From the archives

Sister Catherine Cesnik case: With new lead, police reopen old murder case

Sun Staff Writers

On a gray Saturday morning almost 25 years ago, two hunters crossing a snow-crusted field in Lansdowne stumbled on a terrifying sight -- the partly clothed body of a young woman sprawled halfway down an embankment. The only evidence of life was fresh animal tracks.

It was Jan. 3, 1970. With Baltimore’s daily newspapers on strike, the discovery of the frozen, mutilated body of Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik made barely a ripple compared with the furor over her mysterious disappearance eight weeks earlier.

Despite months of investigation by Baltimore and Baltimore County homicide detectives, the killer of the popular, 26-year-old teaching nun was never found, and the motive for the slaying remains unclear. Over the years, the thick case file lay dormant in county police headquarters in Towson.

But police revived the investigation this spring after a former student at Archbishop Keough High School approached them with a startling story. She said a Catholic priest who had sexually abused her took her to see Sister Catherine’s body weeks before the hunters discovered it on a local dumping ground off the 2100 block of Monumental Ave.

The woman, now 41, was an Archbishop Keough student when Sister Catherine taught there. She also told police that another man she had met in the priest’s office told her he had beaten Sister Catherine to death because the nun knew of the alleged sexual molestation.

She said the priest and the other man -- whom she has not identified -- warned her that she would suffer the same fate if she told her story to anyone else.

Meanwhile, several detectives involved in the investigation in 1970 have told The Sun that their initial efforts were hampered by pressure and lack of cooperation from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

City detectives said that after a visit to the police commissioner by archdiocesan representatives, they were forced to cut short the questioning of a priest about the nun’s death. A county officer said he was ordered to destroy investigative documents because of church sensitivity.

William Blaul, spokesman for the archdiocese, said officials there deny that such interference could have occurred.

The woman whose allegations caused the case to be reopened is one of several who have told Towson lawyers Phillip G. Dantes, Beverly A. Wallace and James Maggio that they were sexually abused while they were students at Archbishop Keough in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The lawyers declined to comment.

Police have been unable to verify or disprove the woman’s allegations. But in interviews with police and The Sun, she provided details about the body that were known only to investigators at the time, and detectives have not dismissed her claims.

“We are continuing our investigation into the Cesnik murder and are looking for additional information that someone might have out there to direct us to a suspect,” Maj. Allan J. Webster, commander of Baltimore County’s Criminal Investigation Services Division, said last week.

Investigators have traveled recently to three states to interview witnesses. They are also applying techniques developed over the years since the slaying, including the creation of a psychological profile of a possible suspect -- a stranger to the nun -- which they hope will elicit a response from the public.

“To a dedicated investigator, there’s no such thing as a closed case,” said Baltimore County Police Chief Michael D. Gambrill, who worked on the Cesnik case as a young detective and who has taken a personal interest in the renewed investigation.

“Even now, 20 years after I left the homicide squad, I’ll recall an unsolved case and try to remember if we left anything undone,” Chief Gambrill said.

Conflicting evidence

The slaying remains particularly puzzling because some evidence points to a street robbery turned deadly, and other evidence points to a killer who knew Sister Catherine or was at least familiar with her activities.

The crime was also set against a backdrop of rebellion against authority that was sweeping the country as it struggled with the Vietnam War and of change that was gripping the Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

It was an era when many young priests and nuns were advocating social activism at the same time they were questioning the personal and emotional demands of celibacy that the church imposed. And it was a time in which Sister Catherine, according to a colleague, Sister Helen Russell Phillips, had fallen in love with a Jesuit priest.

A member of a devout Catholic family in Pittsburgh, Catherine Ann Cesnik joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame at the age of 18. In the late 1960s, she was teaching at Archbishop Keough, a girls’ high school in Southwest Baltimore that had opened in 1965.

Those who knew Sister Catherine remembered her spiritual and physical beauty. Quiet and reserved, but friendly, gentle and supportive, Sister Catherine was respected and loved as a teacher and friend.

