Friends' testimony sealed Hricko's fate; Wife's murder plot might have worked if she hadn't talked


Kimberly Michelle Hricko had a scheme for killing her husband and getting away with it.

The 33-year-old operating room technician from Laurel apparently honed the details for months:

How she'd steal from her job at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring a vial of muscle relaxant so powerful it can stop a person's breathing within seconds.

How she'd inject the poison and paralyze her 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound husband, Stephen Michael Hricko.

How she'd set fire to the Eastern Shore resort room he had booked for a romantic Valentine's weekend last year.

How she'd buy a pack of cheap cigars and concoct a story about a tragic smoking accident.

How she'd collect on insurance policies worth $400,000 and move on, perhaps to a new life with her young lover.

What Hricko failed to calculate was that her closest friends -- horrified to realize she had carried out what she had talked about for months -- would lead police to her.

Friday night, nearly a year after Stephen Hricko's charred body was taken from the riverfront room on the Miles River near St. Michaels, the close-knit group of women listened as a Talbot County jury returned guilty verdicts for murder and arson that could keep their former friend in prison for most of her life.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that if Hricko had kept quiet, it could have been the perfect crime.

"The medical and scientific evidence is not there," said defense lawyer Harry Trainor Jr. "It was that highly charged, emotional testimony."

The prosecutor, former Montgomery County State's Attorney Robert Dean, built his case on a foundation of circumstantial evidence.

It included a state medical examiner's ruling that Stephen Hricko's death was a homicide caused by "probable poisoning," though the suspected drug -- succinylcholine -- disappears from the body almost immediately and could not be traced.

Just as the autopsy and extensive forensic testing failed to provide absolute proof of what killed the 35-year-old golf course superintendent, fire investigators were unable to say how the fire started.

It was the testimony of the women that gripped the courtroom -- and persuaded the jury to find Kimberly Hricko guilty.

"It is through friends and confidants that we were able to reconstruct a journey that Kim decided to take," Dean said. "The emotion brought in the courtroom by her friends is palpable. They loved Kim and she loved them."

The descriptions of a gregarious, outgoing Hricko, a woman who attracted a wide circle of friends who talked on the phone and went shopping or out for drinks, stood in stark contrast to the stoic defendant who barely blinked as those friends told of her increasing desperation to end her marriage in late 1997 and early 1998.

"We talked on the phone nearly every day and got together for drinks every other Friday," testified Jennifer Gowen, a hospital co-worker in whose wedding Hricko was matron of honor. "She talked about an affair she was having. She said she was thinking of telling [Stephen] about the affair and that he'd be depressed enough to kill himself; but there would be no insurance."

Two days after Stephen Hricko died, a stunned and horrified Gowen told state police investigators what she knew.

On New Year's Eve, 1997, Teri Armstrong met Hricko at a Laurel restaurant. "The first words out of her mouth were, 'I'm asking Steve for a divorce,' " Armstrong said. "She said she had even been thinking of ways to kill him."

It was Armstrong, a former neighbor who stayed with the Hrickos every other Friday night to avoid a long commute from her Pennsylvania home to a weekend job in Laurel, who sat talking to Kimberly Hricko the night before the couple left on the trip to the Harbortowne Golf Resort and Convention Center.

"We were friends," Armstrong testified. "I lived right down the street. She has a daughter and I have three daughters. Kim was always there for me and I was always there for her."

Shortly after learning Stephen Hricko had died, Armstrong called police.

It was Rachel McCoy, a former roommate from their college years in State College, Pa., who heard the outline of the crime from a frantic Hricko about two weeks before her husband was killed.

"I asked her about divorce, but she seemed to believe that this was easier," McCoy said. "I tried to calm her down, get her to stop crying. I tried to poke holes in the plan."

McCoy called police a few hours after hearing of Stephen Hricko's death.

Friday night, as juror after juror confirmed the guilty verdicts, Hricko stood expressionless, alone except for her lawyers.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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