A 28-year-old Cockeysville woman was killed in a freak accident early yesterday when a would-be thief sent an empty Jeep Wrangler careering down an embankment and crashing through the wall of the bedroom where she was sleeping.
The victim, Melanie Judith Wentz, was public relations manager for the Baltimore Zoo.
Baltimore County police said someone intentionally put the Jeep in neutral about 2 a.m. and pushed it from a parking lot down the grassy embankment. The vehicle smashed through the wall of Wentz's first-floor unit at Century Apartments in the 300 block of Limestone Valley Drive.
Wentz, who had worked for the past year as senior manager of public relations and special events at the zoo, was pronounced dead at the scene. Police said Wentz, who lived alone, was asleep when the Jeep crashed into her bed.
Homicide detectives are investigating the death and at least 10 incidents Sunday and Monday nights in Cockeysville and Parkville in which Jeeps have been broken into and moved. The only damage in the other incidents has been to cars or utility poles, police said.
The perpetrators break into the vehicles to take items inside, police said.
"What started off as a petty theft has ended in the death of a woman," said Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a police spokeswoman. "Someone has information, and they need to come forward."
At the zoo, Wentz was remembered by friends and colleagues as a dedicated employee and lover of animals. As public relations manager, she often served as the zoo's face to the public, said Roger Birkel, the zoo's executive director.
"She represented everybody in the zoo," Birkel said. "And you couldn't ask for a more upbeat person. This is one of the most wonderful people you'd ever want to meet."
Wentz was from Bridgeton in southern New Jersey, home of the Cohanzick Zoo, the oldest zoo in the Garden State. Her stepfather was mayor of Bridgeton and now serves as city solicitor. Family members declined to comment yesterday.
"Oh, this is awful," said Ann Feinstein, a neighbor in Bridgeton, when told of Wentz's death. "She went to school with my niece and she was so sweet. It's tragic."
Doug Van Sant, president of the Bridgeton City Council, called the death of Wentz, a woman with fiery red hair and a perpetual smile, "an unbelievable loss."
"She was just a bubbly person," Van Sant said. "I've never seen her without a smile."
Wentz often helped out in city political campaigns, he said. "She was always on the campaign trail, and she would walk up to you with a firm handshake."
Wentz graduated with a communications degree from American University in Washington in 1994.
Before joining the Baltimore Zoo, Wentz worked as public relations and promotions manager for the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden.
Yesterday, her former supervisor, Vicki Scharfberg, said her love of animals and love of people were mutual.
"She was just a wonderful young woman," said Scharfberg, director of marketing for the aquarium. "She had lots of energy. She was bright, happy and just terrific."
Previously, Wentz had worked for the nonprofit Friends of the Mesker Park Zoo, which did marketing and fund raising for the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Gardens in Evansville, Ind.
Her boss there, Lisa Piccolo, described Wentz as "the most enthusiastic worker, who did an outstanding job" and loved zoos.
"She came all the way from New Jersey to work here," said Piccolo, the former executive director of the now-defunct Friends of the Mesker Park Zoo.
In Evansville, Wentz worked on membership, public relations and marketing.
Birkel of the Baltimore Zoo said Wentz loved her work.
"This is what she absolutely adored," Birkel said. "It was her love of these creatures."
At the Century Apartments, where Wentz was remembered for walking her yellow Labrador retriever, Patty, neighbors were stunned by the incident.
Jane Morgan, who lived above Wentz in Building 325, said she didn't hear the crash but was awakened by the commotion of emergency crews.
Morgan, who moved in this weekend, wept for a neighbor she never got to know.
"It's so, so sad," said Morgan, a nurse. "It makes you think of your own mortality and how anything random and freakish could occur to us anytime."
Throughout the day, residents of the building walked by the apartment, looking at the boards that covered the hole and bricks that were strewn around it. Erica Ziesmann walked with her 5-year-old son, Tobias, and looked down at the debris, shaking her head.
"You're sleeping, and then ..." Ziesmann said. "You never know when it's your time."
Anyone with information is asked to call Baltimore County police at 410-887-2198.
Sun staff writers Sandy Alexander and Joan Jacobson contributed to this article.