Jury finds Hricko guilty; Friends' testimony in resort murder case was key, lawyer says; Life sentence possible; Laurel woman, 33, also convicted of arson as 5-day trial ends


EASTON -- A Talbot County jury convicted Kimberly Michelle Hricko last night of killing her husband and setting fire to the room the couple had booked at an exclusive Eastern Shore resort for a romantic Valentine's weekend.

Hricko could face a life sentence plus 30 years for the first-degree murder and arson convictions. Judge William S. Horne scheduled a sentencing hearing for March 19.

The verdicts came a little more than three hours after attorneys called the last of more than 40 witnesses who appeared during the five-day trial.

Hricko showed no emotion as the verdicts were read and the jury of 10 women and two men were polled. Former friends of the 33-year-old Laurel woman, whose testimony proved crucial, sat tightly together on the first row of courtroom chairs, holding hands. Some wept quietly.

Michael Miller, a lifelong friend of Stephen Hricko, said he found it difficult to describe his emotions.

"The only thing different from this and a nightmare is that you wake up from a nightmare," Miller said. "We'll live with this forever."

Special prosecutor Robert Dean, a former Montgomery County state's attorney, said it was one of the most tragic cases he had handled.

Defense attorney William Brennan Jr. said his legal team was unable to overcome testimony from former friends of Kimberly Hricko.

"It clearly was not based on the medical or scientific evidence," Brennan said. "It was her near and dear friends who testified that made all the difference."

Yesterday, Dean said Hricko was "a woman with ice water in her veins who was on a mission of death." He reminded jurors about the parade of friends and co-workers who testified that Hricko, a medical technician in a hospital operating room, had confided her desire to end an unhappy marriage and had outlined a detailed plan for killing her husband to her oldest friend.

"The defendant nearly committed the perfect crime," Dean said. "But her tormented and brave friends knew what was going on and what they had to do."

Brennan dubbed the women "the Four Musketeers," saying they had had many months to talk among themselves and make judgments about the case. He said the prosecutor failed to prove first-degree murder or arson beyond a reasonable doubt.

"We're talking about legal concepts, not moral judgments," Brennan told jurors. "If you look at the scientific evidence, the medical evidence, there is not a single piece of evidence that proves how Stephen Hricko died. There is no expert opinion that this fire was set."

The defendant, who did not testify in her defense, told police last winter that she and her husband attended a dinner theater murder-mystery production on Valentine's night.

When her husband, who she claimed had been drinking heavily, began pressuring her for sex, she left the room and tried to drive to a friend's house in Easton, she said.

Hricko said that after getting lost and driving for nearly two hours, she returned to find the room at the Harbortowne Golf Resort and Conference Center near St. Michaels filled with smoke. Her husband's body was found on the floor.

Hricko told police her husband often smoked cigars when he had been drinking and that an open pack of cigars was found in the room. Friends and relatives of the man testified that he never smoked.

Thursday, Maryland State Police investigators explained how they traced the cigar pack to a liquor store a few blocks from the Hrickos' townhouse in Laurel. A store clerk identified Kimberly Hricko as the person who purchased the cigars.

An autopsy by Deputy State Medical Examiner David Fowler found no alcohol in Mr. Hricko's body. More important, Fowler testified, there was a normal level of carbon monoxide in the man's blood and the lack of damage to his respiratory system showed he was dead when the fire began.

Fowler listed the cause of death of the 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound golf course supervisor as "probable poisoning" and outlined forensic tests he ordered in an attempt to detect a a nearly untraceable drug, succinylcholine, a powerful muscle relaxant used in hospital operating and emergency rooms.

The compound, unlike narcotics that are stored under lock and key, is readily available to hospital workers such as surgical technicians. It paralyzes the body's muscles in a matter of seconds, including those needed to breathe.

Wednesday, Kenneth Burgess of Chantilly, Va., who worked with Hricko at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, testified that Hricko asked him in December 1997 whether he would kill her husband for $50,000.

Prosecutors also revealed that Hricko stood to collect about $400,000 in life insurance if her husband died, something she mentioned to several friends in whom she confided about her troubled marriage.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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