, as we’ll learn throughout the series, they have probably done more than anyone else to keep Sister Cathy’s memory alive and her case active.

Gemma says she is the outgoing one who will talk to anyone at length, while Abbie is the intellectual and the researcher. Their skills complement each other and have created a partnership of sorts that served their purpose well.

What is that purpose? Nothing less than solving the mystery of what happened to Sister Cathy and Joyce Malecki.

Gemma and Abbie describe Sister Cathy as the embodiment of kindness and compassion, thoroughly invested in helping each of her young charges develop as individuals. She was the cool nun who, as their English teacher at Archbishop Keough (later Seton Keough), got them excited about literature and poetry.

On the night of Nov. 7, 1969, Sister Cathy left the apartment she shared with Sister Russell Phillips to run some errands. She had told Sister Russell, as well as some students, earlier that day that she needed to buy an engagement present for her sister.

Witnesses next place Sister Cathy at Edmondson Village, an upscale shopping center about two miles from her apartment, where police established that she cashed her paycheck and bought some rolls from a bakery.

At 11:30 p.m., Sister Russell called Gerry Koob, at the time a Catholic priest and a close friend of Sister Cathy’s. He remembers that he and Brother Pete McKeon, a friend, were talking about the film they’d just seen when Sister Russell called. Hearing that Cathy had not returned from her errands, they went together to the apartment the nuns shared.

Gerry says they spent about 45 minutes inside the apartment talking to Sister Russell before they all decided it was time to call the police. An officer arrived at 1:30 a.m. to take a report, then left, followed an hour later by Gerry and Pete.

That’s when they spotted Sister Cathy’s car, about a block away and across the street from the apartment complex. It had been pulled into a space with the rear half of the car sticking out into the street. The tires were muddy, and there was a long twig hanging from the gear shift. Cathy was nowhere to be seen.

In fact, it’s the circumstances of discovering the car that present the most striking connection with the case of Joyce Malecki. Just a few days after Sister Cathy disappeared, Joyce — whose family lived less than 5 miles from Sister Cathy’s apartment — was about to go shopping, when her mother reminded her about “the nun” and warned her to be careful and “come home safe.” But she never came home at all.

The family car Joyce had been driving was later found abandoned in a parking lot. Like Sister Cathy’s car, the keys were in the car and the door unlocked. Both women had been shopping, both were attractive and young, and both had seemingly disappeared into thin air.

Joyce’s body was found first — the day after the car was found — floating in Little Patuxent River. Her hands were bound behind her back, and her throat had been cut.

Sister Cathy’s body wouldn’t be found until Jan. 3, 1970.

James Scannell responded as the first officer on the scene. Now retired, he agrees to escort Gemma and others to the scene.

He tells Gemma that Cathy’s body was discovered face up, her clothing removed to her waist, with no visible gun or knife wounds. He also says her body had not “deteriorated,” then pauses and adds, “no maggots or anything like that.”

The medical examiner would later determine Sister Cathy’s cause of death to be blunt force trauma and identified two skull wounds, a large one on the side and a smaller round hole on the back.

Gemma and Abbie say that they simply want to know what happened to a beloved teacher.

Don Malecki, one of Joyce’s brothers, agrees. He says he’s made several attempts to find out what’s going on in his sister’s case, only to be told “It’s an open case, and we can’t discuss it.” You can only try to imagine how deeply frustrating such a wall of silence must feel to the loved ones these young women left behind.

Tom Nugent asks rhetorically, “How does this story begin?” and then answers his own question: With two key characters. One was the murdered nun. The other is Jane Doe. It took Jane 45 years to confront the horror of what she knows, Tom says.

Another journalist who’s written about the case echoes what we’re all probably thinking right at that moment: “I’d love to talk to Jane Doe now, because she had a story to tell but we never got to hear it.”

But that’s not exactly true. In episode 2 of “The Keepers,” we’ll all get to hear Jane Doe’s story.

ALSO

Read The Sun’s archived coverage of the Sister Catherine Cesnik case

Baltimore braces for documentary on nun’s death, sex abuse at Catholic school

What critics are saying about “The Keepers”

Newspaper strike silenced coverage of murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik

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