Death of city woman leaves tangled trail

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Keri Sirbaugh's father shakes in his seat, struggling to talk without crying. Twisting his beefy hands into a knot, he shrinks down in his wicker patio chair. Tears leak from beneath his dark sunglasses. The big man is crumbling again.

"Please," he gasps. "Tell people, the least little thing -- anything at all -- if you know, please call the police. Please."

It has been three weeks since Bill Sirbaugh drove in a panic to his daughter's apartment at the end of a dead-end street in Northeast Baltimore and found her body dumped in a gloomy gulch of woods 40 footsteps from her door.

His only daughter had been strangled and beaten to death.

Police have no suspects, no leads. As they have delved into Keri's private life looking for her killer, the trails have become as tangled as the maze of footpaths weaving through the overgrown woods where her body was found.

What looked like a textbook case of murder that would be solved easily has plunged city police homicide investigators into a bramble of contradictions.

"It looked personal to us -- personal as hell," says Detective David Neverdon as he works the crime scene for the umpteenth time with his partner, Detective Robert Patton. "It was up close and very violent. That usually means somebody had a grudge. Find the guy who hated the victim and you have your man.

"But it seems that a lot of men had problems with Keri."

Through no apparent fault of her own.

In most ways, Keri Sirbaugh was like thousands of other young women in Baltimore. At 21, she was working hard to find her path into adulthood and shed the remnants of childhood awkwardness. But she was not easily overlooked in a crowd.

Friends describe her as a "superwoman," an "amazon," an "exotic beauty."

She stood nearly 6 feet tall from the soles of her combat boots to the peak of her flaming red tangle of hair. She weighed 160 pounds. And she moved like a force of nature, emitting gales of laughter and girlish chatter wherever she went.

Generous to strangers, loyal to friends, she was someone people noticed. And being noticed in certain quarters of Baltimore in 1995 can be a dangerous proposition -- especially at night. Especially for women.

"It got her a lot of unwanted attention," says Mark Bell, 30, a friend. "She was a big girl -- with big hair, big lips and big breasts. Unfortunately, there's a lot of men in this day and age who see a woman like that and forget that there's a person inside that exotic body."

Dreams of writing career

Behind the 500-watt smile and striking looks was an aspiring journalist who had just completed her junior year at American University in Washington after beginning her college education at Essex Community College.

Keri had always done well in academics, graduating 10th in her class from Towson Catholic High School in 1991. And for as far back as anyone in her family can remember, she had always wanted to be a writer.

When she was a little girl, she began secretly scribbling poems in her bedroom -- sweet rhymes about waves and dreams and true love -- and squirreling them away.

"She apparently had been writing them for a long time," says her mother, Fran Sirbaugh. "One day, she just decided to show them to me. I guess she was in the seventh or eight grade. We discovered we had quite the gifted little writer on our hands."

How and why she decided on American University, her mother doesn't know.

"But she was like that," Fran Sirbaugh says. "She would set her sights on something, and that was it. She'd go for it. You raise your children hoping they'll turn out right, in spite of whatever mistakes you make as a parent, and you never know until they're grown.

"Well, Keri succeeded. She's a very intelligent young lady -- or she was."

Fran Sirbaugh's face drops. She looks down into her hands, fiddling with her wedding ring.

"She was my friend. I admired her very much."

On weekends, Keri usually could be found at her family's white-sided house in Hamilton, gabbing with her mother, sharing confidences with her 18-year-old brother, Brian, and helping her father with his home improvement business. A giant of a man, Bill Sirbaugh could swing a hammer. But it was Keri who often wrote the job proposals, organized the contracts, returned the phone calls.

"She was a great kid," he says before his voice cracks and he has to stop talking again.

"In our circle, she was probably the only person who wasn't estranged in some way from her parents," says George Rickels, 29. "You couldn't be friends with Keri and not hear about how great her family was. Her mother was probably her best friend. And her dad, well, she just worshiped her dad.

"He was like her protector."

A new life downtown

In 1992, Keri left home, moved into an apartment nearby on White Avenue and began to gravitate toward downtown. Charles Street was where the action was. And she found ready soul mates among the art students and aspiring writers who flocked to the low-rent apartments of Mount Vernon and Charles Village.

