Baltimore police charged a man yesterday in the 1993 bludgeoning death of an elderly woman, apparently solving an emotional case in which detectives and the victim's son shared a personal and professional bond.
The son, Pete O'Neal, a veteran cameraman for a local television station, has filmed nearly 2,000 slaying scenes and is well-known and liked by homicide investigators.
The fatal beating of his mother, Jeromia O'Neal, 74, and the strangulation of a nun at her convent three days later rocked the city in the middle of its deadliest year on record. One elected official said the slayings "stopped the city in its tracks." And another uttered, "This is as bad as it gets."
Yesterday, detectives with the Police Department's Cold Case Squad arrested Dundalk resident Warner Hill, 50, after witnesses recently told investigators that the suspect had stolen $70 from Mrs. O'Neal and spent it on crack cocaine hours before her body was discovered.
Police said Mrs. O'Neal was beaten in the head with a blunt object on March 17, 1993, in the first-floor bedroom of her home in the 1200 block of N. Caroline St. Her son discovered the body in the ransacked rowhouse.
"She was a little old lady who never hurt anyone, who was pretty tough and set in her own ways," Mr. O'Neal recalled yesterday. "I'm sorry that somebody, for $70, took a life. It was worth a hundred million times that to me."
Detectives who worked the case most recently said it was hard to break because little physical evidence was recovered. The murder weapon has not been found.
Mr. O'Neal, who grew up with his mother in a house on North Eden Street, said he was at a loss for words.
"I don't know how to handle this," he said. "I've been a thousand times on the other side of the camera talking to folks, and I never could understand when they answered, 'I don't know.' Everyone of those people that we talked to has popped back into my mind."
Mr. O'Neal has won two Emmys in his 14 years as a photographer -- 10 of those years with WMAR-TV (Channel 2). He received his second Emmy on Saturday and dedicated it to his slain mother.
City Paper profiled the cameraman in December. "Peter O'Neal has filmed about 1,800 murder scenes for local TV news," the front cover said. "He thought he'd seen it all. Then somebody killed his mother."
His mother's death changed the very way Mr. O'Neal did his job.
Once an aggressive journalist who, he said in the profile, would "show you everything, show you the people crying, show you the blood," he now backs off a bit.
"A drug dealer," Mr. O'Neal said yesterday, "I never really cared about him. He knew what he was getting into. But after [my
mother was slain], I said, 'That drug dealer belonged to someone.'
"When I go out now, I don't act as gung-ho as I used to," he said. "I'm competitive, but I keep my distance, and I don't get up in anybody's face."
Mr. O'Neal said his mother rented the top floor of her three-story rowhouse for $20 a week. Mr. Hill was Mrs. O'Neal's tenant at the time of her death, police said.
Detective Scott Keller said that Mr. Hill was a suspect from the beginning but that investigators lacked physical evidence and witnesses were quiet.
Several days after Mrs. O'Neal was slain, police charged Mr. Hill with the theft of her antique china chest, worth about $2,000, after he hawked it for $800 at an Owings Mills antique shop. Mr. Hill was convicted of the theft and served seven months of a three-year sentence.
But detectives said at the time they could not link the theft to the slaying.
Three months ago, the Cold Case Squad took over. One of its investigators, Detective Donald Worden, is the model for the character portrayed by Ned Beatty on the television series "Homicide: Life on the Street," about the city's homicide unit. Mr. O'Neal appears on the show as a cameraman.
Court papers filed yesterday show that a witness finally talked to police and reported seeing Mr. Hill with a white handkerchief filled with silver coins and buffalo-head nickels about 12 hours before Mrs. O'Neal's body was discovered.
The witness told police that they sold the coins for $70 at an East Baltimore grocery store and that the suspect used the money to buy crack cocaine, according to court records.
Court papers state that Mr. O'Neal later told police that silver coins were missing from his mother's possessions. He said his mother kept the money wrapped in the handkerchief pinned on the inside of her blouse.
Early yesterday, police obtained an arrest warrant charging Mr. Hill with first-degree murder and robbery with a deadly weapon. They arrested him about 9 a.m. at a house in the 600 block of 48th St. in Dundalk.
The suspect only yelled a profanity at reporters as an officer led him in handcuffs to see a District Court commissioner at the Eastern District police station. He was ordered held without bail pending a hearing before a judge scheduled for today.
Standing outside the Eastern District station yesterday was Capt. Gary D'Addario, a former homicide detective who serves as a technical adviser to "Homicide." He first met Mr. O'Neal while working the street.
"I hope that Pete can finally find some peace and put this to rest," the captain said. "It's a whole different thing when it's personal."
Police spokesman Sam Ringgold, who befriended Mr. O'Neal when the spokesman was a reporter at Channel 2, said this murder "has hit me the hardest since I've been here. I'm pleased there was an arrest in this case."
As a tribute by producers on the "Homicide" set, "Jeromia O'Neal" is written on a board that lists all the slayings -- a real victim placed among the fictitious. The name is in red, a vivid reminder of an unsolved case.
Cathy Kurtz, the show's production coordinator, said the name will be changed to black next season -- indicating "case closed."