Did police do everything they could?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Rachel Cunningham had just opened the gate to the parking area behind her Bolton Hill rowhouse, and was ready to pull her Jeep Cherokee off the alley, when a man in a white polo shirt and red shorts pushed himself between her and the driver's-side door. He showed a handgun low at his side and ordered Cunningham into the back seat. A second, taller man -- like the first, in his late 20s -- grabbed the handgun from his pal, got into the back and remained there with Cunningham for the next half-hour.

It was 20 minutes after 9, Sunday night, Sept. 1. The one in the polo shirt drove down the alley and made a turn.

"Do you have money?" one of the hoods asked. "You better hope you have money or an ATM card." Cunningham had no cash, but there was a bank card for an automated teller machine in her pocket. The men repeatedly asked for her pass code, or personal identification number. "One of them said, 'You better not be messin' with us,' " Cunningham recalls. "One said that if I didn't cooperate, they'd blow my head off." One called the other "Jeffro."

Though the men ordered her to keep her eyes closed, at some point Cunningham could tell that the Cherokee was on Charles Street near Madison. She told the men they could use her card in an ATM at the Mercantile Bank branch, Charles and Chase. That's where the Cherokee made its first stop.

The driver got out. The second man stayed in the back seat with Cunningham and, she says, "engaged in a kind of personal conversation, asking me if I was married and did I have kids."

When the lead hood returned to the Cherokee, having withdrawn $300 from Cunningham's account, he drove off again. And again Cunningham was told to close her eyes, an order with which she only partly complied. "There was a conversation about where they should drop me off. They drove to an alley off Druid Hill Avenue somewhere and left me face down in the back. One of them told me to count to 20, the other said to count to 150." The two men fled. "I calmly counted to 90, then became hysterical as I was driving away. I was disoriented and I think I ran red lights, ending up on Martin Luther King Boulevard."

By the time she returned home, Cunningham's husband, Jamie, had dialed 911. Police came. A three-page report was written. There was no media attention. There have been no arrests.

And here's the thing: Rachel and Jamie Cunningham believe police did little after the night of the crime -- and only then with some prodding. (I got to Rachel Cunningham via a friend of hers who had read my November column on the beating of Mike Donlan, another crime victim who believes Southern District police did nothing in the way of investigative follow-up.)

Rachel Cunningham has had limited contact with police; she says she instigated what there was of it. Two months went by before she saw a photo lineup of suspects. By then, however, she was unable to positively say that any of the men in the photos had abducted her. (Cunningham says a Central District police officer told her to "get on with my life.")

Still, the Cunninghams have questions: What about other witnesses, people who lined up behind the man in the white polo shirt to use the ATM at Charles and Chase? (At least one other person can be seen waiting in line behind the man in a bank security photograph.) What about others who might have seen these two the next day when, records indicate, they again tried to make ATM withdrawals using Cunningham's bank card? What about fingerprints on the Cherokee?

I ran all those questions by Rob Weinhold, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department. He looked into the case and came back with the conclusion that the Cunningham investigation had been "vigorous."

"We have exhausted every lead we received," he said. "We don't like to see a crime go unsolved, and I know that sounds like the company line, but we simply don't. We recovered physical evidence from [the Cherokee]. We put the photo of the suspect [from the ATM security camera] out on cable Channel 12. We contacted other jurisdictions in regard to this case, looking for any carjackings similar to this one." And nothing came of any of that.

As for witnesses, specifically bank customers who might have used the ATMs when Cunningham's abductors did, Weinhold said: "We don't discuss witnesses."

As for fingerprints, Weinhold said, police have twice attempted to find a suspect through the computerized print-matching process. Results were negative the first time, and police are awaiting results of the second scan (ordered by the Central District commander). "Having a suspect's name helps narrow the search down, and we don't have a name in this case," Weinhold said.

Why didn't Rachel Cunningham get to see a photo lineup of suspects in the immediate aftermath of the crime?

"We didn't have any suspects at the time," Weinhold said. "When you present photographs to a victim, it's not an arbitrary thing. You want to make sure there's a chance of making an identification. We certainly understand the victim's frustration in this case, but it's essential that we investigate a crime thoroughly and responsibly. When you get to court, you want to be able to prove it. ...In some cases, you just reach a point where you've done everything you can."

Where does all that leave Rachel Cunningham?

"This experience," she said a few weeks ago, "shatters a belief in the police." I'm familiar with this belief. It's the belief that police will be all over a case like this immediately -- and the next day and the next -- until men who abduct and rob a taxpayer are locked up. But that's not how it works in a city with, among other things, an estimated 50,000 drug addicts and more than 300 homicides per year.

"It came to the point," Rachel Cunningham says, "where [the police officers'] attitude was, 'How quickly can we get her off the phone, and what can we say to appease her?' ...I get spooked a lot easier now. I don't like that feeling. I need for this to be over, see, and to do that I need to push the police."

I think she's pushed them about as far as anyone could, and farther than she thinks.

Pub Date: 12/18/96

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