He needed a stamp -- a small detail in his elaborate plan -- and he found one at a Royal Farm store, walking into the Rossville outlet on Route 7 at about half past 2 the afternoon of Sept. 11. The letter went into a mailbox too late for that day's pickup, but no matter; it would get to his parents' house near Cumberland soon enough.
"For my family, I feel this is the only option I have left," he had written.
What remained now was the last critical step, the one to give the letter meaning. Just before 6 that evening, Mark Alen Clark gathered everything he cared about -- the wife who had left him, the three children he felt he had lost -- collecting the essential elements of his life in a 1987 Ford station wagon and parking behind an Essex shopping center. There, he blew his world apart.
To most everyone, the deed was incomprehensible; the verdict on the soul of the bomber was certain and fixed. This was absolute evil, cruel and senseless. But to many of those who knew the 32-year-old Mark Clark and watched his life collapse, the bombing in Essex last week was even more horrifying. They recognized the sad and desperate logic that provoked it.
"Mark loved Betty and he loved those children more than anything," says Anna Fields, a neighbor and friend. "If anything, he loved them too much."
For the past six years, Mark Clark's life included little beyond Betty Louise Clark, their young daughter and the two older children he took for his own, raising them in an old farmhouse in the Garrett County hills.
What mattered were the dance lessons and gymnastics for Melissa, 11, the oldest; Wiffle Ball in the yard with 6-year-old Ricky; a dog and kittens for Krysta, 4. At Easter, he'd spend the bill money on candy and talking rabbits for the kids. At Christmas, his thin paycheck would go for toys on the layaway plan at Wal-Mart. His family gave him his life, his identity, all that he ever had.
On the night before Mark Clark destroyed his 32-year-old wife, his children and himself, he sat talking softly, baring his soul to a young niece.
"Nobody knows how I feel," he said. "Nobody knows the emptiness I feel."
'A good father'
When he met Betty, he half-ran, half-waltzed down Silver Street in Ridgeley, W.Va., to pull up a bouquet for her from his mother's flower garden. From that moment, Betty was the one.
It was late 1989 when she moved with her parents and sisters about eight doors away from the Clark family in the western edge of Ridgeley. By then, Betty Ray had two children. Melissa Ray was 6, Ricky Valdez was an infant; their fathers hadn't stayed around.
Mark had graduated from high school in Short Gap, W.Va., then served two years on the USS Eisenhower. After his discharge, he came home, working as a truck driver, mechanic, plant laborer. He frequented bars, spending more than he could afford, accumulating a string of bad-check charges.
Growing up in Baltimore, Betty had dropped out of the eighth grade and she, too, had her wild years. But after they met, they changed each other. They began by living with her family. For Mark, the children of Betty's earlier relationships became, by all accounts, very much his own.
Eventually, the couple moved into public housing in Cumberland, and they began attending the Salvation Army church nearby. A daughter, Krysta, was born the next year.
"If we needed help with anything, Mark was there," says Maj. Robert S. Henderson, commanding officer for the Salvation Army in the Cumberland area. "If we needed people to shovel snow, he'd be the first one to show up. We relied on him."
It was the Hendersons who urged the couple to make the union legal and helped plan the October 1993 wedding. Betty wore a rose-colored dress; Mark, a sweater and dress pants. Ricky was the ring bearer and Krysta the flower girl.
Money was tight, but Betty kept the house immaculate, mopping the floors and scrubbing the counters two and three times a day. She was fastidious about her appearance and that of the children. Because Mark often had the grime of engine grease on his hands, she purchased a special soap for use on church Sundays.
A hopeful time
There was so much that they didn't have, but in that first year of marriage there was still the hope of things to come. Mark had volunteered to collect Salvation Army donations outside the Wal-Mart store in LaVale; he was so conscientious that the store manager decided to hire him.
As for Betty, she wanted a new life for herself, enrolling in classes for a high school equivalency diploma. Recalls Mary Lee Kegg, Betty's instructor: "What I remember about her most is that she was very thirsty for knowledge. . . . She soaked up every bit of information you could give her, and she was grateful for it."
To reduce their rent, they moved from Cumberland to rural Finzel in Garrett County. The house had a view of ridges and cornfields. The children would have room to run. Though they still were short on money, Mark spent $200 for a swing set.
Mark thrived in the country. He came straight home from work, spending much of his time playing with the children or working on the farmhouse. He remodeled the bathroom, then began fixing up Melissa's room.
A growing restlessness
He had few friends and few interests outside his home and family; his only explorations beyond them were playing bluegrass guitar and watching science and nature programs on the Discovery Channel. Mostly, he would insist on hearing Betty recount her day at school in exhausting detail.
"If she left anything out -- even the smallest thing -- he'd be upset," says Anna Fields, the neighbor.
In time, Betty grew restless, taking long walks up and down Finzel Road, telling friends she was trying to lose weight. But some saw another reason: "She'd say it was her time to think, to be alone," says Anna Fields' husband, Peter.
Mark didn't like the walks. Sometimes, he'd leave the children with the neighbors and drive down the road, checking Finzel's lone roadhouse to make sure his wife wasn't at the bar. More often, he revealed a growing jealousy.
