Dead or alive? Businessman missing for years Murder suspected, but where's the body?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Murder, Detective Edward Brown figured. Murder, plain and simple.

But there was no body. And everything the Baltimore homicide detective found in that trucking company office five years ago told him he would never find the body of Eddy Robert Crane, a South Baltimore businessman who hasn't been heard from since.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Eddy Crane's dead and his body was disposed of," Detective Brown says now. "There's no doubt of that."

A likely scenario for the murder, according to police sources:

Eddy Crane is at his desk inside E & M Machinery company in Curtis Bay, when he is confronted by at least two gunmen. They order him out of the building. Mr. Crane resists. They shoot once or twice to disable him, perhaps wounding him in his leg. He fights on and they fire again, killing him. They put the heavyset businessman's body in an office chair, then drag it out to a pickup truck and drive the body away.

Then the killers try to clean up the crime scene.

It's the scenario that matched the evidence that police recovered from the E & M office: blood throughout the office -- on the leg of a desk, on a television screen, on the floor behind a closet door. Blood on a mop and pail that apparently had been used to clean the office. A bullet hole in a file cabinet and bullets of two calibers in the cabinet, behind the wallboard and in the ceiling.

Later, more bullet holes were discovered in the office desk; they had been filled with wood putty. And there were the scuff marks on the floor.

Not to mention what wasn't there: any sign of robbery or forced entry. The only things missing from the office were Eddy Crane, his pet Rottweiler, the chair and the gun he carried to protect himself.

It would be a few more days before the crime lab positively identified the blood found at the scene as the same type as that of Eddy Crane, a man who had been feuding with his business partner for almost a year, trading allegations about missing money.

The detectives began interviewing E & M employees. They began to uncover more circumstantial evidence. They thought they could bring charges in Eddy Crane's death.

They were wrong.

This is a story about what happens when someone simply and permanently disappears.

It's a story, too, about a family's frustration and suspicion in the months and years that follow.

Most of all, it's a story about the limitations of police and prosecutorial power and the chasm that exists between reasonable suspicion and reasonable doubt.

No one is known to have heard from Eddy Crane, who would now be 51, since the night of Sept. 10, 1987. No one -- at least no one in his family or among those charged with investigating his disappearance -- expects to hear from him. Legally, he has been declared dead.

"Every time I hear about remains being found, I call the authorities before they call me," says Jo-Ann Crane, who was 43 when her husband disappeared. "I know that I would be contacted if it was him, but I can't help it."

Eddy Crane's two daughters, who were 10 and 12 when he disappeared, are almost grown.

Katy is 17 and preparing to graduate from high school. Jeanne is two years younger and has a much more vague image of her workaholic father, leaving for work late in the afternoon as was his habit, driving down to Curtis Bay even as his kids were getting home from school.

Katy Crane accepts that her father is dead, but the fact angers her: "People who do things like this never think how it affects anyone else."

When he disappeared, Eddy Crane was a full partner in E & M Machinery, according to his brother, Robert, who also worked at the firm.

Mr. Crane was a man who had spent years building the company from a truck sales and repair firm into a specialized concern that cannibalized old trucks to sell drive trains and transmissions for more money than the trucks themselves might bring.

His partner was William Walter "Augie" Augustin Jr., a rough-hewn man who had brought Eddy Crane into E & M Machinery years earlier. Eddy Crane thought the world of Mr. Augustin, who had become his closest friend.

"They were two of a kind," remembers Bob Crane.

"Augie was someone that Eddy really enjoyed. They did everything together, and I mean everything. They were like brothers."

Brothers until 1986, when Eddy Crane came to believe that his business partner was stealing from the multimillion-dollar business, according to police sources.

For years, according to Bob Crane, missing invoices and missing cash had been a recurring problem. Some employees had been accused and one actually fired, but the thefts continued.

Eventually, Eddy Crane confronted his partner and there was a shouting match in front of employees, with Mr. Augustin hotly denying the accusations.

Detectives confirmed that for almost a year the two men were at war with each other, with Mr. Augustin working days at the business and Mr. Crane working nights, happy to avoid him.

"Both of them were consumed by hate," says Bob Crane.

Eddy Crane began carrying a gun to work at night and taking Sherlock, his pet Rottweiler, with him to the office.

Eventually, after months of feuding, Eddy Crane told his brother that he had persuaded his partner to sell his share of the company. He was going for a bank loan, he told his brother, and he was taking money out of the business himself, he said, stealing from himself to prevent Mr. Augustin from getting to that money first.

"He really thought Augie was going to sell out to him," says Bob Crane.

"He's already dead"

Bob Crane knew his brother was already dead from the moment his sister-in-law phoned him on that September morning. He knew it with the kind of certainty that rarely comes in cases like this.

Eddy Crane hadn't gone home the night before. He had called his wife from his South Baltimore office at about 9 p.m. to say he was leaving, and that was the last anyone heard. Jo-Ann Crane had called the county police with a missing person's report.

"Oh, God," Bob Crane remembers telling her in blunt words. "He's dead, Jo-Ann. The reason he didn't come home is that he's already dead."

