Violent carjacking claims a town's 'very fine friend'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Police searched for two men yesterday in a fatal carjacking in Annapolis' historic district - a crime that shocked nearby residents and merchants, and left friends and family mourning the loss of a man who had a "real love for life."

Straughan Lee Griffin, 51, was shot in the head with a revolver outside his Cumberland Court home about 7:30 p.m. Thursday as he unloaded groceries on the secluded, picturesque street. The attackers then stole his sport utility vehicle and ran him over as they fled.

Griffin's dark gray 2000 Jeep Cherokee was found abandoned at an apartment complex on Raindrop Court in Glen Burnie yesterday morning. But police were trying to pinpoint a motive for the crime, which is being investigated by local and federal authorities.

The grisly killing - the first in two decades in the historic district - was an eye-opener for some in the community who say they have always felt safe little more than a block from the State House.

"This has reminded us that we need to be careful - we're heightening our security and surveillance," said Jeri Maldo, a partner of the 8th Wonder art shop on nearby Maryland Avenue. "It's a small town, but it's not that well lit, and we have characters roaming around."

Yesterday, flowers were placed on Griffin's tidy front porch as a tribute to the man who died in a pool of blood on the brick-paved, garden-like court lined with eight upscale homes.

"This is a very quiet, peaceful neighborhood," said John E. Koontz, who moved with his wife to Cumberland Court two years ago and said he has always felt comfortable walking in the area. "It was a horrible, random act of violence that could have happened anywhere."

Annapolis police said yesterday that they would increase their visibility in the area. Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said that crisis teams would be available to work with neighbors if needed. "It's a real tragedy and something that doesn't normally happen here," she said.

Gathering for salute

When news of the killing reached Griffin's friends - many of whom knew him through his membership in the Eastport Yacht Club - about 10 gathered for several hours Thursday evening at an Eastport home to salute him and reminisce.

"We got together and toasted with some very fine wine a very fine friend," said Linda Hughes, the yacht club's long-range planning chairwoman. "We just lifted up our glasses to Lee."

Range of interests

Friends say Griffin, a partner in a specialty video projection firm in Columbia who was known by his middle name, enjoyed traveling, sailing, art, music and fine wine.

A native of Portsmouth, Va., he moved to Annapolis from Alexandria, Va., five years ago. He renovated the gray stucco home on Cumberland Court, bought a Hunter sailboat and soon amassed a large group of friends.

"He was such a kind person that everybody gravitated toward him," said Howard Shure, 46, of Eastport.

Shure said Griffin's parties on his sailboat during the yacht club's Christmas Lights Parade had grown so popular that he began renting rooms in the Marriott Waterfront Hotel for the event and catering parties there instead.

"He was the most generous human being that most people have ever met," said Anne Harrington, one of Griffin's closest friends, as she and others gathered at the yacht club yesterday to plan a memorial service. "He donated money and time to many charities, and gave support and care to his friends."

Family in Virginia

In Portsmouth, Griffin's parents, Virginia and Jack, and siblings, Linda, Ann and Neal, gathered at the family home to make funeral arrangements and share memories of a beloved family member.

"We bragged about him all the time," said Linda Griffin, his older sister. "He was doing something that he thoroughly enjoyed and he was incredibly good at it."

Linda Griffin said her parents learned of their son's murder from local police who knocked on their door about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. The elderly couple - Virginia is 75 and Jack is 77 - were still in deep shock yesterday, she said.

"The reality of the horror of this crime has not hit home yet," Linda Griffin said. "There is a certain numbness that we all feel right now."

Griffin, who graduated in 1973 with a philosophy degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., loved to tell stories about people he had met while working backstage at the Grammy Awards or at Grateful Dead shows, Linda Griffin said.

He named his sailboat Box of Rain after a Grateful Dead song.

Yesterday, at Performance AV in Columbia, the specialty video projection firm Griffin helped start in 1987, bleary-eyed staff members chewed on cold pizza - a Friday tradition that they said Griffin would have wanted to see continue - as they tried to deal with a flurry of telephone calls and e-mails.

Greg Gerner, one of the firm's partners, described Griffin as a man who turned dreams into reality.

"He was the small-town boy who made it big," Gerner said. "There aren't very many times in life when you meet someone like Lee, someone who is honest, loyal and a great partner."

Shortly after they formed their business, Griffin traveled to New York City to show off the team's equipment. There, he met a production manager with the Rolling Stones, landing a job in 1989 with the Stones' Steel Wheels Tour - which secured Performance AV's place in the video industry.

In recent months the company has done work for the Toronto visit of Pope John Paul II and the musical and video extravaganza commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley in Memphis.

When he did formal shows, Griffin would wear a custom-made tuxedo with black lizard cowboy boots, Gerner said.

"Clients expected him to show up and make sure things turned out right," Gerner said. "He was the soup spoon that stirred the soup."

Out of the pattern

Annapolis police spokesman Officer Hal Dalton called Griffin's death - the city's third homicide this year - "a bolt from the blue."

He said it does not fit with any crime pattern in the historic district and characterized it as a "very different kind of carjacking." In many cases, such crimes occur in neighborhoods troubled by drug dealers, and rarely is the victim injured.

Dalton said investigators have not identified a motive for the crime. Since the crime fits the legal definition of a carjacking, the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore and the FBI have joined the investigation, Dalton said, although Annapolis police remain the lead agency. County police are also involved.

Investigators are looking into whether the State House and its grounds might have video surveillance tapes that include the suspects, Dalton said. "We really don't have a good description of them right now, so we don't have many solid leads," he said.

The killing was the first in the historic district since 1982, when a cashier at the parking garage behind City Hall was beaten to death late at night by a man later convicted of the crime.

Memorial services for Griffin will be held Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Eastport Yacht Club and Sunday in Portsmouth. The funeral will be Monday in Portsmouth.

Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

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