Strange, the young woman recalled, how tired and troubled Allen Leroy Hilton appeared outside the tidy, light-blue townhouse in the quiet community of Evergreen.
Inside, on the night of Oct. 9, friends and neighbors were helping Kelly Dore celebrate her 30th birthday with music, liquor and a keg of beer in the basement. Outside, a light rain had fallen, and a chilly wind was blowing as Mr. Hilton, 19, sat on the front steps alone, brooding.
"He was very lit [intoxicated] and in a very bad mood," Marianne Gawne said. "Everybody at the birthday party had a date except Al. . . . He was lonely. Usually, everybody liked Al."
Mr. Hilton's dark mood now appears a portent of things to come. Within hours, the party dissolved, first into a fistfight, then an explosion of blood and horror that left 25-year-old Noel Franke dead on the living room floor, nearly decapitated by a slash from a samurai sword.
After a brief search, police arrested Mr. Hilton and charged him with first-degree murder. He waived his right to a bail hearing.
Mr. Franke was buried Thursday in a cemetery outside Dover, Pa. His family did not respond to several phone calls.
Ms. Dore could not be reached for comment. Mr. Hilton's attorney declined to comment.
The slaying stunned an otherwise peaceful Baltimore County neighborhood and left police, friends and acquaintances shaking their heads in disbelief.
Those who know Mr. Hilton paint a portrait of a lost soul whose despair, cloaked by bravado, had been deepening for months.
But even those who know him say they don't know him well because he drifted from place to place.
He told friends he was born on a farm in Southern Pennsylvania and that his parents kicked him out when he was 6.
Bouncing between foster care and group homes, he had a
troubled adolescence, at one point serving a short term for auto theft at Maryland's Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile delinquents, he told acquaintances. He wound up with a foster family in Jarrettsville, in Harford County, and has visited regularly since he moved from their home.
In early September, he settled in -- after a fashion -- with Paula Gawne and her daughter, Marianne, and their family. They said he stayed in their rented Carney home several days a week and would call in regularly when he stayed elsewhere. Mr. Hilton is diabetic, they said, and takes insulin twice a day.
Although employers generally described him as a productive worker, he drifted from job to job.
The manager of a Carney convenience store where Mr. Hilton had worked said, "People really liked Allen, but he had a very short temper. He would holler at customers and got into a real bad argument with one. . . . We had to let him go."
The manager of another store where Mr. Hilton worked said, "We had a robbery one time in the store, and Allen showed up the next day with a revolver. He wasn't afraid of anyone, and he got very nasty when he was angry."
'Hurt little boy'
Paula Gawne said: "He gave the appearance of supreme self-confidence, but there really was a hurt little boy inside."
Some friends and acquaintances said Mr. Hilton occasionally inhaled gasoline fumes and dabbled in the occult -- seances and witchcraft. Marianne Gawne denied those reports.
"He tried huffing propane once but didn't like it. He took care of his body, lifted weights and was interested in the martial arts, ninja stuff," she said. "But that talk of witchcraft is just neighborhood gossip. I studied mythology, and my mother is into herbal medicine, but we've never done anything like that. . . ."
Mr. Hilton seemed to have developed a fascination with weapons.
One neighbor who requested anonymity said that she saw him several weeks ago walking in the 9500 block of Ridgely Ave., where the Gawnes live.
"He was sort of strutting and had this long knife on his side," the neighbor said. "That sort of thing made it very uncomfortable for me, my husband and our children."
Three days before the party, Mr. Hilton took $105 he had earned washing dishes and spent it on a samurai sword. The weapons are readily available at martial arts outlets, military surplus stores and cutlery dealers and through magazines. Mr. Hilton found his at the Chesapeake Knife and Tool Co. in White Marsh Mall.
Most people who buy samurai swords today hang them on the wall as decorations. In traditional Japanese culture, samurai swords were never displayed unless they were to be used in combat, according to a spokesman at the Japanese Embassy in Washington.
Dating back to the eighth century, the swords exemplified the early technical mastery of Japanese steelmakers.
Today, most "samurai" swords are made in Taiwan, Spain and the Philippines.
Mr. Hilton spent the morning of the killing with his foster mother in Jarrettsville, playing cards at the kitchen table and, he later told Marianne Gawne, sharpening his samurai sword to a razor's edge, Marianne Gawne said.
He brought the sword to the party that night "to show off," Marianne Gawne said.
"He was proud of it," she said.
Early on, it became evident that something was wrong.
"He was drinking beer with bourbon and water chasers," Marianne Gawne said. "He didn't say what was wrong . . . he always had trouble talking about things that bothered him. But it became pretty clear he was unhappy because he was the only one there without a date."
She said that, shortly after midnight, someone noticed Mr. Hilton's rage and intoxication building and hid the sword in a closet.
Mr. Hilton suspected that a 16-year-old guest had taken the weapon, became enraged and started a fistfight with the youth, witnesses have told police.
Victim broke up fight
LTC While some fearful guests began to leave, Mr. Franke, a drywall contractor from Parkville and a friend of the hostess, stepped in and broke up the confrontation, witnesses said.
"The fight was because Al wanted his sword," Marianne Gawne said. "And somebody minutes later made the huge mistake of giving it back to him."
A moment after that, witnesses said, Mr. Hilton suddenly drew the 4-foot-long weapon from its sheath and stood with his back to the living-room wall, sword poised above his head in the classic two-handed samurai grip.
"Now that I see it, he resembled a trapped animal, although nobody was threatening him," Marianne Gawne recalled.
Just then, Mr. Franke walked in front of Mr. Hilton. Witnesses said that Mr. Hilton struck a single, swift blow at the back of the victim's neck, severing his spinal cord and sending him crashing to the the carpet, dead.
"When he swung the sword," Marianne Gawne remembers with a shudder, "it was like someone hitting a baseball for a home run."
According to witnesses, Mr. Hilton took another slash at Mr. Franke's lifeless leg, then bolted out of the front door and into the nearby woods.
Horrified guests called the police, who scoured the area. After 90 minutes, they found Mr. Hilton, soaking wet from wading in a drainage ditch, as he emerged from a wooded area near an apartment complex less than a half-mile away, near White Marsh and Walther boulevards. About three hours after sunrise, they found a bloody sword in a ditch not far from the spot where he was arrested.
While the community has gone back to its daily routine, the psychological distress from the murder isn't likely to disappear soon.
"It gives me a spooky feeling to look at that house now," said Matta Kennedy, who lives across Green Needle Drive from the house where the killing occurred.
"Everything is quiet again but, I think I won't take the kids trick-or-treating there on Halloween night," she said.