At first, it looked like a bundle of clothing, tossed into the woods next to a Virginia highway and partly obscured by leaves and branches. But as she got closer, Susan Schroeder had no doubt as to what she was seeing.
"It was a body," said Schroeder, an animal-control officer with the Stafford County sheriff's office, as she testified Tuesday in the murder trial of Frederick A. Christian, a 31-year-old used-car salesman who is accused of killing his girlfriend in Cockeysville in 2009.
Grimacing at the memory, Schroeder, who had been searching for a German shepherd that had been hit by a car, described for the Baltimore County Circuit Court jury how she "immediately backed away" from the severely decomposed corpse and called a dispatcher to summon "other people who know more about this than I do."
The body found March 2, 2010, near an Interstate 95 ramp was eventually identified as that of a 23-year-old Cockeysville woman, Jerryell Myesha Foster, who had gone missing five months earlier. An autopsy found that Foster died of gunshot wounds. Christian is the father of her 2-year-old daughter.
In Christian's trial, which began last week and is scheduled to go on for several more days, prosecutors Rachel Karceski and David Lemanski are trying to establish for the jury that not only did Christian kill Foster but that he drove almost 200 miles, to Stafford County and back, to get rid of her body. Foster's disappearance had initially been known as the "red couch" case, a reference to a love seat, part of a sectional sofa, that had been removed from Foster's apartment and discarded around the time she disappeared. Detectives thought the couch might have yielded crucial clues.
Christian, who said he lived in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood when he was arrested on March 15, 2010, listened without visible reaction, occasionally shuffling papers and whispering to his lawyer, while the prosecutors displayed photographs of Foster's body as it looked when it was found in the Virginia woods.
Another witness, Paul Hardy, who had been Foster's neighbor, told the jury that on Nov. 28, 2009, the day he heard she had disappeared, he asked Christian what had happened to the love seat under the front window of Foster's apartment, where Christian had been staying. The defendant, he said, replied that he had thrown it away "because he wanted to put his weight set in the living room."
The following day, Hardy said, Christian asked to use his telephone and "told me he was wanted by the police." Hardy, who testified in leg shackles, the result of having been incarcerated in an unrelated case, was asked by defense attorney Donald Daneman whether he recalled Christian knocking on doors in the apartment building and asking people where Foster was.
"No," Hardy replied. "Of course not."
Around the same time, another acquaintance of Christian's asked him whether he'd had anything to do with the woman's disappearance, and he "never responded," according to the witness, Lamont B. Bryant. "I said, 'You're a good guy — if something's happened, you should turn yourself in,'" Bryant recalled. "He was sad. He just wasn't the happy Fred that I knew."
The witness, with whom Christian often bought cars at auction, fixed them up and resold them, told the jury he remembered hoping that the defendant was blameless but, under insistent questioning from Karceski, conceded that he had thought Christian "knew something he wasn't saying."