Forest phantom was never identified

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

The woods along Poplar Hill Road in Cockeysville are lovely, dark and deep, the workshop of poets and painters.

Days pass in eerie stillness just three miles from bustling York Road. At night, startled deer vanish into the black labyrinth of trees, when couples stop to park and kiss.

Detective Ken Ziegler doesn't like the area. It gives him the creeps.

"It feels real cold and impersonal up here," says Ziegler, his eyes riveted on the woods. "I really love the outdoors. And I like to walk in the woods. But I can't relax up here, because I know what happened."

Twice in the spring of 1983, an unknown night stalker crept out of the woods and emptied a pistol into the cars of young lovers parked in the Loch Raven watershed area of Baltimore County.

In the first attack, on April 16, a man and woman were seriously wounded but survived. In the second shooting a month later, Catherine Marie Britt, a 22-year-old college student, was slain.

Britt was shot three times in the head as she sat in a car with her boyfriend on Poplar Hill Road at 2 a.m. May 15. She went into a coma and died four days later, less than a week before she was to graduate with honors from Towson State University. The fatal bullets came from the same gun used in the April attack, a .25-caliber pistol.

Her boyfriend, Jim Rhodes, also was shot three times but survived.

More than 7 1/2 years later, Britt's killer remains at large. Baltimore County police have chased some 400 leads and questioned 10 potential suspects, including two new ones last month, but have not made an arrest.

Authorities recently circulated a new sketch of the murder suspect, an update of the original composite. The new one depicts the man as having grown older.

Detective Ziegler kept working on the Britt case even after a routine transfer took him out of the homicide division, and his outrage at the murder is still as strong as ever.

"I want to find the killer to put the Britts' minds to rest," the detective says. "He killed their little girl."

Ziegler's eyes flick back to the woods that concealed the night stalker.

"I just wish there had been something back there to record what happened," the detective says.

SCHOOL SWEETHEARTS

It was nearly 1 a.m. on a rainy, moonless night when Rhodes swung his maroon AMC Spirit onto the shoulder of Poplar Hill Road, just north of Merryman's Mill Road. Rhodes, 23, and his girlfriend, Cathy Britt, had driven there to snuggle and talk on a Saturday night.

The couple, sweethearts since Bel Air High School, had gone out to dinner and a movie, "Breathless," a thriller starring Richard Gere as a killer trying to elude police.

They initially had returned to the Cockeysville apartment that Britt shared with her sister, watched the Orioles' game on TV, and then had gone out again. Rhodes drove only three miles before parking on the deserted road.

Rhodes doused the headlights, engulfing the couple in darkness. The windows were closed. The radio, tuned to an easy-listening station, provided the only light -- a light that may have served as a beacon for the killer.

An hour passed. Around 2 o'clock, the pair were startled by a car speeding by. "That guy's out of control," Rhodes murmured. Shortly thereafter, the lovers decided it was time to leave.

Neither one saw the gunman coming.

ALL SIX SHOTS HIT

The assailant shot his way into the car. The first slug shattered Britt's window; all six bullets found their marks. Fatally wounded, Britt slumped against the passenger door; Rhodes was struck in the head, arm and chest.

The gunman then circled the car and confronted the driver. "Give me your wallet," he demanded. Rhodes, bleeding and in shock, handed over his billfold, which contained $10. The gunman took it and disappeared.

Rhodes did not hear a car drive off. Despite his terrible wounds, he knew he had to drive Cathy to where they could get help. He managed to get his car started and in motion.

Rhodes drove the three miles back to Britt's apartment at a crawl: His injuries, which included two collapsed lungs, made it too painful to shift out of second gear. Gasping for breath, he spoke gently to the unconscious girl leaning against the shattered window.

"I'm sorry, Cathy, I'm sorry it's so cold."

At the apartment building, Rhodes stumbled out of the car and frantically pressed all the outside buzzers. One tenant telephoned for help.

Later, from his hospital bed, Rhodes described the killer t police: a slender white male, between the ages of 28 and 33, with stringy brown hair and a small mustache.

Police say Rhodes, a health club instructor, survived because he was superbly fit. One bullet remains lodged in his chest.

SHE DIED MAY 19

Britt never regained consciousness and died May 19, two days after being removed from a respirator. She was awarded her bachelor's degree posthumously. A scholarship established in her name has provided financial assistance to 24 students at Towson State.