She got a job at the center of it all as a waitress at Louie's Book Store Cafe on Charles Street -- a favorite downtown oasis for lawyers, police officers, tattooed artists, patrons of the nearby 00 Walters Gallery and reporters from The Sun.

As classical music wafted from the chamber ensemble at the front of the cafe one night, Keri joked with a friend that she might one day meet an editor in the dining room who could get her a job at the hometown newspaper.

The waiters at Louie's formed a close-knit circle of friends who worked and played together. And they were all fiercely %o protective of the wild-haired girl who seemed to draw trouble like a magnet.

"You're downtown, so you expect a certain amount of weirdness," says Courtney Powell, 28, a manager at Louie's. "But we had a couple guys who would come in and not order anything, just sit there and stare at her. One guy came in and said he wanted to take pictures of her for a party he was throwing, you know, for money. She just seemed to attract these people.

"It wasn't anything she ever said or did or wore. It was the way she looked."

Nor was it a new phenomenon. When she was a teen-ager, a guy who worked with her at a Hardee's restaurant developed a fixation for her. Followed her around. Dumped sugar into her gas tank. And she had far more than her share of boyfriends who turned bad. Bill Sirbaugh often fixed those problems.

But there wasn't much he could do about it now that she was living on her own.

"She spent last winter drifting in and out of depression," says George Rickels, who waited on tables with her at Louie's and became one of her staunchest friends. "She kept that smile on her face the whole time. But it was a long winter."

Safety concerns

Keri's father was also becoming increasingly concerned for her safety as her work schedule moved further and further into the night, her friends said. And he was less than comfortable with some of her friends. Some were gay. Some were transients. Musicians. Painters. People with rings in their noses.

Still, others had become friends of the family. And once you got to know them, they were like young people everywhere, working toward ill-defined dreams, full of good intentions, hoping for the best.

"I really admired her, maybe more than any other friend I have," says George Rickels. "She had ambitions that a lot of us didn't. But there has always been this thing between us that we're in this together and the horizon is out there somewhere. Keri just seemed to have set a straighter course."

The practical cost of that ambition was that Keri's classes at American University consumed her days, leaving her only the nights to work and socialize. And she was falling into a pattern that can be dangerous for a woman living alone.

Three or four nights a week, she was part of the closing crew at the cafe. One night a week, usually Tuesday, she would go out with friends from work to dance and drink and blow off steam until closing time at whatever club was hot at the moment.

One month, it was the Baja Beach Club at Market Place. The next month it was Moby Dick's on Broadway in Fells Point. The month after that, it was the Allegro on Cathedral Street.

Keri was arriving home in her distinctive olive green Volkswagen Cabriolet almost daily at 2:30 in the morning. Anyone intent on doing her harm could have known exactly where and when to find her at her most vulnerable. Tired. Perhaps a little drunk. Much less alert.

Assumed risks

"Drive or I'll stick you!" said the junkie in the grubby white jacket. "Do it now!"

It was shortly after midnight on Jan. 19. Keri and a girlfriend had just left the Baja -- a downtown singles hot spot known for its

negligee contests and "dollar shooters" -- when a woman rushed them with a used syringe.

She ordered them to drive her to a cash machine on Fayette Street two blocks from police headquarters. Keri got out and withdrew $130 while the woman held the needle to her friend's neck.

A few minutes later, the wild-eyed junkie jumped out of the car and disappeared.

"No witnesses uncovered," a police report said. "No injuries in incident."

The robbery was one of many last year among Keri's circle of friends. In one bad week, seven of them by Courtney Powell's count were held up from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor. Two men with a gun hit George Rickels for $7, then chased him for two blocks.

Did he report it to police?

"Nobody ever gets caught," he says wearily. "And I would have lost more hours from work than my $7 was worth. After you're robbed three or four times, you learn to live with it. It's one of the risks of living and working downtown."

It's also a big reason that Keri didn't live downtown, friends say.