"After a while, it became clear that there were problems," says Anna Fields. Betty confided to her that the marriage had grown cold, that she felt trapped and she wanted to leave Mark but was unwilling to do so because he was a good father.
But the neighbors were shocked to hear Betty at times bait her husband, provoking him to fury by challenging his skills as a father. To Peter Fields, it was as if Betty was desperately looking to find fault, trying to justify the decision that she knew was approaching. When Mark cleaned the house, Betty would come home and say it wasn't enough. When he cooked dinner, it was wrong.
For his part, Mark seemed to retreat from his wife and turn his affections more toward the children. He was out in the yard with them every day, playing ball and wrestling and sharing their toys.
No sign of physical abuse
Although Melissa -- who was old enough to remember a string of come-and-gone boyfriends -- was less comfortable with Mark than the other children, the neighbors saw no evidence that Mark was ever physically abusive. "He could raise his voice, but I never saw him hit Betty and only once did I see him even touch a child" in anger, says Anna Fields.
The arguments got worse late last year, when Mark told Betty he'd been fired from Wal-Mart and was taking a roofing job. Later, Betty found out he was due for a promotion at Wal-Mart, but quit instead. "Betty thought that Wal-Mart might be a career for Mark," recalls Anna Fields. "She was upset that he couldn't seem to stay at any one job."
And Betty had plans of her own; after getting her equivalency diploma in July 1994, she had enrolled in a clerical program that kept her in class all day. Once, the Fieldses heard Mark chide Betty for not taking a nursing program, which he thought would pay better. Betty cut him short. "I'm not doing this for you," she said. "I'm doing this for me."
She was moving away from Mark, and he sensed it. Friends say he became withdrawn and depressed; his behavior grew erratic. Betty told relatives that while Mark had never hit her, he would threaten her often. Once, she said, he had pointed his hunting rifle at her; friends and relatives feared for her.
Additionally, Betty suspected that Mark had started taking the Ritalin prescribed for Ricky's hyperactivity. For those who don't suffer from that condition, the drug acts as a stimulant, similar to an amphetamine.
On Memorial Day weekend, over her husband's objections, Betty took the children to Baltimore for a holiday picnic with relatives. The next Tuesday, she called from Hagerstown; her car had broken down.
A death threat
Jennifer Thomas, a neighbor who let Mark use her phone, overheard him screaming at his wife: "He was saying that he told her not to go, why can't she ever listen to him, how was he supposed to get down there to work on the car. Then he told her that he was going to kill her."
When Betty's family heard of the conversation, they picked her up in Hagerstown and brought her back to Baltimore. Two days later, Betty called Mark and said she wasn't coming back.
He hung up the phone, looked at Jennifer Thomas and said he was going to kill his wife: "He said that he was going to shoot her, cut her up into little pieces and burn her in the stove," she recalled. "He said that way it would be untraceable. . . . More or less, he told us that if he couldn't have her and watch those kids grow up, that no one would."
Several days later, Major Henderson got a call at the Salvation Army church. Mark said he had a shotgun to his head and he saw no reason for going on. The pastor talked to him, finally persuading Mark to follow him to Sacred Heart Hospital in nearby LaVale.
The hospital admitted him to the psychiatric unit. Before his discharge three days later, Mark asked the pastor to call his mother and his wife: "Tell them I'm all right and tell Betty we'll be together."
Betty told the minister there was no chance of a reconciliation. Days later, Mark came by with better news. He would be leaving for North Carolina.
"I'm going to start over," he told the pastor. "I'm going to put this behind me."
His new bosses at A&K; Tower Co. liked him, but that was no surprise. Bosses always came to like Mark, who would always be there on time. He was honest, too, and willing to give a day's work for a day's pay.
Earning good money
In Winston-Salem, he was pulling down $15 an hour doing repair and construction work on radio transmission towers. That was good money, especially compared with wages around Cumberland.
The family thought he'd found himself again. Co-workers in Carolina said he mentioned his estrangement from his family only in passing. His sister, Diane, got a postcard that was all about the new job; he wrote that he saw no reason to come back. And in a call to his parents, he said much the same thing. "The last time he called here he was happy," says his father, William Clark.
Much of Mark's workweek was spent on the road at job sites from Virginia to South Carolina. When he wasn't traveling, he stayed at a $23-a-night motel near the interstate in Winston-Salem. His belongings were piled in his Taurus wagon.
Sometimes he called Baltimore, telling Betty about his new beginning, but she gave him no reason for hope.
On Friday, Sept. 8, he had a routine workday, came back to the A&K; office from a job site and picked up his paycheck. He didn't quit. He was expected back after the weekend. He told his bosses he was going to Maryland to visit his kids.
The next morning, Michael Albert -- the fiance of Betty's sister, Katherine Weber -- woke up to find Mark on the patio of their Ross Ridge apartment. He'd arrived in Baltimore at 5 a.m., paid $40 cash at a Pulaski Highway motel and grabbed a few hours' rest. Mark was amiable enough; later that day he helped Albert work on his car.