Britt's family has since left Maryland, but relatives returned in October to commemorate the victim's 30th birthday with a quiet memorial service.

Police have spent thousands of hours on the case. At first, they literally beat the bushes for evidence. A massive ground and air search of a five-mile area by 50 policemen aided by K-9 dogs produced several suspects, including a man living in a shack in the woods, but no arrests.

Early in the investigation, ballistics tests confirmed detectives' worst fears: Since the same gun had been used in two similar attacks, the owner could be a psychopath who might feel compelled to strike again.

The April and May shootings both occurred at 2 a.m. on dark and rainy weekend nights. All four victims were in their 20s. Both women were shot in the head. Both men, though wounded, were able to drive away.

"We were scared to death that it would happen again," says BoCapel, one of the original investigators.

POLICE TRY TRAPS

Exactly a month after the Britt shooting, police set traps for the killer at several isolated locations, using as bait a number of sporty-looking cars filled with mannequins. Tactical SWAT teams clad in black waited in the woods that night.

They surprised three men who had been out drinking and were playing good Samaritan: Having read about the shootings, the men decided to stop and warn those inside one of the cars.

Similar "anniversary" stakeouts over the next few years also failed to catch the killer. Police think he knew the watershed area well and moved about freely without raising suspicions.

"This guy is connected to that area, through family or friends," says Sam Bowerman, a detective-lieutenant of homicide for the Baltimore County police. "I feel like we're that close but we can't get over the last hurdle. The problem is getting people in that area to think back and try to place a name with a face."

Police are asking residents to recall anyone who may havchanged his appearance after the murder, a young man who trimmed his mustache or changed his hairstyle to escape detection.

Authorities believe the killer's fury was directed at women, and that all six shots fired in the second attack may have been meant for Catherine Britt. Detectives can only speculate about the causes of this murderous rage.

"It's a lovers' lane-type parking area, so does he have some bizarre problem where he can't enjoy the same opportunities?" says Bowerman.

The lieutenant believes the hunt probably excited the killer more than the shootings. "I think his real thrill came in stalking and surprising these people in their cars," says Bowerman.

A BIG QUESTION

An investigation into the lives of all four shooting victims and their former beaus, as well as a background check of employees of the restaurant and theater that Britt and Rhodes patronized, turned up no new leads. And no trace of the .25-caliber pistol has ever been found.

Why did the shootings stop? Police don't know.

"If we could figure that out, we could damn near figure out who did it," says Ziegler.

Police now are focusing on five suspects, none of whom are known killers.

"When we find a suspect who has a lot of guns, none of them turns out to be a .25-caliber," says Capel. "Or we'll find a guy who's a good suspect, except that he was in jail at the time.

"Whoever did it has disappeared. He's either dead, incarcerated, or has moved away. He could also be in a mental institution. I don't know how he could have lived with this."

The case had bizarre side effects: Two men who reportedly claimed responsibility for Britt's murder each committed suicide within a week of her death.

An investigation ruled out one of the men, but police are intrigued by the second, a young man who lived not far from the scene of the shooting. He frequented the watershed area, suffered from emotional disorders and closely matched the description of the suspect.

Detectives learned of this man's alleged confession from a confidential source last summer. However, the family of the dead man denies his involvement in the crime.

BUT, IS KILLER ALIVE?

Another possibility, say police, is that the killer found personal romance, allowing him to check his rage. For now.

"I think there's a good chance the killer is alive," says Bowerman. Not all the detectives agree. Ziegler doesn't believe the murderer is still living.

". . . I hope not," he says grimly. "I don't think somebody as whacked out as this would stop. If this guy is dead, I wish somebody would give us that piece of evidence, to put the Britts' minds to rest."

Rhodes, who still lives in Bel Air, remains optimistic.

"The police have had me looking at pictures of suspects for seven years," he says.

"I think they'll find who did it, whether he's alive or not."

NEXT WEEK: LaTanya Wallace, the "Angel of Reservoir Hill."

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 cases that stunned the Baltimore area but remain unsolved, despite intensive police work.

Unsolved murders are not forgotten murders. They are not buried by police. 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 Britt case in today's story can be reached at 887-3943.

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