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Missing man's family pins hopes on TV show Howard teacher disappeared in '84

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On the morning of Feb. 13, 1984, Oliver Wendell Munson left his Catonsville home with lunch bag in hand to drive to his teaching job at Ellicott City Middle School.

No one ever saw him again.

Almost a decade later, his family, a few close friends and a veteran police detective are still hoping to find him -- and an explanation. The latest hope rests with the NBC television show "Unsolved Myster'es," which came to the Baltimore area last weekend to film a segment called "The Missing Teacher."

Mr. Munson, a popular 39-year-old industrial arts teacher who often took his students bowling and to play softball after school, was declared legally dead in 1985, the victim of a "presumptive homicide." But his body was never found.

The show has renewed hope for a break in the case, which police believe was a well-planned murder by two or three men who abducted Mr. Munson on his way to school.

A bachelor, Mr. Munson was somewhat of a recluse, spending much of his spare time working on old cars that littered his yard. He had an occasional girlfriend, but on weekends he often left town to visit his mother and two brothers on the Eastern Shore.

"We still think about him all the time. Two or three times a year I go out to Catonsville and just drive by his house," said Mr. Munson's 46-year-old brother, Harold, who lives in Queen Anne's County.

"Our mother worried about him every day until the day she died [in 1990]," Harold Munson said. "I think she still expected he would come home on one of the holidays, or on his birthday. To the end, she hoped and prayed he was still alive."

Investigators believe that Mr. Munson may have been murdered in retaliation for his having agreed to testify in a case against a city auto theft ring. Mr. Munson had unknowingly bought a blue 1973 Datsun 240Z car from a ring member the year before he disappeared.

"He was very embarrassed that it had happened. He didn't know was stolen, or who he had gotten himself involved with," said Russ Mullaly, 47, an Ellicott City writer and good friend of Mr. Munson's.

"He was a very easy-going guy that everyone got along with. He didn't like being involved in that kind of trouble."

Baltimore police impounded the car, and Mr. Munson agreed to testify against the man who had sold it to him.

The disappearance

Three days before the trial, on Feb. 13, 1984, Mr. Munson was seen by a neighbor pulling out of the driveway of his home in the 600 block of Orpington Road. He wore his usual touring cap and had his lunch bag and school notebook on the front seat.

He never arrived for work, which was about a 10-mile ride from his house. Fellow teachers were alarmed because Mr. Munson had called in sick only four days in 15 years at Ellicott City Middle School.

His family reported him missing to Baltimore County police the next day. Two days later, on the 16th, police found his car about two blocks from his house, its right front tire flat after an apparent slow leak.

On the 27th, a vehicle that had been stolen the day Mr. Munson disappeared was found at the edge of Leakin Park in West Baltimore. Found on the floor inside were two video store receipts that bore Mr. Munson's name.

Also found on the floor near the front passenger seat were a small-caliber shell casing and traces of blood, according to Philip Goodwin, the city auto theft detective who had initially asked Mr. Munson to testify.

Looking at all the evidence, Detective Goodwin has a theory about what happened to Mr. Munson:

* The flat tire found on Mr. Munson's Pinto was probably the result of tampering, causing the tire to go flat after being driven a short distance.

* Mr. Munson pulled over to the side of the road to check the tire. When he did so, two men -- possibly three -- pulled up behind him and offered to help.

* Mr. Munson got into their car, either by force or under the false assumption that the men were going to give him a ride.

* While he sat in the front passenger seat, someone in the back seat shot him once in the head, killing him.

* His body was then dumped or buried somewhere, perhaps in Leakin Park, near where the stolen car was later found. Police searched the park with no success.

File kept open

"It's what you would classify as an assassination," said Detective Goodwin, who said he has always kept the file open in the hopes of providing word to Mr. Munson's family.

"It's mostly for his family that I stay involved in it. This will never be over until he's found. I'm a Vietnam veteran, and I know families that have never known what happened to their sons. That's not right," he said.

Some friends speculated that Mr. Munson may have left town and started a new life somewhere else. But that is extremely unlikely, Detective Goodwin said.

"The average person just doesn't disappear off the face of the Earth," Detective Goodwin said. "He was close to his family and close to his friends. I think somebody wanted to make it look like he ran away from home, but that's not what he did."

Despite the absence of Mr. Munson's testimony in the auto theft case, city prosecutors were still able to convict the ring leader, Dennis L. Watson, then 35. Watson served five years of a 10-year sentence; he is on parole, awaiting trial on an auto theft charge in Baltimore County.

In January 1974, Watson had been charged by Baltimore County police with first-degree murder in the death of a man scheduled to testify against him in an armed robbery case. The victim, Clinton E. Glenn, 29, had been knocked unconscious and burned to death in a Volkswagen bus the day before the trial, according to court records.

Although Watson was indicted by a grand jury, the charge was later put on the inactive docket and never prosecuted because a key witness in the case died of an accidental drug overdose, police said.

'Unsolved Mysteries'

Detective Goodwin said he's hopeful that the "Unsolved Mysteries" episode, tentatively scheduled to be shown Dec. 29, might help bring someone forward with information in the Munson case.

"I think there's more than one person out there who knows what happened, or overheard something that would help us," he said.

Mr. Mullaly, perhaps Mr. Munson's closest friend, said he has never stopped wondering what happened.

"This is something I never wanted to let go. I don't want to just forget about it. He was a good person, and we deserve to know what happened to him," Mr. Mullaly said.

Today, Mr. Munson's bungalow-style home is owned by someone else, and Ellicott City Middle School no longer exists. A blue spruce tree planted by students in his honor has long since withered and died.

But occasionally, one of his former students will ask about the teacher who disappeared, said Patrick Cisna, an art teacher who formerly taught with Mr. Munson.

"Every once in a while, I see one of his students and they'll ask, 'Have you heard anything more about Mr. Munson?' " said Mr. Cisna, 44, who now teaches at Hammond High School in Columbia.

Mr. Cisna still keeps Mr. Munson's house key, even though he doubts he'll ever see his friend again.

"I still keep it for him, kind of like you'd keep the key for your neighbor or your parents," Mr. Cisna said. "I never thought of throwing it away."

The Oliver Munson Mystery (APPEARED ONLY IN THE ZONED EDITIONS)

Feb. 13, 1984: At 7:50 a.m., a neighbor sees Mr. Munson leaving the driveway of his home in the 600 block of Orpington Road in Catonsville. Mr. Munson is alone and apparently heading to work, but he never arrives.

Feb. 14, 1984: One of Mr. Munson's family members becomes concerned and visits the Orpington Road house. Baltimore County police are notified he is missing.

Feb. 16, 1984: The 1980 Ford Pinto belonging to Mr. Munson is found parked on Braeside Road in Catonsville, about two blocks from his home. The right front tire is flat, apparently due to a slow leak.

Feb. 27, 1984: A car that had been stolen on the morning of Mr. Munson's disappearance was recovered at the edge of Leakin Park in West Baltimore. In the car were two business receipts with the missing man's name, traces of unidentified blood, and a small-caliber shell casing.

Feb. 28, 1984: City police searched Leakin Park without success.

May 28, 1985: At a Kent County civil court proceeding requested by the Munson family, Judge George B. Rasin declared Oliver Wendell Munson legally dead, the victim of "presumptive homicide."

Oct. 2, 1993: The Munson case is recreated by an Unsolved Mysteries film crew, to be aired on national television in February, 1994, the 10th anniversary of Mr. Munson's disappearance.

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