Killing of Johns Hopkins student was probably not random, police say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Johns Hopkins University senior suffocated over the weekend was found face down in a partially filled bathtub and there were no signs of forced entry into her apartment, city police said yesterday.

"This does not appear to be an absolute random act of violence," said Maj. Richard C. Fahlteich, who oversees the homicide detectives division. "It does not appear someone just wandered into that building."

One of Linda Trinh's roommates discovered the 21-year-old Sunday inside their apartment on the second-story of a high-rise across the street from the university.

The second killing of a Hopkins student in nine months set off a new wave of concern yesterday on the campus and in the surrounding neighborhood. But many said how they react to the killing will depend on what police find - and if, indeed, the killing was not an arbitrary act of violence.

"You ask the question, 'Is it random?'" said Kip Elser, whose son was killed last year by an intruder inside an off-campus fraternity house. "If so, there's a serious, serious security problem around the university."

The university has responded to Trinh's death by hiring a security guard for the private, off-campus apartment building. City police announced that they have stepped up patrols in the area. However, the university's director of security said yesterday that the school is waiting to learn what led to Trinh's death before more security adjustments are made.

Trinh, a biomedical engineering major from Silver Spring, was the former president of Alpha Phi sorority, a former volleyball team member and a university research assistant.

"We've turned up nothing significant going on in her life that would have explained this," said Acting Chief Antonio Williams of the Baltimore Police Department's Detectives Division.

Trinh's roommate last saw her about 3:30 p.m. Saturday, police said. When the roommate arrived home from work Saturday night, she didn't have a key and couldn't get inside, Williams said.

She told police she spent the night elsewhere, Williams said.

About 12:30 p.m. Sunday, a building employee let the roommate into her apartment, Williams said. That's when she found Trinh, half-clothed in the tub, police said.

She had a bruise on her face, and police didn't rule out the possibility that she had slipped and her death was accidental.

Medical examiners, who ruled on Monday that her death was a homicide by asphyxiation, were trying yesterday to determine her time of death. Police were investigating whether she was sexually assaulted, Williams said.

It was not yet clear whether Trinh was alive Saturday night when a building maintenance man entered her apartment, police said. The employee entered the apartment about 11:30 p.m. after another resident reported smelling natural gas.

He found the oven running with the pilot light out, turned off the oven and lit the pilot light, police said. The man told police he never walked farther into the apartment than the kitchen, Williams said.

Police said they were pursuing several leads yesterday, including a sighting inside the building of someone who may know Trinh. They were also reviewing surveillance video, Williams said.

The killing occurred inside The Charles, 3333 N. Charles St., a 10-story brick apartment building that is home to numerous Hopkins graduate and undergraduate students. It overlooks the Homewood Campus' east gate, a courtyard and the august marble sign "The Johns Hopkins University."

Police agreed yesterday with students' assessments that it is easy to get inside the building without a key - a concern raised almost a year ago about other area residences.

On April 17, a man entered the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house in the 2900 block of St. Paul St. and awakened Christopher Elser, who confronted the man. The intruder stabbed the 20-year-old from Camden, S.C.; Elser died the next day.

His killing, which remains unsolved, touched off numerous security changes around the campus, including a closed-circuit camera system that is scheduled to begin operating in about six months, university officials said.

Wes Tolbert, the director of field operations for the nearby Charles Village Benefits District, said yesterday that some crimes have increased in the 100-block area near the Homewood campus.

Robberies and aggravated assaults were down from 2003 to 2004, but burglaries increased from 125 to 212, shootings increased from two to 14, and larcenies increased from 273 to 607, he said.

"There's a certain amount of frustration and anger," he said.

But learning that the most recent homicide might not have been a random attack has tempered the spread of fears generated by the Elser killing.

"It's a different crime than the other one," Tolbert said. "It's a homicide. It's not a break-in."

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