Unlike the rest of them, she commuted eight miles up Harford Road from work every night to a quiet little block of tidy apartments in Hamilton, just inside the county line.

She found the place in April. A second-floor walk-up at the end of the block. Big back yard. Friendly neighbors. Dense woods crowded up to the edge of her driveway, ending beneath her kitchen window.

It was a seeming refuge after a long and trying winter: 6420 Everall Ave.

From trees to trash

Magdalene Crim came to the neighborhood for the same reason Keri did -- the trees.

It was 1933 when she and her husband, Clarence, moved out of their rowhouse neighborhood with their little boy to a farmhouse on a hill overlooking an open field that would one day be Everall Avenue. Two acres of verdant woods were part of the deal.

But Mrs. Crim looked up one day to find that "the city came to me."

Blocks and blocks of apartment houses encircled her land. And soon her woods were filled with trash -- beer cans, bald tires, gutted furniture. Rowdy teen-agers and vagrants hid in the thick overgrowth.

"I'm 89 years old," Mrs. Crim says with a sigh. "My eyes are so bad I don't really have any idea what it even looks like back there anymore. I haven't seen those woods in years."

Keri probably didn't have any idea what was in the woods either.

"It's a jungle in there," says Detective Patton. "The closest thing I can compare to is Vietnam. It's crisscrossed with paths and trails that just disappear into the vines. If somebody wanted to, they could do pretty much anything they wanted back there and you'd never know about it."

About three years ago, neighbors say, a man came out of the woods and held up a young art teacher in the driveway of her apartment. The address: 6420 Everall Ave., Keri's house.

LeRoy Niemyer, 69, owns the place. The woods have been a growing concern for him.

After the robbery, he bolted four spotlights to the side of his building because, he says, the city has consistently failed over the years to answer his letters of complaint about Mrs. Crim's woods.

4 "All that underbrush is blocking out the world."

A fateful day

Tuesday, June 20 was a rare day off for Keri. She drove the 12 blocks to her parents' house on Chesley Avenue and spent some time with her mom, then headed over to her Aunt's place near Lake Montebello to help get ready for her nephew's first birthday party.

"She had plans to go out on a date that night with a new guy she met -- somebody named Steve -- and she was all excited about that," said Dana Goode, her aunt. "But she adored her nephew and wouldn't have missed his party for anything."

Keri spent the rest of the day wrapping presents, folding napkins and playing with the baby. A couple of cousins were in town from Florida. By nightfall, the house was filled with family and friends. There was cake and ice cream and one big candle.

At 9:30, Keri left for her date with a final flurry of kisses and hugs.

It was the last time her family saw her alive.

A call to 911

"I don't know if anybody called yet, but there's a guy harassing a girl outside my apartment," the caller said. "I heard her say 'Please don't hurt me.' "

It was 3:15 a.m. when the call came into the Baltimore police emergency 911 center from Keri's downstairs neighbor. The young single mother was on the verge of tears. She had been awakened by a scream outside her living room window.

Rushing down the hall to the front of her apartment, she heard a woman talking to a man in a strained voice. Afraid to even look out her curtains, she listened long enough to hear the man say, "Shut up, be quiet." Then she rushed to her hallway phone and dialed 911.

Groggy and panicked, she asked the police operator not to have officers respond to her door for fear that whoever was outside would realize she was the one who called police.

What she didn't know is that the dispatcher would withhold the address entirely from officers responding to the call. Four minutes later, officers came rolling up the 6400 block of Everall Ave. looking for signs of trouble, having no idea where the incident had occurred or who had reported it.

Meanwhile, Keri's neighbor was huddled in her darkened apartment. She looked under a hallway door that she shared with Keri and saw the light come on, then heard footsteps on the stairs. She assumed that Keri, too, had been awakened by the screaming.

It never occurred to her that Keri was the one who had screamed. Or that she might be in mortal danger.

"My daughter was terrified," the woman's father says. "She had no idea what was happening. She was expecting to see headlights from a police car come across her window, but she never did."

The officers had come and gone, chalking up the 911 call as one of the hundreds of false alarms they receive every day.

About 20 minutes later, Keri's neighbor called her father.

