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THE HUNT FOR THE MAN WITH THE HAMMER Bridget Phillips' killer left a puzzle that night in 1989

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bridget Bernadette Phillips is buried on a grassy plain in Kansas, beside a copse of sweet gum trees that dance in the summer breeze.

Sunlight splashes off the marble headstone and the vase of pink petunias marking the grave of the 22-year-old woman, whose love of learning had taken her to Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins University.

If she rests in peace, family and friends do not. Her 1989 slaying in an off-campus apartment here remains unsolved and agonizing, a baffling puzzle spattered with a few fragments of evidence, some theories and many questions.

Jim Hagin, the police detective still on the case, calls it the most brutal killing he's encountered -- and one of the most perplexing to a homicide pro.

In Tallahassee, Fla., the victim's parents painfully sort through their recollections of the last months of Bridget's life, in hopes that some memory of what she said or did could help the police.

"It's frustrating -- like the answer is there but we keep overlooking it," says Kelley Phillips, her father.

"It's still so hard, really hard to deal with this," says Linda Phillips, Bridget's mother. "We need answers, for family and friends."

The facts of the case would not fill many pages in a detective's notebook.

Ms. Phillips, a popular and attractive young woman, was hit repeatedly on the head with a hammer or some other metal object when she entered her apartment in the 2800 block of N. Calvert St. on a cold, wet night in March.

Because there were no signs of a break-in, the police believe that Ms. Phillips knew her killer and probably let him inside. He lingered in the apartment for nearly an hour and washed up at the scene before leaving -- by the front door.

For five years, the police have kept the wooden door as evidence. But the killer remains somewhere on the other side, beyond the grasp of Detective Hagin. The case, he says, is "among the most frustrating I've ever worked." Despite a public outcry over the slaying and rivers of sympathy for the victim's family, few productive leads have surfaced, Detective Hagin says.

He has a hunch that some people familiar with Ms. Phillips' death are withholding information -- because they are frightened to share it, even after five years.

"There is a fear factor on the part of [former Hopkins] students," says the detective, who continues to keep track of many of Ms. Phillips' college friends and acquaintances.

At Hopkins she was an honors student in medieval history. After graduating from high school in Kansas, she had completed her undergraduate work at the University of Florida and entered Johns Hopkins in fall 1988, aiming for a doctorate. She had great expectations. On a picture postcard mailed from Baltimore, she scribbled, "Here it is, Mom and Dad -- the school of my dreams."

Hopkins fell in love with her.

Vivacious, engaging and immensely talented -- she was fluent in six languages -- Ms. Phillips breathed life into her academic circle. When she walked into the college library, friends say, it was like Mary Tyler Moore entering that sit-com's TV newsroom.

The police theorize that her trusting, friendly nature might have caused her to misread the intentions of the person who took her life.

Off campus, Ms. Phillips found time to bake cakes for acquaintances, befriend stray animals and hold weekly brunches for her colleagues.

She also was strong and independent; she lifted weights and changed the spark plugs in her car.

Ms. Phillips had several suitors in the year before her death, at least two of whom wanted a more permanent relationship, according to her family. But it was history that captured her heart. Relatives say she fancied herself as a modern-day Indiana Jones; her last Christmas card to friends was a humorous snapshot of Ms. Phillips beside the grave of a skeleton she'd excavated during an archaeological dig in Austria.

At Hopkins, she worked tirelessly in the Milton D. Eisenhower Library, in whose quiet recesses she would study for hours. But the library was also a magnet for her personal travails, the scene of an argument with one ex-boyfriend, and some kind of confrontation with a rejected suitor.

It was on the front steps of that brick-and-marble building that Ms. Phillips was last seen alive by friends. They left her at the entrance around 6 p.m. on March 22, 1989. She told them she planned to study.