"That's when he showed me the sticks," recalls Albert. With little knowledge of explosives, he thought the 6-inch-long cylinders under the back seat were dynamite. They were white, with black lettering and orange caps. "About 25 or 30 of them," he adds. "I promised him I wouldn't tell anybody. I'm no snitch."
Later that Saturday, Mark picked up Ricky and Krysta, and that night, the three stayed at the Colonial Motel in Middle River. When the children returned Sunday to Betty's Rosedale apartment, they had been primed.
"Ricky kept asking Betty to give Daddy another chance," remembers Mark Weitzel, Betty's new live-in boyfriend. "She wasn't going for it."
'He said he had a plan'
That evening, Mark returned to Katherine Weber's apartment. He drank a couple Coors, smiled for a photo with a relative's newborn, then sat outside on the patio and confided in his 14-year-old niece, Becky Weber.
"He said he had a plan," Becky remembers. "He said,'You'll find out soon.' He was very calm. Mellow."
Her uncle kept talking about a second chance -- a chance that he believed had been denied him. "Nobody knows the emptiness I feel," he told her. "Your wife leaves you, three kids are taken away. I just loved them so much."
The next morning, Mark went to McDonald's for breakfast with Michael Albert, who recalls Mark saying he'd used crack cocaine in North Carolina -- an account seemingly at odds with his performance at A&K.;
Then, Mark began rambling, saying he was going to write letters to everyone. "It was about the why and what of what was going to happen, that he was going to explain in the letters. Then he said tonight I'm going to end it all, or tonight would be the end of it all, something like that."
Trying to explain
Sometime that Monday afternoon, he filled two pages of lined, 6-by-9-inch paper, telling his parents that he loved them, that he hoped they would understand, that this was the only alternative he saw for his family. He wrote that Betty's new boyfriend had beaten her -- and in fact, Mark Weitzel had been charged with assaulting her Aug. 20 -- and that he feared the children were being beaten as well, according to law enforcement sources.
A stamp was purchased, the letter mailed. At about 5:30 that evening, Kathy Weber, Katherine Weber's 17-year-old daughter, saw Mark outside her mother's apartment. He seemed to be arranging clothes in the back seat of the car. She now recalls that her uncle kept saying goodbye, over and over.
A few minutes later, Mark arrived at his estranged wife's apartment on Havenoak Road in Rosedale. Mark had told the children he would buy them school supplies -- an art smock, crayons and clothes.
About 6 p.m., he pulled into the Middlesex Shopping Center on Eastern Boulevard. He drove around the back to an isolated area near some trees. There were no other cars, no pedestrians; no bystanders made to suffer at the fringe of someone else's nightmare.
It was just one family. Together.
A new start
When Mark Clark left for North Carolina, he told the neighbors that they could have the swing set. He sold the washer and dryer for a few dollars to a couple down the road.
But most everything else is there in the barn where the landlord dumped it: chairs and children's books and clothes, Melissa's dance shoes and homework and birthday cards, Krysta's toy stove and "Sesame Street" dolls, Ricky's ball mitt.
In one box are the unpaid utility bills, the mimeographed Psalms from Bible class, the family bankbook with a last $12 withdrawal leaving $1.09 in the account. Mark's pocket calendar has no entry for any date after his family left.
Elsewhere, other shards of the Clark family tragedy still are being collected. Over the last week, agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have been to Cumberland, Essex and Winston-Salem, trying to understand how Mark Clark managed to build his bomb.
ATF agents are investigating whether the explosives were stolen from his employer in Winston-Salem.
Investigators believe that Michael Albert didn't see dynamite in Mark's car, but sticks of binary explosives used for commercial blasting. The two components of such explosives -- a soft solid and liquid -- cannot explode until they are combined. The explosives could be linked to an energy source such as the car battery, investigators say, then triggered by pushing the cigarette lighter or turning on the car radio or windshield wipers.
At the Maryland medical examiner's office, pathologists are also waiting for the results of toxicology tests on Mark Clark, hoping to learn whether illegal or prescription drugs played a role in the tragedy.
But to those familiar with such cases, all that is incidental. Ultimately, they say, what men like Mark Clark do to their families has to do with desperation and union, and ultimately, a terrifying and corrupted love.
'The desire for union'
"One of the things you often see in stalking cases is the desire for union," says James A. Wright, a special agent with the FBI's Center for Violent Crime Analysis. "That union is just as good if it is spiritual as if it's physical. . . . As sick as it may seem, to some people killing a child may be considered an act of love to the person who does it."
There may be another meaning as well in the use of a bomb, in the fact that Mark Clark, who seemed incapable of physically abusing his wife and children, was nonetheless prepared to blow them apart.
A bomb, says Agent Wright, "is a weapon used by people who want to put distance between themselves and their acts. It may very well be to remove himself and depersonalize it."
But for those who knew Mark Alen Clark, the expert opinions are merely cumulative. To them, the tragedy could never be inexplicable or senseless. The reasons were there for anyone to see.
"He's in his 30s," says Wayne Guillon, the best man at the Clarks' wedding. "This is his first marriage and she left him. To him, being 30 years old . . . the only thing you have is your family. It was his entire world. When he lost that, he lost everything."