A 17-year-old Eldersburg honors student, who was a tennis champion and community volunteer, was found strangled in her car early yesterday at a Reisterstown apartment complex -- less than 24 hours after she agreed to baby-sit for a stranger.
As friends and relatives mourned Shen Dullea Poehlman, police made a chilling disclosure -- that she had alerted friends to look for her if she failed to phone from the baby-sitting job.
John Albert Miller IV, a 26-year-old unemployed store clerk, was arrested and charged in her murder. He moved to Reisterstown three months ago from Rochester, N.Y., where he had been convicted of at least three crimes including assault, authorities said.
Police said Miller confessed to smothering and strangling the popular Liberty High School graduate, who had been headed to Florida State University on an academic scholarship.
In the Carroll County bedroom community, Shen was described as a sensitive teen-ager who donated 163 community service hours -- more than twice her high school's requirement -- and trusted others.
"I think she was naive. She expected good of people," her aunt Suzie Markus said tearfully. "Baby-sitting was not something she chose routinely. She had paying jobs in fast food, marketing."
Shen encountered Miller late Monday afternoon at the Bentley Park Apartments in Reisterstown, where she had gone with two friends to visit another girl working as a lifeguard at the complex's swimming pool, police said.
They said Miller approached the girls and asked if one of them would baby-sit for his children.
The others said no -- but Shen, who rarely baby-sat, agreed and jotted down her phone number for Miller.
That evening, police said, he called Shen and arranged for her to come to his apartment Tuesday morning to watch his children for a couple of hours, at $10 an hour.
Perhaps uneasy about the arrangement, Shen told Jessica Shadoff and Lauren Tupis that she would call them about 9: 30 a.m. Tuesday, according to police documents.
She told her friends they should go looking for her if she didn't call. She also told her older sister, Heather, 22, about the baby-sitting job.
"There were red flags all over this situation," her mother, Janice D. Poehlman, said yesterday.
"Her friends warned her -- but it is that teen-age mentality, that feeling of being indestructible.
"This was just a stupid teen-age move, that so many kids will do to prove they are invincible," Mrs. Poehlman said.
Worry turns to alarm
When Shen didn't call her friends as she had promised, Jessica and Lauren began to worry. They called Shen's mother, who reported her missing to police.
Janice and Heather Poehlman went to the office of Public Opinion in Eldersburg, a polling and marketing company where Shen worked.
When she didn't show up for her 5: 30 p.m. shift, worry turned to alarm.
"I knew something was wrong," said Robert Jones, the owner of Public Opinion, who described Shen as reliable and conscientious.
Later that evening, police officers met Shen's mother, Jessica and Lauren at the Bentley Park pool. The girls told police that Miller had approached them about baby-sitting.
Officers went to Miller's apartment at 415 Valley Meadow Way, where Miller's girlfriend, Isabella Sherman, answered the door.
When police asked to see Miller, she asked them if their visit concerned the girl at the pool.
'Is she alive?'
She said Miller told her the girl had been at the apartment in the morning, but that he had sent her away.
"Is she alive? Is she OK?" police said the woman asked them.
After Miller emerged from the bathroom, police took him to Garrison precinct, where he initially told them he had not seen the girl since Monday when he approached her at the pool.
But midway through the interview, detectives learned that the girl's body had been discovered in the back seat of her light blue 1988 Honda, which was parked in an apartment complex about a mile from Miller's apartment.
The body was clothed and covered by a blanket. Police would not comment about whether the teen-ager had been sexually assaulted.
Miller then confessed to killing her in his apartment, according to charging documents.
He told police he put the girl's body in the car and drove to Sugarbury Court behind Franklin High School, according to the documents.
Residents of Sugarbury Court recalled seeing the car parked there Tuesday afternoon, but no one noticed a body -- not even a woman who was walking her dog and stopped by the car.
"I didn't look inside," said Sandra Ali, who lives on Sugarbury Court.
Wanted to play for Orioles
Miller worked briefly at the Royal Farm Store on nearby Chartley Drive before being fired for not following company policy about proper handling of cash.
Acquaintances said he told them he came to Baltimore to try out for the Orioles.
"The only thing I knew was, him and his girlfriend moved down here from New York because she got a job here," said Pam Baldwin, a former manager at the Chartley Royal Farm Store, who hired Miller.
"He wanted to try out for the Orioles baseball team. He seemed all right to me."
At a hearing yesterday in the District Court building in Towson, Miller was formally charged with first-degree murder.
He appeared tired and distraught, rubbing his stubbled face and, at one point, shaking his head as if in disbelief.
Answering questions in a steady voice, Miller told Commissioner Robert Donadio that he had lived at the apartment in Reisterstown for about three months and had lived for the previous four years in Rochester, N.Y.
Convictions in New York
He said he was married, but in the process of being divorced. He said he has two children.
At the hearing, it was revealed that Miller's record includes convictions in New York for writing bad checks, malicious destruction of property and assault.
Prosecutors in New York said yesterday that he was placed on five years' probation in 1993 after pleading guilty to forgery.
Outpouring of sympathy
Even as Miller was appearing in court, friends and family gathered yesterday at Shen's home, struggling to make sense of her death.
"The most amazing thing to me is there are about 100 kids at the house," said Markus, Shen's aunt.
"I'm astonished at how supportive this community is."
Pub Date: 7/30/98