"Dad, what should I do?" he recalled her saying. "The police still haven't come. I keep hearing things. I'm scared."

What she didn't hear, her father says, was any more screaming or any sounds of a struggle upstairs -- or anything that would suggest Keri needed help.

At 4:05 a.m., she called the police again.

This time, she begged them to come to her address.

Seven minutes later, an officer arrived and banged on her door. He talked to her for a minute, calmed her down, then searched the property. As he stepped under the spotlights, the motion detector tripped.

The yard and the driveway were washed in bright white light, but no amount of light could penetrate the tangled woods that bordered the property.

Satisfied that nothing was wrong, the officer talked to Keri's neighbor again.

At no time did she mention Keri's name.

At 4:15, the officer left.

No one had checked on Keri.

A sick feeling

The next day at Louie's, Keri failed to show up for work -- something she simply never did -- and George Rickels started feeling nauseated.

When he was 16 years old, his big brother David was shot seven times by a mentally ill neighbor and dumped in lot in South Baltimore. It was days before his body was found buried in a snowbank.

Now, the same sick feeling was creeping up on him. He tried calling Keri's apartment and got no answer. He called her parents' place, but they were both at work.

Finally, a little after 5 o'clock, he got Fran Sirbaugh on the phone. As soon as her husband got home, they drove over to Everall Avenue. Keri's car was parked out front, just where she'd left it when she got home from her date with Steve.

What happened next is a blur in the minds of everyone who was there that day.

Bill and Fran Sirbaugh went upstairs to Keri's apartment and saw signs that she had been home. But Keri was nowhere to be found. Fran grabbed the phone and called 911, her panic rising.

She burst into tears.

Neighbors began to gather around the driveway of 6420 Everall.

Moments later, police arrived just as Bill Sirbaugh noticed footprints in the grass leading into Mrs. Crim's woods. He followed them, rounded a thicket of briers and almost fell over his daughter's body.

Dumped into a bed of thorns, partly covered with twigs and leaves, Keri wore shorts and a summer shirt. And she was black and blue all over, with a wide band of bruises around her neck.

The big man collapsed in shock.

Nagging questions

Things have been eerily quiet since then, and the Sirbaughs fear that their daughter's killer is slipping away.

Two weeks after her body was found, 30 friends gathered on Everall Avenue to search for evidence. They started a reward fund at First Fidelity Bank on Northern Parkway. They plastered Fells Point with fliers.

Haggard and sweating in two-piece suits, Detective Patton and Neverdon have returned time and again to pick through the trash and wild raspberry bushes in Mrs. Crim's sweltering woods, eating mosquitoes as they go.

They've canvassed the apartments. They've worked the clubs. They've interviewed more than 50 people -- including the guy Keri dated that night, Steve. It turns out he's a University of

Maryland student with a clean record and a solid alibi who says Keri left his place in Baltimore County at 2:30 in the morning.

That would have put her on Everall Avenue at precisely the time her neighbor heard a woman scream outside her window, which is where the most nagging questions begin.

Somehow, someone managed to kill Keri within a span of 50 minutes right under the noses of police and a neighbor who was never more than 30 feet away. The killer disposed of her body under four spotlights in plain view of at least five adjoining apartments, yet no one saw him.

The victim was young and strong, yet the killer took her life without any evidence of a major struggle inside her apartment or in the woods.

If he had a weapon -- a knife or a gun -- why didn't he use it? If he didn't have a weapon, how could he force a woman the size of Keri to let him into her apartment? Unless he knew her. Unless he talked his way into her apartment.

"The problem with that," says Detective Neverdon, "is that we've run into nobody, none of her friends or the people she used to hang out with, who fits the profile of a dangerous person. It's the damnedest thing."

Then why Keri?

The answer to that goes back a long way, friends and family say. And it's wrapped up with a cluster of troubling questions about the times and about the city and about what it means to be a young woman coming of age in Baltimore in 1995.

"Keri wasn't a saint," says George Rickels. "And she wasn't a sinner. She was a 21-year-old girl trying to find her way in a place that isn't particularly forgiving to people like her."

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