Jogger runs to her death on a woodsy lane

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

DETECTIVE Dave Harp pulls off the busy road, slides out of his car, lights a cigarette and peers at the farm field isolated by suburban sprawl in western Anne Arundel County.

Developers will be here soon, carving the field into lots and covering it with two-story colonials. But that won't change Harp's view of the landscape.

When he looks at the clearing, Harp sees a field of nightmares. A woman was slain there two years ago, and her murder remains a mystery.

"I can still see her lying in that field," says Harp, drawing on the cigarette. "Yeah, I get frustrated."

Early one morning in May 1988, Mary Elaine Shereika, 37, tiptoed out the door of her Gambrills home for her daily five-mile run. She never returned.

That afternoon, a farmer found her body in a grain field a few miles away. Shereika, a mother of two, had been attacked during her workout -- sexually assaulted, strangled and slashed across the throat.

Shereika died a few yards from Francis Station Road, a woodsy, isolated lane she loved to take on warm mornings. Startled deer often crashed through the tall grass around her, Shereika wrote in her running journal.

Police kept the diary, which ends abruptly on May 22 -- the day before her killer lunged out of the same field.

Thirty-one months, 400 interviews and 24 search warrants later, authorities say they have a suspect in Shereika's murder but lack the evidence to make an arrest.

"We've got a lot of circumstantial stuff, but we need something that links [the suspect] to the crime scene that day," says Harp. "I live, eat and sleep this case."

Harp has followed Shereika's jogging route dozens of times, banging on house doors and stopping motorists who may have seen the slender divorcee that morning. He has traced her last strides down Francis Station Road, past the field where Harp thinks the killer was hiding, waiting for her return.

Shereika's pattern was to make a U-turn farther down Francis Station, a dead-end road, and run past the field again on her way home. Harp knows she did that on May 23 because flecks of gravel found in the soles of her running shoes matched a type of gravel found only beyond the field.

What haunts the detective is the fact that he had met the victim on official business three years before she died. In 1985, Shereika went to the police about a motorist she suspected of following her during her workout. No charges were filed -- but Harp handled the complaint.

Just hours after the killing, as he hunted for clues in the rye stubble near Shereika's body, Harp faced a grim challenge. A medical examiner would perform the autopsy, but the detective would have to dissect the victim's life, her habits and what she did on the morning she died.

Shereika, a legal secretary, arose at her usual time of 5 a.m. for a routine workout. She lived on Maytime Drive in the Four Seasons section of Gambrills with her fiance and her two teen-age children from a previous marriage.

It was the last Monday morning of her life. A member of the Annapolis Striders, a road-running club, she had participated in the Governor's Bay Bridge Run, a 10-kilometer race, on Sunday. Shereika believed that the best way to prevent soreness the day after a race was to go running.

She dressed quickly in a white shirt and blue shorts and slipped out of the house. Her fiance and children were still in bed. This day, she ran alone. A neighbor who sometimes accompanied her declined because of a sore knee.

Shereika's favorite route took her along Waugh Chapel Road, past two elementary schools, a swim club and a cluster of middle-class homes. She saved the prettiest leg of her run for last -- a one-mile segment of Francis Station Road, a sparsely populated lane that winds gently past fields and tall groves of oaks and poplars. It was always Shereika's road at 6 a.m., and she probably picked up her pace as she approached it on that muggy May morning, enticed by the thought of its shady stillness.

Shereika had no idea she was running toward her death.

She was last seen turning onto Francis Station Road by a passing motorist, one-fourth of a mile from where she was slain. Police think her assailant was waiting in the field, crouched in the tall grass alongside the road. Shereika ran past him. He froze. When she returned 10 minutes later, he struck.

The killer sexually assaulted Shereika, cut her throat using a bread knife with a 12-inch blade and strangled her with her own bandanna. "It was a blitz," says Harp. "The whole attack may have only lasted 15 minutes."

Then the killer fled in his vehicle, which was hidden near the rye field. He left a messy trail behind: Five hundred feet down the road, police found a bloody towel the killer used to clean himself of Shereika's blood, Type A. A half-mile farther, near Waugh Chapel Elementary School, the bread knife was found.

The knife had landed in the middle of a crosswalk, where a school crossing guard found it at 8:30 a.m. and tossed it on the grassy curb, thinking the knife was just road debris. Police found the weapon on the curb later that day.

Telltale signs, all.

These clues, and others, have led detectives to conclude that Shereika knew her killer, and he didn't wait for her with murder in mind.

There was no sign that Shereika, a careful runner, tried to escape when the man appeared. "She could have outrun him," says Harp. "But if it was someone she knew, she wouldn't have run anyway."

The killer probably knew the area, and no resident reported seeing a stranger that day. Moreover, he must have been acquainted with the victim's running pattern. And he probably had sex in mind, but for some reason flew into a deadly rage.

"From day one, we felt murder was not his intention," says Harp. "Obviously, things got out of hand at some point. Maybe something she said set him off. He left in such a rush that he threw the towel and knife out the window in a panic."

Assuming that Shereika recognized her attacker and stopped running or approached him, it cost her precious seconds and probably sealed her fate, says Sgt. Thomas Suit, commander of the county's homicide unit.

"I think she had seen him before," says Suit. "She would have resisted any type of threat made against her. She was scrappy." Yet there was no hint of a struggle, and no defense wounds on the victim's body.

Suit believes the homicide was spontaneous, not planned. "This thing really lacked in criminal sophistication," he says. "We think she was killed in panic and anger. There was no effort to hide the body. It's definitely a disorganized crime."

Shereika's slaying stunned the community of Four Seasons; her death was the second murder in about two years. In 1986, a woman was found strangled in the bathtub at home, two blocks from where Shereika lived. That case also remains unsolved, but police see no connection between the killings.

Thirty-one months after Shereika's death, Dave Harp still expects to track down her killer. The detective remains in weekly contact with the victim's family, which was devastated by the murder. Shereika's daughter left the state; her son now lives with his birth father, a Washington, D.C., policeman. The man to whom Shereika was engaged remains in the area.

Police have interrogated 85 people and have one firm suspect, a man who came to light nine months after the murder thanks to a tip from a confidential source. The suspect knew the victim and lived within several miles of her.

"This man fits the FBI's abstract profile of Shereika's killer," says Suit. The FBI profile, which applies hindsight psychology to what is known about the crime, lists the following characteristics, among others: a high school dropout with a poor work history who is financially dependent on an older female family member.

However, authorities have been unable to find anyone who can tie the suspect to the knife, the towel or the crime scene that morning. Nor can they locate his vehicle.

"We need someone to say, 'I know who owned that towel,' or 'I've seen that knife,' or 'My towel is missing, and I haven't seen it since that day when my son, grandson or nephew came home acting strange,' " says Suit. "That will break this case.

"We're a shade away from taking it before a grand jury. But we're only as good as the information we receive."

NEXT WEEK: Murder in Charles Village; who last saw Bridget Phillips?

About the series

Some murder cases are particularly shocking. Others are especially baffling. Some cases are both.

For this weekly series, The Evening Sun chose five cases that stunned the Baltimore area but remain unsolved, despite intensive police work for up to seven years.

Unsolved murders are not forgotten murders. They are not buried by police. Homicide detectives often view these cases as the most challenging and attack them with a fierce determination.

The solution can hinge on a single piece of needed evidence, a critical piece of the puzzle. And investigators say that publicizing the cases could yield important new information.

Homicide detectives working on the Shereika case in today's story can be reached at 222-3458.

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