“Sister Cathy was always a joy to be around,” said David A. Curtis, who attended Cardinal Gibbons High School but studied drama at nearby Keough. As the drama teacher, “she was very supportive; she was your friend. But she didn’t let the friendship issue cloud the fact that she was our teacher, our leader … the adult.”

Romantic relationship

John A. “Pete” McKeon, a former Christian brother who met Sister Catherine at a 1969 retreat for Notre Dame sisters in Boston, described her as “extremely intelligent, extremely sensitive.” He said she was chosen to help lead the retreat “for her poetic ability, because of her sensitivity to pick up on other people’s feelings.”

But, like many young religious in the late 1960s, Sister Catherine was troubled by the regimented life of the convent.

She had also developed a romantic relationship with the Rev. Gerard J. Koob, a young Jesuit she had met when he was an intern at Keough. Mr. Koob, now a Methodist minister, told The Sun recently that he and Sister Catherine were deeply in love but that “it was a love between two celibates in a commitment to Christ.”

He described Sister Catherine as a naive, unworldly young woman who had no sense of her own beauty -- or its effect on others. Mr. Koob said his sister in Boston once gave the nun expensive clothing, including a bright red suit. One day, Sister Catherine styled her hair fashionably and wore the suit to see him during a visit to Manresa, the Annapolis retreat where he lived and worked.

“She was beautiful,” Mr. Koob recalled, and his fellow Jesuits just stared at her. “I remember thinking, ‘Do you know what you’ve done?’ And I said that to her later.”

Mr. Koob said he asked Sister Catherine to marry him before he was ordained in 1968 and before she had taken her final vows. She refused, but the two continued to see each other regularly and exchanged letters. Mr. Koob remained a Jesuit priest for a decade after her death.

In the spring of 1969, Sister Catherine and Sister Russell asked for permission to live outside the 40-sister convent but to continue teaching as nuns at Archbishop Keough.

The former Sister Russell, who left the order and is now married and living in Carroll County, said the idea of living outside the convent was often discussed, particularly among the younger nuns. The order denied the request.

“But we were the renegades,” the former nun recalled in a recent interview. “We said we were going anyway. We already had the apartment.” The two left Archbishop Keough in June 1969, adopted civilian dress, got teaching jobs in city schools and moved into the Carriage House Apartments on North Bend Road, in the city’s southwest corner.

On the evening of Nov. 7, Sister Catherine got into her green, 1969 Ford Maverick, drove to a Catonsville bank and cashed a $255 paycheck, then went to the Edmonson Village Shopping Center, where she bought buns at Muhly’s bakery. That was the last time anyone reported seeing her alive.

“She never came back,” said the former Sister Russell.

She said that the two “always communicated” and that she was sure Sister Catherine would have called if she had planned to go somewhere else. Also, she said, “convent habits die hard; we didn’t stay out after 10 o’clock.”

When Sister Catherine didn’t return by 11, her housemate grew worried and placed a frantic call to Father Koob at Manresa. Father Koob and Mr. McKeon -- who also knew each other from the 1969 retreat -- had just returned from dinner and a movie in downtown Baltimore when the phone rang. The two men rushed back to the city.

Manhunt begins

After several hours of anxious waiting at the nuns’ apartment, the three took a walk to ease the tension. That was when they found Sister Catherine’s Maverick parked illegally at Carriage Court and North Bend Road, a block from the apartment.

“We went to it and opened the door,” said Mr. McKeon, who left the Christian Brothers in 1972. “There was a broken umbrella in the back seat. It looked like there had been a struggle.”

City police took the car to the Southwestern District station, and a manhunt began in Southwest Baltimore and the neighboring areas of Baltimore County. But aside from the car, no trace of Sister Catherine was found until the hunters stumbled upon her body weeks later.

County police say now that no unaccountable fingerprints turned up in the car. Except for the umbrella and a twig hooked with yellow thread on the turn signal lever, nothing significant was found.

After the body was found, Dr. Werner U. Spitz, then deputy chief medical examiner for Maryland, said Sister Catherine had died from a 2-inch circular fracture of the left temple that was inflicted by a heavy with a blunt object, probably a brick. Marks on her neck indicated that she also had been choked.

