One by one last summer, the bodies of four women were found in remote areas of Harford County, dumped in grassy fields in a largely rural county that typically registers only a handful of killings each year.
Then came more shocking news: Police thought the deaths might have been the work of one person.
Jury selection began yesterday in a Bel Air courtroom in the trial of a 35-year-old laborer charged with first-degree murder in the killing of the first woman found. He is also charged separately in the sexual assaults of six more women.
Charles Eugene Burns, a sixth-grade dropout who, records show, has bounced among a number of addresses in Harford and Baltimore counties, pleaded not guilty, and police and prosecutors have been tight-lipped about potential evidence. Burns apparently did not make any incriminating statements to police, and there are no known witnesses in the murder case. His lawyer refuses to comment.
The trial will focus on the death of Lilly Phelps, a 43-year-old mother of two who did not return after heading to Havre de Grace on May 26 for a night of partying. But friends and relatives of the other women found in those grassy fields are following the case closely, hoping for answers to the agonizing questions surrounding the deaths of their loved ones.
No one has been charged in the other deaths, and they have not officially been classified as homicides pending the completion of autopsies begun months ago.
There is no evidence that the women had known one another, and they came from a variety of backgrounds. One was a former small-business owner, another was an aspiring artist. One was a born-again Christian.
But interviews with their families and investigators indicate they shared some things in common. They struggled with dangerous addictions and were often lured to desolate areas along U.S. 40 that were known for prostitution and drug dealing. They also had hopes of righting their troubled lives.
Evidence of the other deaths will not be admissible in the trial. And relatives say investigators have told them little about the progress of the cases.
So for now, the families must wait.
"It bothers me every day - it puts a burden on my life," said Felicia Vaughn, 19, whose mother's body was the second found in June. The body was discovered in a Perryman field near train tracks. "I'm scared to do a lot of things now. I have a friend go with me everywhere, to the grocery store, everywhere."
Authorities have declined to discuss any possible links connecting the cases, beyond a statement last year by Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly that a person he declined to identify was believed responsible for the string of killings and was in custody.
"I've made my statements," Cassilly said, adding, "I'm not changing anything that I've said before."
The only evidence to emerge that publicly links the deaths is blood police say they found on the underside of Burns' Dodge Neon. Authorities say it matches that of Phelps and another woman.
Ted Dawson, the stepfather of the other woman whose blood police say they found under Burns' car, said the notion of a tragic ending was not far-fetched, given her struggles with substance abuse. But the possibility of a brutal killing went far beyond his worst fears.
"Nobody deserves that," Dawson said. "I warned her a million times, but it doesn't make it right."
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Lillian Abramowicz Phelps enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. She attended Catholic school and upon graduation attended a university in her parents' native country. She returned to Maryland, and her parents promised to give her money to start a cosmetology business if she completed a degree at Towson University.
By age 21, Phelps was married with a daughter and running a business in Elkton called European Skin Care. But she was struggling. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression, she was deeply affected by the death of her eldest brother in a car crash and began abusing alcohol, family members said.
She started to withdraw from work, and the business failed. Her drug use escalated to crack and heroin, and she would disappear for long periods of time.
Through it all, her mother said, Phelps often called home and returned when she needed a place to stay. She was aware of her problem and sought help, twice checking into Father Martin's Ashley, a posh rehabilitation facility in Havre de Grace.
"Probably biannually, she'd realize she had gone too far and would seek help, but she always found her way right back," said her brother, Robert H. Abramowciz.
Phelps was found June 14, and her death was the latest in a series of tragedies that have befallen the Abramowicz family. A year earlier, her father, a retired engineer who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, wandered off while getting the mail. Despite a police search of the wooded area around the house, he has not been found.
Family members hold out hope that he was picked up by a stranger and is being cared for. But they worry that his body is somewhere in the 3,200-acre Elk Neck Forest behind their North East home.
"I'm so lost now," Abramowicz said of the tragedies.
