Murder-mystery lawyers argue over testimony on cause of fire; State marshal says blaze was intentionally set


EASTON -- If Kimberly Michelle Hricko didn't kill her husband and set fire to the resort hotel room the couple had booked for a romantic Valentine's weekend last year, then how did the blaze start?

Stephen Hricko's body was found after he and his wife of nine years attended a dinner theater murder-mystery play at the resort.

Testimony was halted last night and jurors sent home on the second day of what is expected to be a weeklong trial. Lawyers argued about whether an investigator for the state fire marshal could testify that, in his opinion, the fire was deliberately set.

Deputy Fire Marshal Michael Mulligan said nearly a year of investigation and testing of bedding, cigars and other material found in the room where the body of 35-year-old Stephen Hricko was found left the investigator with no other conclusion.

"I believe it was a set fire," said Mulligan. "That is based on the elimination of all natural and accidental causes. My tests eliminated accidental smoking as a cause of this fire."

As recently as Jan. 5, Mulligan said, he had been unable to set fire to samples of bedding and other materials taken from the room at the St. Michaels resort using the brand of cigar found near the body of Stephen Hricko. Even under optimum laboratory conditions, heat from the cigar was not sufficient to light the pillows, bedding and clothing, Mulligan said.

Experts from the Maryland State Police Crime Laboratory testified earlier that they found no evidence that any accelerant, such as gasoline, was used to start the blaze.

Monday, before a jury was selected, Judge William S. Horne ruled that no testimony about the behavior of a dog trained to detect traces of accelerants at fire scenes would be allowed during the trial.

A state medical examiner's report found that Stephen Hricko probably died of poisoning but did not say what substance killed him. The autopsy found that the man was dead before the fire started and that no alcohol was present in his blood.

Kimberly Hricko, charged with murder, arson and attempted arson, sat impassively yesterday as special prosecutor Robert Dean called a half-dozen witnesses who said the 33-year-old surgical technician showed little emotion on the night her husband died.

Hricko told police that her husband began drinking heavily when the pair returned to their room at the Harbortowne Golf Resort and Conference Center near St. Michaels after seeing the murder mystery.

The couple argued when her husband pressured her for sex, Hricko told police, and she tried to drive to a friend's house in Easton. Unable to find her way, she returned to find the hotel room filled with smoke, she said.

Michael Miller, a lifelong friend of Stephen Hricko and the golf course supervisor at the resort, said Mrs. Hricko lay on the bed of another hotel room for several hours after he arrived at 1: 50 a.m. Feb. 15.

"Kim was laying on the bed farthest away from me," said Miller, who said he had suggested the romantic weekend to his friend because he knew the Hrickos had been having marital problems. "She walked over to me and said, 'Thank you for coming.' I reached out to hug her, but she did not respond," Miller said.

The Rev. Paul L. Jennings, a Roman Catholic priest who is chaplain for the state police barracks in Easton, said Hricko was "calmly upset" when he delivered official notification that her husband had died.

Asked to describe Hricko's demeanor, the priest said, "At worst, pensive, but not hysterical or anything of that sort."

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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