In his report, the pathologist was unable to say with certainty whether she had been raped, because the lower body had been mutilated by animals. But he noted that “the disarray of the clothing suggests a sexual background to this killing.”

Dr. Spitz said in a recent interview that he thinks Sister Catherine was killed somewhere else the night she disappeared and then dumped in the Lansdowne field.

The $255 Sister Catherine got from the bank was never found, although her purse -- containing personal articles -- lay near her body, along with several articles of clothing. Her rings and watch had not been removed, which prompted detectives who handled the original case to doubt the robbery motive.

Police still don’t know how and where the nun was abducted or how her car, its wheels muddy, was returned to her neighborhood.

A Carriage House resident who knew the nun by sight told police at the time that Sister Catherine’s car was pulled into its regular parking space about 8:30 p.m. But no one could say who was driving or how many people were in the automobile.

Other people told police they noticed the car in a no-parking zone near the apartment about 10:30 p.m. To her friends, that meant something was wrong, since the law-abiding Sister Catherine would never have parked illegally.

People close to nun

Police say they are still unable to account for those two hours and never have found anyone who saw an abduction or heard screams.

Another witness told police that a similar car pulled up near Sister Catherine’s automobile and that she followed it. “She knew who pulled in behind her,” a former investigator said. “She either met them at the bank or the shopping center.” But the report of the second car was not substantiated.

In the original investigation, police concentrated on people close to the nun and on Gerard Koob in particular, although he had a strong alibi.

Mr. Koob, who now lives in New Jersey, told The Sun that he submitted without protest to police interrogations and underwent two polygraph tests in an effort to convince investigators of his theory that a stranger had taken Sister Catherine.

“I did everything they asked me to because I wanted them to get past the idea that it was someone who knew her,” Mr. Koob said. Sister Catherine was such a gentle person that she wouldn’t have resisted an attack, he said. “She wouldn’t have struggled. She’d have been like a bird, frozen.”

Mr. McKeon told The Sun that he confirmed Father Koob’s account of his whereabouts the evening of the slaying -- that he and the priest had met for dinner and a movie. He said they had just returned to the Manresa retreat when Sister Russell’s call came.

“I just happened to be there when she called. Gerry did not leave my sight that night. I was his alibi. I took the polygraph test,” Mr. McKeon said.

Some former detectives and commanders still feel that their investigation was on the right track and was short-circuited by church officials.

A major impediment, said three retired police investigators and a commander -- including a lieutenant and a senior detective sergeant in the city homicide unit -- was the interference or lack of cooperation by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

For example, Harry Bannon, then a detective sergeant and one of the city’s top homicide investigators, said he was forced to end his interrogation of Gerard Koob prematurely because of intervention from the church.

“We had to stop questioning him because of some pressure brought by the archdiocese,” Mr. Bannon said. “The archdiocese sent a couple of priests who were lawyers. The priests went to [Police Commissioner Donald D.] Pomerieau, and the inspector wanted to know why we were holding Koob. We had more questioning to do, but we were ordered to charge the priest or let him go.

“We were absolutely certain we were going in the right direction. … If [Father Koob] didn’t do it, he knew who did. We were all very aware of the potential for scandal because of everything that was going on inside the Catholic Church between priests and nuns.

“In fact, we were hoping someone would step forward who had heard the murderer’s confession. We were both personally and professionally disappointed we didn’t close the investigation. She was really a popular nun, but going into court in this murder would have shook the church to its foundations.”

No cooperation

Another former investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had much the same description of the incident. “The word came down from Detective Inspector [Julian I. Forrest] to charge Koob or release him. I thought he was a very good suspect before we had him in, from my knowledge of the relationship between the two and the letters between them.”

Mr. Pomerieau and Inspector Forrest have died.

Who the priest-lawyers were and where they came from remains a mystery. Mr. Koob denied making any request for intervention. As a Jesuit, he said, he had no contact with the archdiocese and did not seek any assistance from superiors in his own order.

Some Baltimore County investigators said they ran up against similar roadblocks. “We never got any cooperation from the church,” said former Maj. Leroy Duggan, who was head of the county’s major case unit. Mr. Duggan said it was as if the church was operating “a judge’s gag order.”