Detectives' suspicions first fell on a night watchman hired by Mr. Augustin, whose story quickly began to seem more and more unlikely. According to police sources, the night watchman claimed that nothing unusual happened the night of the disappearance, but said he had driven around the Inner Harbor for a time that night.

The watchman told detectives that after he returned to the office, he thought he saw intruders on the company lot and he called Mr. Augustin down to the offices.

Detectives suspected that was an attempt at an alibi -- in the event that anyone in Curtis Bay had noticed the cleanup effort at the offices and checked to see which cars and trucks were on the company lot at the time.

When detectives asked what happened to the missing office chair, the 50-year-old night watchman said that the chair had broken and that he had hauled it to Mr. Augustin's mother's house and left it lying outside.

The broken chair then was apparently stolen, the watchman contended, according to police sources.

For police, the questions were obvious ones: If Eddy Crane was robbed and shot at the E & M offices, why would a robber go to the trouble of removing the body and trying to clean up the crime scene?

And if Eddy Crane had been trying to stage his own death, then disappear with embezzled money, then why would he try to clean up the scene?

"To my way of thinking, the only logical answer is that Eddy Crane was confronted in that building by people he knew who couldn't get him out of that building," said Donald Kincaid, who helped investigate the case and has since retired from the homicide unit.

"He knew that if they got him outside, it could look like a robbery or anything else. He stayed there and fought and made them kill him there. And that's why they had to clean things up."

In the days after the disappearance, Baltimore detectives returned once again to the E & M offices armed with a search warrant and gathered additional evidence.

A search of the bed of the company pickup truck used by the night watchman yielded traces of human blood.

Eddy Crane's car was found parked at a fast-food restaurant near the airport; his beloved dog was found wandering near that site; the gun he carried to work was never recovered.

Weeks into the investigation, detectives heard a variety of stories about where Eddy Crane's remains might be found. On a tip, they pumped out an acid tank near the company lot but found nothing. Later, a source told them that Mr. Crane's body was disposed of at a soap plant that operates near the E & M site.

The circumstantial evidence led detectives to ask Timothy V. Doory, chief of the violent crimes unit of the state's attorney's office, for permission to charge the night watchman, who they thought could be pressured into identifying other co-conspirators.

Mr. Doory demurred.

"We don't go beyond the level of great suspicion," the prosecutor says now. "We cannot be completely sure if Eddy Crane is dead and if he is dead, we cannot be completely sure how he died. And if we are sure how he died, we cannot be completely sure who it was that killed him."

Mr. Doory concludes: "It is very suspicious. But unfortunately, we need hard evidence."

"We are still in mourning"

"A lot of money disappeared when he left," Mr. Augustin said about his missing partner, declining to be interviewed at length. "That whole thing was a mess and I'd just as soon forget it."

Mr. Augustin, now 64, acknowledged that he is aware of the suspicions that he may have been involved in his partner's disappearance. But he dismissed them, saying he believes that Eddy Crane fled with money embezzled from E & M Machinery.

"The police detectives, Brown and Donald Kincaid, came down here trying to tell me that they knew I killed Eddy and I told them then that I'd sue them," he says. "They came down here and

searched this place with warrants that were illegal, that were never signed by a judge. I paid a lawyer a lot of money dealing with it."

The warrant was, in fact, valid. But Mr. Augustin, a longtime Curtis Bay resident who says he will retire from the business next year, says the police suspicion is unwarranted. He says he has no idea where Eddy Crane might be: "I don't even think about it."

When detectives tried to question Mr. Augustin about the disappearance of his longtime business partner, he referred them to his attorney.

After the disappearance, Mr. Augustin also made it clear that a large amount of money was missing from E & M Machinery, and because Eddy Crane had, in fact, been taking money out of the business in the weeks before his death, there was some evidence implicating Mr. Crane, according to both police sources and the Crane family.

"That was Eddy's mistake," his brother says.

The business dispute continued even after Eddy Crane's disappearance. According to legal memorandums, a buy-sell agreement between the two partners decreed that if either man died, the surviving partner would buy out the widow's share of the business using a $500,000 life insurance policy that had been taken out for the purpose.

Once it had been determined that police were investigating the disappearance as a murder, the insurance company did indeed release $1 million on the double-indemnity policy. Mr. Augustin, however, sought a share of that money, contending that he was owed the money because his partner had stolen a similar amount. Mrs. Crane agreed to the settlement.

After paying her own attorneys, she said, she received less than $300,000.

Like her brother-in-law, Jo-Ann Crane grows more frustrated as time passes. She believes the body of evidence in the case was sufficient for someone to be charged and she does not understand the decision of prosecutors.

"I've crawled into a shell and tried to keep my family at home. I don't want to go out anymore," she says. "When someone dies, " you have a funeral, you have a grieving period. We haven't had that. We are still in mourning."

Prosecutors say only that the case remains open. They add that a phone call from a witness or a tip from an informant might provide fresh evidence for investigators. Most of all, the discovery of Eddy Crane's body might put an end to the doubt. "A body might answer all of the questions," Mr. Doory says.

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