'The Keepers' recap, Episode 5: The nun in the attic

For The Baltimore Sun

I need to amend something I wrote in the previous “Keepers” recap about Maskell burying records at Holy Cross Cemetery being the most bizarre incident in this story.

I take it back: The nun in the attic wins that title, by a huge margin.

But before we get there, we have two more suspects to look at.

Former Baltimore Sun reporter Bob Erlandson tells us that he never thought Maskell would get his hands dirty by murdering Sister Cathy himself. If he was involved, it was by directing another person — or persons — to do the deed, Erlandson said.

And the two leading candidates, according to “The Keepers,” are two men named Edgar Davidson and Billy Schmidt. Both are brought to the attention of Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub through the men’s respective nieces.

First, we meet Debbie, Edgar’s niece. Through her and Edgar’s ex-wife, identified solely as “Margaret” here, we learn just why they think Edgar was involved in Cathy Cesnik’s murder.

On Nov. 7, 1969, Margaret says, the hospital called to tell Margaret she could take her prematurely born infant daughter home the next day. She was getting clothes for the baby ready when her husband came home at 9:30 p.m. with blood on his shirt, telling her he’d gotten into a fight with his boss over a paycheck, she says.

A month after Cathy’s disappearance, Edgar gave his wife a necklace as a Christmas present. It featured a wedding bell pendant and a light green stone. The stone was strange, Margaret said, because it seemed like a birthstone, but it wasn’t her birthstone. She kept it, never wore it, and ultimately handed it to Debbie.

And Debbie and her husband think it’s a birthstone too -- the peridot, which is the stone for August.

Suspect No. 2, the show posits, is Billy Schmidt, uncle of Sharon and former brother-in-law Sharon’s mom, Barbara. Both women remember that Ronnie (their father and ex-husband, respectively) suddenly took up drinking around this time and admitted it was because “we killed a woman and put her body behind” the Schmidt family business, they say.

Barbara also remembers what she thinks is the precipitating event: The night Ronnie came home with a bloody shirt but no visible injuries of his own, claiming he’d gotten into a bar fight.

Ronnie’s brother Billy was a kind, gentle, fun-loving man, Barbara recalls, with whom she was quite close. Neither of them were quite fully accepted by the Schmidt family, she claims — she, because the family didn’t approve of her, and Billy, because he was gay.

That’s why Billy moved out of the family home into an apartment of his own.

An apartment 10 steps away from Cathy Cesnik’s front door.

(Here, I think I actually yelled at the TV a little bit.)

Billy even introduced his sister-in-law to Sister Cathy. Barbara remembers she was under the impression that Billy really liked the young nun.

Afterward Sister Cathy’s killing, Barbara says, he became obsessed with the case, talking about it incessantly. Ultimately he had to move back into the family home, where Barbara says he deteriorated rapidly due to drugs and alcohol.

And he kept talking about “the woman in the attic,” Barbara remembers. He was terrified of her. He said the woman was “after” him. So Barbara says she decided to prove to him there was no woman in the attic.

Except there was — sort of.

She says she discovered a mannequin there, dressed in a blue and white nun’s habit.

Only slightly less terrifying is the next story Barbara recalls. She describes a man named Skippy, who was Billy’s close friend — she suspects lover, as well — who had black hair and a bushy dark mustache.

Barbara says that one night around this time when she was driving home from work, she noticed a car following her. The car pulled up beside her at a stoplight, and she felt someone staring at her. She turned to look, and saw that the car was being driven by a nun.

A nun with a big, bushy mustache.

Barbara says she can’t swear that this was Skippy, but the mustache was similar, and both Skippy and Billy had a demonstrated obsession with the Catholic Church — even going so far as to dress in priest and pregnant-nun costumes on occasion.

Sharon and Barbara aren’t the only members of the Schmidt family to harbor suspicions about their relative’s involvement in Sister Cathy’s murder. Six months before Sharon’s brother Brian’s death, he was interviewed about his memories by Alan Horn, a self-described “armchair researcher” who assists Gemma and Abbie.

Now, I have to admit, I’m deeply skeptical about Brian’s story. I’ll tell you why in a bit. But let’s recap his story briefly first.

Brian recalls when he was a child — the exact age isn’t mentioned — that he was with his uncle Billy in Sister Cathy’s apartment. He remembers his uncle took him back to his own apartment, then closed the door to Cathy’s apartment.

Brian says his uncle at some point called black-haired, mustachioed Skippy, as well as Billy’s other brother Bobby (Brother Bob, maybe? We don’t know!), and together they drove a large object rolled up in blanket or rug back to the Schmidt family home. Brian says his uncle Bobby distracted him by shooting a gun at a garbage dump area, while Billy and Skippy disposed of the rolled-up rug.

We know Sister Russell said Cathy left her apartment at 7 p.m. or so the night she went missing. We know that Cathy did go to the bank to cash her check and to the bakery to purchase rolls that night, which was verified by the police from evidence left in her car.

If that’s the case, then Cathy was alive after it got dark. In Baltimore in early November, the sun sets around 5 p.m., according to various timetables I’ve looked at online.

But Brian remembered all this taking place in daylight. That’s one problem.

Another problem: You’ll recall the Schmidt family’s suspicions arose over Billy’s brother Ronnie coming home in a bloody shirt. But Brian doesn’t ever mention his father being involved here.

Finally, there’s the nature of the memory itself. Wouldn’t you want to avoid any loud noises like gunshots that could call attention to what you’re doing if you’re trying to hide a dead body? And if she were disposed of in a rug, why wasn’t it found by the body?

And then there’s Jean and Mike.

Honestly, I’ve been emotionally affected at so many points in this series so far, but this one — oh, boy, this one makes me flat-out cry.

Jean’s amazing husband, Mike — the man, she says, who stood beside her and protected her throughout all of this, swallowing all his anger again and again — developed esophageal cancer and died 10 years ago.

Damn it, Ryan White. You really need to warn a recapper before you emotionally ruin her.

Gemma and Abbie take the necklace Debbie’s aunt gave her to a gemologist who tells them that it’s a colored rhinestone designed to look like a peridot, that it seems handmade, is probably at least 30 years old, and would not have been terribly expensive — maybe $10-$15 dollars in all. Is it the missing engagement present Cathy set out to buy her for her sister?

We end by returning to Sharon and Debbie. Sharon points out that both stories are quite similar in many ways. Two uncles. Two bloody shirts. Two stories of fistfights to explain the blood. Two men who behaved quite strangely after November 1969.

Both Sharon and Debbie agree that if their respective uncles were involved, they could well have been part of a larger group. Maybe both men were involved, then.

And it’s then that Gemma drops the hour’s biggest bomb on us. We started the hour acknowledging Maskell’s death with a shot of his tombstone. We know Billy died by suicide years ago.

But Edgar?

He’s still alive. As Debbie advises someone (I’m assuming director Ryan White) how best to approach her uncle to get him to talk freely, a handheld camera tracks an old man with shaggy white hair from a distance as he walks through a nondescript neighborhood.

Debbie warns that Edgar will toy with an interviewer, like a cat with a mouse. The man stands in a yard in front of what looks like another apartment complex, then turns to stare at the camera.

You guys! I think we’ll be meeting Edgar in Episode 6.

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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