Another former ranking Baltimore County commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his superior told him to read and destroy some supplementary reports. “There was stuff in there the church wouldn’t like,” the former policeman said, adding that he cannot remember details of those reports with absolute certainty today.

Mr. Blaul, the archdiocesan spokesman, described the investigators’ assertions as “callous and untrue.”

He said Bishop P. Francis Murphy, who was secretary for the late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, then archbishop, “categorically denies that Cardinal Shehan would have authorized the archdiocese to dispatch priests to interfere with an investigation.”

Chief Gambrill said he does not recall the kind of interference on the part of the archdiocese that other city and county detectives have described. “But I was on the forensic side of the investigation,” he said, and would not necessarily have been aware of such pressure.

The current police investigation arose after the former Archbishop Keough student told homicide detectives of her memories of seeing Sister Catherine’s body and of the warning not to tell anyone about it.

The woman, who was undergoing psychotherapy, said the memories resurfaced in February 1993, at which point she told her husband and sister about them. Then she told her therapists and her lawyers and repeated them in an interview with The Sun. Her therapy did not include hypnosis or drug-induced memory recall, both of which have come into question in sexual abuse cases, both of her therapists said.

Confided in nun

Her allegations of abuse at Archbishop Keough, and similar allegations by several other former students, are the subject of research by Mr. Dantes, Ms. Wallace and Mr. Maggio, who are planning a lawsuit. City prosecutors are investigating the allegations independently.

The link between the cases surfaced when the former student said she had confided in Sister Catherine in May 1969 that a priest had sexually abused her at Archbishop Keough. She never saw the nun again after that term. But after Sister Catherine’s disappearance in November, she said, the priest took her in his car to see the nun’s body lying in a field.

The woman said she was horrified and remembered brushing maggots off the face of the corpse. Although the presence of maggots would appear to be unlikely in the usually cold month of November, the autopsy disclosed maggots in the dead nun’s throat, a detail never made public.

Subsequently, the woman said, she was taken to the priest’s office, where a man she has not identified said he had beaten Sister Catherine to death because the nun knew about the sexual abuse. She said she was threatened with the same fate if she did not swear eternal silence.

New techniques

Baltimore County police say they must move cautiously with retrieved-memory information from the woman, but they have reopened the long-dormant investigation. They have been retracing their steps and talking to various people -- including the priest named by the former student. Police say the priest was not known to detectives at the time of the original investigation.

The priest denied the woman’s allegations and told The Sun that detectives have told him he is not a suspect. But investigators said they are pursuing various theories and have excluded nothing.

Detectives are also using forensic techniques that weren’t available 25 years ago. One of their tools is the criminal profile, an analysis of the evidence that attempts to determine what kind of person determined a crime and under what circumstances.

Lt. Sam Bowerman, the department’s expert on criminal behavior, said he thinks the slaying of Sister Catherine was a crime of opportunity committed by a stranger, but probably a man with whom “she may have crossed paths on a previous occasion within the community where she lived.”

The killer probably did not know that the victim was a nun, and what began as a robbery “developed a sexual component,” he said.

The killer was familiar with the area around the Carriage House Apartments where Sister Cesnik lived and the out-of-the-way Monumental Avenue site where the body was dumped, the lieutenant said.

Those who knew Sister Catherine are still puzzled. The former Sister Russell said she has never formulated a theory or suspected any individual.

“I just had no explanation,” she said. “I never had a theory or a suspect, because it was so purposeless. Why anyone would want to kill her I don’t know. She was a wonderful person, and everyone loved her.”

She said questions did arise immediately when they found the car. “Why was the car put there? It was put so it was obviously to be found,” she said.

But that, like her other questions, remains unanswered. It has become “the seemingly perfect crime,” the former nun said. “It’s gone unsolved, and I often wondered why.”

The Baltimore Sun is republishing archived coverage of the unsolved 1969 murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, which is the subject of a Netflix documentary series set to debut May 19. Cesnik, a 26-year-old Baltimore nun, was reported missing in November 1969 and her body was found in Lansdowne in January 1970. These stories appear as they were originally written in The Sun or The Evening Sun.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°