When Diane Chriscoe moved into her two-story townhouse several years ago, she had little reason to fear for her safety and security. After all, the Woodlawn community was relatively safe, and her home had sturdy locks on the front door.
She gave little thought to the 2-foot square panel on her second floor ceiling, the one that leads to a crawl space that's shared with the adjacent home. But a similar setup a few houses down proved deadly, police allege, and she and other neighbors now realize the threat that can come from above.
This week, Baltimore County police charged Vaughn Lamont Garris, 36, of the first block of Heatherton Court with the killing of his next-door neighbor, Chontae Waters, 31, whose home he allegedly entered through their shared attic.
Building codes now require most such homes to be built with firewalls that extend all the way up to the roof of each unit, separating them. Though firewalls are designed to prevent a fire from spreading from one home to another, they can also provide protection against intruders.
Charles Belfoure, architect and co-author of The Baltimore Rowhouse, said it's rare to find townhouses with connected attics that would permit someone to crawl from one to the other.
"In most cases that I've heard of, each townhouse has its own firewall that goes up to the underside of the roof," he said.
Not so in the Woodlawn townhouses.
About 7 p.m. Monday, Waters' body was found in a second-floor bedroom of her townhouse. The panel leading to the attic was open and the pull-down stairs were down. Suspicion immediately turned to a resident of an adjoining home, and police evacuated the houses. They moved the residents onto a borrowed Maryland Transit Administration bus, where they remained for about 2 1/2 hours as officials investigated the crime scene.
Garris and his wife and child were the last family to be called off the MTA bus by police, residents recalled.
Garris, 36, later confessed to police that he climbed through his attic and over to Waters' home, prying the panel open with a knife and dropping down, according to charging documents.
He told police that she discovered him and struck him. He said he stabbed her with the knife that he used to pry open her crawl space door, according to court papers.
He fled the home through the crawl space and returned to his home, leaving a trail of evidence, according to county police and court papers. About 10 homes were potentially accessible through the crawl space above, and police said they are investigating other burglaries that could be related.
"You feel unsafe thinking that somebody can just go through a crawl space and get into your apartment," Chriscoe said.
The attic above her home is a triangular space, framed by a roof that rises from the front and back walls of the townhouse and meets at a peak in the middle - forming an area that is about 5 feet at its tallest and tapering to nothing at the edges. It is crisscrossed by supporting lumber and hard to traverse, though a person could slip between the boards.
The building's owner, Sawyer Realty Holdings, responded to the incident in a statement: "We are extremely concerned about the safety and security of all our residents. We are cooperating fully with the authorities and are hoping for a speedy resolution. Our hearts go out to the loved ones of the victim; however, because this is an ongoing investigation, we have no further comment at this time."
The company's Web site states that the building was constructed in 1978.
Though the home's construction does not appear to violate county codes, authorities said a rowhouse that lacks a firewall to the roof can create a greater challenge when battling a blaze.
"A fire in a townhouse that does not have the fire separator going to the roof is going to be a much more difficult fire, generally," said Elise Armacost, a Baltimore County fire spokeswoman. She added that this type of construction in the county "is more common than what we'd like to see from a firefighting perspective."
Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman, said it's rare to find a rowhouse in the city with shared attic space that would allow someone to crawl from one home to the next.
Maryland State Police Sgt. Dave Brauning said he has never heard of someone breaking into a Carroll County rowhouse through a conjoined attic. Newly constructed townhouses require individual lot lines and walls that go all the way up to the underside of the roof, based on building codes Carroll County adopted in 1969.
Most older rowhouses are also separated by masonry walls built all the way to the roof, said Mike Maring, Carroll's chief of permits and inspections. But if multiple rowhouses were built on one lot, they could have a connected attic, Maring said, although he couldn't think of any specific examples in the county.
Building codes vary slightly from county to county. For example, in Howard County, a number of factors, such as the building's design, determines if a firewall that touches the roof of a residence is required. In Harford County, the current building codes require a new townhouse to have a firewall that goes to the roofline in the attic, said Richard D. Lynch, director of Department of Inspections, Licensing and Permits.
"Each property is separated by a firewall that must withstand one hour of fire," he said. "You could not cut that kind of material with a razor knife."
"The code addresses the issue from the standpoint of fire safety, not necessarily security," Lynch said.
Condos and apartment complexes typically have common attic areas that code requires to have at least one secured access.
"The code does not prohibit a condo owner from having a hatch entrance to attic space, but that entrance also must be fire-rated," Lynch said.
In Anne Arundel County, codes don't prevent a common attic in apartment complexes and condos, but Betty Dixon, director of inspections and permits, said she couldn't recall examples of any shared attics.
No inspector has visited the Waters' home since her death but Timothy Kotroco, director of permits and development management for Baltimore County, said that rather than having a firewall it appears the rowhouse has a fire-stop at the base of the crawl space.
"As far as a fire goes, both are equally acceptable," he said. "As far as an intruder goes, I'd rather have a firewall - but we don't design our codes for intruders."
Shalonda Nash, 33, who lives doors away from Waters' townhouse, said that she and her 11-year-old daughter slept in a bed together after learning of the crawl space entry.
"It's terrifying," she said. "You could be asleep, and somebody could come through the ceiling."
Sun reporters Laura McCandlish and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.