Her final hours remain a mystery. Ms. Phillips made one brief telephone call, around 8:45 p.m. to a close friend who lived

several blocks away and had been expecting her to drop by that evening. He sensed no alarm in the voice of the young woman, who said she'd be there within the hour. She never showed up. Instead, police surmise, she ran into her killer somewhere near her Calvert Street apartment building, where she was hit seconds after stepping inside.

Ms. Phillips' body was found the next day, just inside her front door. She was fully clothed and wearing an overcoat. She had not been robbed or molested. Beside her was her knapsack, filled with books.

Beneath the knapsack, police found a blurred and bloody footprint, later identified as having been made by a Head Edge II athletic shoe, size 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 . It was a court shoe favored by tennis and racquetball players.

In the days ahead, the investigation would paint this outline of the crime:

* The slaying appeared to have been premeditated: Police believe the killer brought the weapon, a heavy hammer with a rounded head, or another metal object with a rounded surface, ** such as a small, hand-held fire extinguisher.

* Ms. Phillips was beaten mercilessly on the head, far more times than were necessary to kill her.

* The killer did not flee immediately. Bits of the victim's bone and blood, found in the bathroom drain, suggest that he cleaned up in the shower.

* The killer left her apartment by the front door, locking it firmly behind him and taking Ms. Phillips' key chain, possibly as a VTC keepsake. No other valuables were missing.

That much is known. But Detective Hagin needs the following: motive, a weapon and witnesses who might have seen the victim with someone that evening at the library, at a restaurant or near her apartment. All the detective has now are theories that an acquaintance on the edge of Ms. Phillips' circle -- someone both possessive and unstable -- mistook her natural friendliness for romantic overtures, became jealous and killed her in a terrible explosion of rage.

But who?

Detective Hagin and the victim's family continue to agonize over the missing puzzle pieces. The detective routinely returns to the slaying scene, poking through alleys and mingling with residents. The trail is cold, but Mr. Hagin is persistent.

"Someone could come forward, or [the killer] may let down his guard and talk. It happens," he says.

Mr. Hagin also follows closely the whereabouts of Ms. Phillips' acquaintances, now scattered around the world. His hunch is that someone in this group can help solve the slaying.

"Several times, I've felt people we've interviewed were holding something back," says Mr. Hagin.

"I think they are afraid of someone."

Linda Phillips, Bridget's mother, recalls bits of conversations with her daughter shortly before her death.

Two weeks before the slaying, Bridget mentioned that someone had been bothering her in the college library; they never had dated, but the person had warned her not to date anyone else.

"Bridget told me that this person was really repulsive, and I heard her shudder on the phone," the mother says. "That really perturbed me; it was like nothing she'd ever said before.

"I told her to tell a security guard. Bridget said she just couldn't do that. Then she said, 'Mom, don't worry, I know how to handle it -- and I will.'

"A week later, she told me that she had taken care of it."

Today, Bridget's slaying remains a crushing burden for the parents, and they are dedicated to helping the police find the killer.

Mrs. Phillips says she has considered hypnosis to recall more accurately those last conversations with her daughter. The final time they spoke was on the mother's birthday. Bridget's father has even hired psychics in an attempt to find the killer.

The family has a standing reward of $5,500 for information leading to an arrest. No one ever has come forward with useful facts.

"We're frustrated, disheartened," Mr. Phillips says.

Though it is 900 miles from their home in Florida, the Phillipses regularly visit their daughter's grave in Lawrence, Kansas.

"Some days, her death comes back real strong," Mr. Phillips says. "You just kind of slide through those days and concentrate on the good memories."

Three years ago, their other daughter, Michelle, made them grandparents. The child's name is Bridget.

A bright, gregarious youngster, she has memorized the Pledge of Allegiance and is moving on to the Gettysburg Address. She also loves going to the library.

After the slaying, the parents kept many of their daughter's belongings, including a gold necklace; it is a replica of an Incan treasure that had the mythical power to ward off evil spirits.

L Bridget Phillips was not wearing it the night she was slain.

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