By Erika Butler, Record staff
10:15 AM EDT, October 13, 2011
Twenty-five years ago today (Friday), in the middle of the afternoon on a busy parking lot in Havre de Grace, a woman was shot to death as she serviced a bank ATM machine.
That was Oct. 14, 1986. A quarter century later, the murder of Carolyn McComas remains unsolved, an ice cold case from an unusually violent time in Havre de Grace's history.
What made Ms. McComas' murder even more frightening than the way it happened was its timing. Havre de Grace was still reeling from Frank Green's shooting spree across the city that left one police officer dead and three others injured just a few weeks earlier.
"It was really, that period of time in the city's history was pretty unprecedented, in that the Frank Green incident and Carolyn's murder were maybe a little over a month apart," John Van Gilder, who was with the Havre de Grace Police Department for 32 years and, as a sergeant, was one of the first to arrive at the McComas murder scene in 1986. "In the scheme of things that was a very violent time. Over a long career I never really experienced anything like that."
It was early afternoon on a bright sunny Tuesday, when Ms. McComas, 41, who was single and lived in the Meadowvale neighborhood in Havre de Grace, was servicing the First National Bank "Easy Bank" ATM at a kiosk on what was then the parking lot of the busy Acme grocery store. Officially known as the Havre de Grace Plaza, on Route 40 at its intersection with Lewis Lane, the site of the murder has become the location of a CVS drugstore. The machine was shut down daily between 1:45 and 2:15 p.m. to refill deposit slips or other forms provided for customers.
Ms. McComas did not have access to large amounts of cash, the "big money," Van Gilder said, possibly only the overnight deposits. The cash used to fill the machine was handled by armored car employees. No money was taken that day.
As she went in to service the machine, a man approached Ms. McComas, drew a weapon and forced her into the kiosk. Witnesses saw only the killer emerge and get into an olive-colored van, driven by another man, and head toward Aberdeen.
When police found her, Ms. McComas was bound and gagged with plastic cable TV ties and had been shot twice in the head. She was still alive, but died three days later at a Baltimore hospital.
Police eventually produced an composite drawing of a suspect and the FBI got involved, but the investigation faltered.
Van Gilder, who has since retired from the police department and works in intergovernmental affairs for the City of Havre de Grace, spent years investigating Ms. McComas' murder. He regrets he couldn't close it.
"In the course of my career, there have only been a handful of other missing person cases unsolved, or homicides unsolved," Van Gilder said. "Any time you have a homicide you really, for the betterment of society and for the victim's family, you really want to have closure; someone needs to be responsible for that."
The case may have gone cold, but it's not forgotten at police headquarters.
"We are still working on it," Havre de Grace Police Chief Teresa Walter said Wednesday.
Over the last few months, Walter explained, Havre de Grace police have been looking into all their cold cases.
"We go back, revisit them, try to touch base and see if we have any additional leads, anything we might have missed or forgotten," she said.
At one point, FBI investigators said they thought Ms. McComas was targeted to eliminate her as a witness. They never publicly said for what.
Van Gilder said the McComas case is unlike some murders where investigators think they have a pretty good idea who the killer is but can't prove it.
"I don't have a strong feeling of who committed the crime. If a person would have had a strong relationship with Carolyn, and wanted to enact extreme violence on her, it would not have been in broad daylight in a parking lot on a bright sunny afternoon," he said. "They wouldn't expose themselves to a scenario like that."
Police did focus on a person at the time, but he passed at least one lie detector test, Van Gilder said.
Anyone with information about Ms. McComas' murder is asked to call Havre de Grace Police Department, 410-939-2121.