An 84-year-old woman discovered dead Thursday in a one-alarm blaze at her East Baltimore home had been stabbed multiple times, an autopsy found, turning a fire investigation into a murder case.
Mary Hines, a retired educator, had been living in the rowhouse without electricity since July as she struggled under the weight of her bills, she confided to neighbor Wanda Johnson. She refused most offers of help but occasionally shared a meal with her neighbors or asked to use their appliances, they said.
But what appeared on Thursday to be an accident, perhaps stemming from a toppled candle or an effort to stay warm, took on an added tragic twist with the revelation Friday that she had been stabbed.
As homicide detectives, fire officials and investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combed through the charred home, Johnson teared up recalling Hines' situation.
"We all fall into a little pickle sometimes. This was just a little harder to get out of," she said. "I felt guilty that my situation wasn't better to help her [more]."
The grief over her death in the fire was compounded by anger and bewilderment when word came that she had been stabbed. Her death recalled the fatal stabbing last summer of a 91-year-old Northeast Baltimore woman during a burglary at her home.
"I can't understand it," said Vigil Wooden, 55, sitting on a porch across the street. "Why mess with somebody that age?"
City Councilman Warren Branch said his office was trying to find the widow's relatives, and wondered what possible motive her killer could have. "If she didn't have any electricity, she didn't have any money," Branch said.
While court records suggest Hines' financial problems had been growing, many of her neighbors said they were unaware of her situation. They knew her as "Miss Mary," the woman who often sat on the steps of 2623 E. Biddle St. waiting for a ride to church, doctor's appointments or the local senior center. She moved slowly, with the aid of a cane.
Baltimore Fire Marshal Raymond O'Brocki said investigators were working to determine how the fire started. Hines was found in a front room on the first floor, and that's where investigators believe the fire began, he said.
"There were some red flags," O'Brocki said when asked whether there had been indications Thursday that the fire was intentionally set. "This is obviously an ongoing investigation, though, and we don't want to go into too much detail."
Police said they knew of no motive and asked anyone with information to call homicide detectives at 410-396-2100.
The killing is the second of the year in Baltimore, following the fatal shooting of a 62-year-old man Tuesday night.
Housing and tax records show that Hines had once owned the two-story rowhouse. But the documents show it was sold as part of a bankruptcy 15 years ago and that she was renting it from the current owner. Income from her teaching pension had been garnished at least for a time, other court records show.
Johnson said Hines had called in July and said there was something she had to speak to her neighbor about. It was then that she confided that her electricity had been shut off. Johnson said she made phone calls to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. in an attempt to work the situation out.
"I tried to explain, 'This woman's 84 years old. How do you turn off her services?'" Johnson said. "It was just about money."
A BGE spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday, citing privacy reasons.
Hines rebuffed further attempts by Johnson to help her get financial assistance. Johnson said her phone remained in service. Sometimes neighbors shared a meal with Hines, or she asked to use their microwave or refrigerator.
"She was a proud woman," Johnson said.
State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, said it was unfortunate that Hines hadn't been connected with services that could help her.
"Had we known, we could have intervened," McFadden said. "We have seniors throughout the community, and we look out for those seniors if they just let us know what their needs are. Especially someone who spent their career as an educator."
Neighbor Anne Greene, 62, recalled Hines as a "beautiful lady." "I think people forget about all the elderly people living alone. If someone had been there with her, it might not have happened," Greene said.
Hines spent three decades in the city school system as a teacher and principal. Even after she retired in 1981, she continued instructing others, spending her final years heading up adult Bible study classes at her church.
City school officials said Hines began teaching in September 1948 and retired in 1981 as principal of William Pinderhughes Elementary in West Baltimore. Everywhere Hines went, former students recognized her.
"She loved this church, and she loved the Lord," the Rev. Albert L. Davis Sr., her minister at Eastern United Methodist Church in East Baltimore, said Thursday. "And she believed in education. If you were in Miss Hines' class, she made sure you did your homework and had your Bible lessons together." But most of all, Davis said, "she loved the kids of Baltimore City."
Hines didn't have any children, but she considered those she taught her adopted grandchildren. Her home was full of photos, books and dolls that were lined up near the front door.
Johnson said she couldn't come to grips with the revelation that Hines had been killed.
"I didn't believe that. I still don't believe that," she said. "They need to be caught, and they need to be put under the jail. I pray, I pray that they're caught."