A Harford County laborer accused of attacks on several women near Aberdeen last year was convicted yesterday in the murder of an Elkton woman, ending a trial that foreshadowed possible charges in other killings.
Charles Eugene Burns, 35, described by those who knew him as a troubled man who was fascinated with serial killers, did not react as the jury forewoman announced the verdict finding him guilty of first-degree murder in the May 2006 death of Lillian Abramowicz Phelps.
Police arrested Burns in June after six prostitutes came forward, alleging he had attacked and sexually assaulted them in remote locations. The bodies of four women were later found, and prosecutors said during motions hearings this month that they had recovered the blood of at least two of them, including Phelps, from the bottom of Burns' Dodge Neon.
Autopsies of the other three women have not been completed, and investigators pledged yesterday to continue probing their deaths. Families of some of the women sat in the courtroom for portions of the four-day trial.
"We'll be looking at their cases and evaluating them for further cases if need be," said Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Hyle Marts.
Burns did not take the stand during three days of testimony, and his attorneys called no witnesses. In closing arguments, public defender Lloyd G. Merriam told jurors that Burns was a hard-working man who could not be found responsible for Phelps' death.
"They have one piece of evidence and lots of conjecture," Merriam said. "They have a spot of blood and lots of theories."
The jury, which consisted of 10 women and two men, deliberated for three hours. Sentencing is scheduled for May 29, and Burns could receive a maximum sentence of life without parole.
"We all left with a clear conscience," said juror Sharon Dircks.
On May 31, Phelps, a 43-year-old mother of two who, according to family members, had struggled with substance abuse, traveled to Aberdeen with a friend. They drank a pint of vodka during the course of the day and had begun drinking another bottle when Phelps said she wanted to leave to find crack cocaine.
Two weeks later, Phelps' body was found by a farmer in shrubs next to a secluded field. Her jaw had been ripped off, her ribs broken and there were two large puncture wounds in her skull. The hyoid bone in her neck was also broken, a characteristic of strangulation, according to testimony by a medical examiner.
The case presented challenges for prosecutors. There were no witnesses to the crime, and forensic scientists who scoured Burns' home and the inside of his car found no DNA evidence or any of the victim's possessions.
They also could not tell jurors that Burns, a sixth-grade dropout who worked as a mason, had been identified as a suspect in the investigation of other similar assaults.
Evidence of other possible crimes was inadmissible in the Phelps trial. Jurors were instead told that he had been "developed" as a suspect in the killing.
"We were precluded by rules of evidence that we couldn't talk about the other women. We had to rely on what we had," Marts said. "It was a tough case, but [the jury] made the right call."
Investigators used the evidence they could find to produce a theory: After taking Phelps to a secluded location and attacking her, they said, Burns left her on the ground and ran her over. A strand of hair was found under a front wheel of Burns' car and attached to a bolt, which was similar in size to two holes on the right side of Phelps' skull. Dr. Carol H. Allan, an assistant state medical examiner testified that the type of holes could only be caused by an object that could apply extreme force, such as a moving car.
Prosecutors also pulled Burns' cell phone records, showing he was within a two-mile radius of Aberdeen and placed two phone calls on the evening Phelps was last seen.
But defense attorneys said those same records showed Burns had made dozens of other calls from Aberdeen throughout the month of May. Merriam said the car theory did not add up and tried to cast Phelps' character in a negative light, telling the jury that her search for drugs put her in danger. Both sides alluded to the possibility that Phelps had engaged in prostitution that night.
Phelps' brother, Robert H. Abramowicz, praised the jury's verdict. Her death hit the family hard, the latest in a series of tragedies for the Abramowicz family in recent years. Her father, a retired engineer diagnosed with Alzheimer's, wandered off while going to get the mail in 2005 and has not been found.
"She was very, very happy about [the verdict]," Abramowicz, 41, said of a phone call to his mother to tell her the verdict. "She cried tears of joy."
Family members of the other women also attended the trial, including the mother of Jennifer Lynn Blankenship and the adult daughter and son of Sheila Ann Turner. Blankenship, 26, and Turner, 42, were both found dead in a Perryman field last year.
Lucy Dawson, Blankenship's mother, attended Friday's proceedings. Her husband, reached yesterday by phone, said they believe the guilty verdict is a positive development.
"That's the best news we can hear," Ted Dawson said.
Burns' adoptive parents, John and Gail Burns of Cecil County, also attended the trial with members of their church, but they declined an interview request. At the time of his arrest, Burns was living with his adoptive grandparents, who had recently helped him buy the Dodge Neon.
Burns faces charges of attempted murder, sexual assault, and theft stemming from attacks on six women last year.