Richard Spicknall II, who seven years ago shot and killed his two small children while they were strapped in their car seats, was found dead in the showers at a Jessup prison over the weekend, authorities said yesterday.
The state medical examiner ruled the death a "homicide by general asphyxia." Spicknall, 34, was discovered with a rag or towel stuffed in his mouth, according to prison system sources. A prison spokesman called his death "a mystery" and said it is under investigation.
As a convicted child killer, Spicknall feared for his life in prison and was housed in protective custody at the Jessup Correctional Institution, away from the general inmate population, said Michael A Mastracci, a Catonsville attorney who knew the inmate and corresponded with him.
In letters to Mastracci during his years in prison, Spicknall expressed remorse for taking the children's lives. But he also voiced continued anger at the "torment" he said his wife, Lisa, had put him through during a heated custody and divorce battle in the months before the murders. He claimed she used the children "as if they were property."
Spicknall and his wife had been separated for nearly a year when he shot their two children, Richie, 2, and Destiny, 3, in the back seat of his Jeep near a bridge over the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore on Sept. 8, 1999.
He initially told skeptical police that he had been overpowered by an armed hitchhiker, claiming the man had thrown him off the U.S. 50 bridge and sped off with the children.
But Spicknall later tearfully confessed to shooting the children. He said he then tried to kill himself but his gun misfired, and he survived a 50-foot fall into the Choptank.
State's Attorney Scott G. Patterson, now in his 20th year as Talbot County's chief prosecutor, said the case was the "most horrible" of his career.
"These were little kids strapped to their car seats," Patterson said yesterday. "They were executed. ... It was a terrible crime and a selfish way of hurting their mother. This book is now closed for good."
Prosecutors withdrew their request for the death penalty after Spicknall entered guilty pleas in November 2000 to two counts of first-degree murder. A judge sentenced him to two consecutive life terms, plus 20 years.
The case drew widespread news media attention because of the nature of the crime and the way that Spicknall was able to acquire the gun he used.
He bought it from a pawnshop in Prince George's County, despite a protective order against him by his then-wife, Lisa Spicknall. Under Maryland law, he should not have been able to buy the gun with the outstanding protective order against him.
Lisa Spicknall, who now works for the Prince George's County Sheriff's Department as an advocate for victims of domestic violence, avoided the spotlight yesterday and asked that the department handle reporters' calls.
In an e-mail statement, she expressed gratitude that there would be no worry of future criminal proceedings:
"Although nothing will ever bring Destiny and Richie back to us, we are now able to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel. There will never be closure in our lives, but a weight has been lifted from our shoulders."
Spicknall's mother and father have died since he was sent to prison. His aunt, Cheryl Romey of Pasadena, said yesterday that she was devastated when she was contacted over the weekend about her nephew's death.
He was not the "monster" he had been portrayed as, she said, but a normal person who snapped.
"I know what he did. I know it was wrong," she said. "But he was still a loving father to his children. They were his life."
State police and prison officials released few details about Spicknall's death yesterday, saying only that he was found unresponsive in a prison shower about 7:40 p.m. Saturday and that attempts by staff and medical personnel to revive him were unsuccessful.
The death is under investigation by state police homicide detectives, with assistance from internal investigators from the state's public safety department, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
"At this point, it's still a mystery," Vernarelli said. "We don't know what happened."
Maj. Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the prison system, said she could not discuss whether Spicknall was being held in protective custody. She said that information is part of an inmate's "case file" and is not subject to public disclosure.
About 10 percent of the 1,200 inmates at the maximum-security Jessup Correctional Institution are in protective custody, Doggett said. In general, she said, such inmates are offenders who are housed in a separate wing from the general population for their safety or for security reasons.
"They are housed separately from the general population, but do have interaction with each other on the protective custody wing," Doggett said. "They are allowed to shower and have recreation together."
Spicknall was found unconscious in a cell in the same prison, then known as the Maryland House of Correction Annex, in January 2002 and was in a coma for seven days. He was placed on a suicide watch afterward.
Mastracci, the Catonsville attorney, said he started corresponding and meeting with Spicknall in the fall of 2003 while doing research for a book about child custody disputes and was last in contact with him over the summer.
"He was always afraid for his life," Mastracci said, noting that those in prison for hurting a child are often marked as targets for abuse by other inmates.
Mastracci said that Spicknall hated being in protective custody and, in letters, talked several times about killing himself.
In one such letter, dated Nov. 13, 2003, Spicknall wrote about how much his children meant to him.
"I wish I could explain how I could kill the two people that meant more to me than the world," he wrote. "I hear those shots every day, every minute, and wish that I could have just a second more to be able to stop myself."
In September, a lawyer for Spicknall filed a motion in Kent County Circuit Court seeking to overturn his conviction based on inadequate representation and errors by the defense lawyer who handled the original case against him. It was scheduled for a hearing in March.
He was the fourth inmate to be killed inside a Maryland prison this year. Three other prisoners were killed at the adjacent House of Correction in Jessup. A correctional officer also was killed there this year.