At this week's trial, prosecutors plan to introduce evidence showing that Phelps' blood and a strand of hair were recovered from the bottom of Burns' vehicle. She was killed by a crushing blow to her head, a medical examiner testified at a motions hearing this month - perhaps run over by a car.
At 26, Jennifer Lynn Blankenship was the youngest of the women who were found dead. A high school interest in drawing and math - along with dreams of going to art school or becoming a lawyer - were quickly derailed by drug use.
She ended up spending considerable time in Baltimore, where her addiction to heroin and cocaine led to a dozen arrests, on charges including prostitution, loitering, assault, burglary and possession of drugs, according to court records.
After much prodding, her mother and stepfather persuaded her to join the Job Corps. "She did good," stepfather Ted Dawson recalled.
Blankenship earned a General Education Development certificate, got a driver's license and took computer training courses.
With the money she earned, she bought a Chevy Camaro. But that served only to provide her mobility to Baltimore, where she continued to keep company with other drug users.
"When she got back, she went right back to the same friends and she was hooked," Dawson said. "This is just the story of an addict."
Her mother recently found a poem about drug use that Blankenship had written, less than a year before her death:
a scary place I've been stricken
Trying to get out is harder than getting in
If I can find my way back
I'll still have time to get on track.
Blankenship was last seen June 4. Dawson rode around the neighborhood on a bicycle looking for her. Had police not found her body in September, he was prepared to search by dividing nearby fields into grids.
At the motions hearing that preceded the trial, prosecutors revealed that Blankenship's blood was also found on the bottom of Burns' vehicle. Her mother said news reports of the hearing were the first time she had heard of such evidence.
"It was like she died again," Lucy Dawson said.
Felicia Vaughn and her brother, Stephon Epps, want to know how their mother died, and they plan to travel to Bel Air for Burns' trial.
"We want more information," said Epps, 23.
Sheila Ann Turner was the only African-American among the four women, but her body was found in the same grassy field where two other bodies were found. Two Amtrak employees working on nearby train tracks discovered the body near a Rite Aid distribution center.
The first time Vaughn was unable to reach her mother, she thought the phone had died. After a day had passed, she knew something was wrong. She filed a missing-persons report with the Aberdeen Police Department on May 26; frustrated with the response, she contacted a missing-persons center.
Then, homicide detectives showed up at her door. They said they had found Turner's body and told her they would get back to her. Since then, she said, she has been frustrated by what she calls a lack of information.
"I feel like nobody's listening to me," she said, her mother's ashes on a table nearby. "I have no clue what happened."
In the weeks leading to her death, there were no signs that Turner, 42, had sunk back into the lifestyle that had put her in prison.
After living in Florida for a time, she returned to Maryland to live with her fiancee and her daughter. Cocaine use became part of a past life. Turner became a born-again Christian - she was baptized on Mother's Day - and resolved to play a bigger role in her children's lives.
She was also suffering from lupus, Vaughn said, and rarely left the apartment. But she could be counted on to prepare dinner.
"I could see the change in my mother. ... She knew that she needed to change, and she was trying," said Vaughn, 19. "I was there helping her, we were all there for her. I think that, of all people, I believe my mother deserved that second chance."
Joyce Ann Toliver's body was found by a man walking his dog in September. The 51-year-old was the final victim to be identified, after her daughter recognized a list of items that police said had been found on a decomposing body.
In a brief phone interview, Toliver's sister-in-law said Toliver was born in Havre de Grace and never had a job. She was described as a free spirit who loved music and was "very good" playing the guitar.
"At one point, that's what she wanted to do [for a living]," said sister-in-law Donna Toliver.
She largely lived on the streets, and her relatives might see her on a drive down U.S. 40, lingering outside a convenience store or along Main Street in Perryville.
"She had called us, and we tried to offer some assistance of what we thought would help her, but she did not want that type of assistance," Donna Toliver said. "We were constantly praying for her."