Henry Ackerman

Henry Ackerman (Baltimore Sun / July 8, 2011)

Henry Ackerman had plans — big, cross country, into-the-wild plans.

It was 1998, and he was 48 years old, alone, sad and somewhat peculiar. He lived with threecats and a big, sandy-colored dog in an unkempt Baltimore County apartment and worked as a child psychologist in the city school system.

His beloved wife had died of leukemia four years earlier in Memphis after a long illness, and he had moved immediately afterward, first to Oregon and then to Maryland to be closer to his sister's family, acquaintances said.

But he yearned for Alaska. He reached out to a tiny school system there in the eastern part of the state, in a town called Circle, and was in the process of quietly securing a new job. He planned to live in a camper out there, in the Last Frontier, a former neighbor told police.

He made all the arrangements, and on June 18, 1998, he set out to purchase a used GMC. He never came back.

He just went missing.

Thirteen years would pass before his family found out what happened, through a stunning murder confession disclosed last week in aMemphis courtroom.

A Tennessee man admitted bludgeoning Ackerman to death over a debt. The revelation solved a long-cold missing-person case, even though his body has not been found, and likely never will.

"It's just too painful," his 73-year-old sister said over the phone from her home in New Jersey, declining to discuss details of her brother's life or his death. "He was a wonderful human being, and nobody deserves to die like this, certainly not him."

Baltimore County missing-person's records, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request, and conversations with some of those who knew Ackerman show him to be a largely likable, if odd, scholar who mostly kept to himself.

He received degrees from schools in three states over a 25-year period. He had no criminal record. And the worst anybody said about him was that he was prone to exaggeration and half-truths. He told several people — including a former professor and a medical doctor — that his sister had cancer, but her family later denied that to police and others.

He was devastated by his wife's death, and spoke of her lovingly and often, according to Reva Chopra, who lived in an apartment above Ackerman in 1998 when she was a young law student. She took extra care to engage him when they ran into one another in the halls.

"He always seemed to me to be really kind of depressed a little bit, like sad," said Chopra, who's now a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County.

She twice cared for Ackerman's pets. The first time was when he went away for a few days, and the second was when he went away forever.

His apartment was filthy, Chopra remembers. He stored vast quantities of canned food in huge coolers, as if preparing for natural disaster or war, she said. And he collected Army figures, which may have tied in to another hobby: Ackerman was into guns.

He had earlier befriended a Memphis gun dealer named Dale Mardis, whom he met at a gun show. Ackerman made plans to catch up with the man on the June truck-buying trip, prosecutors said last week.

It would turn out to be a fatal mistake.

The killer

Not much information about Mardis' early years is publicly available.