Gaumer murder trial begins

The Baltimore Sun

When police initially questioned John C. Gaumer about a woman who had disappeared, the UMBC student told investigators that he had dropped her off at her Hampden home after their first date and had driven back to his campus apartment.

The cell phone records of both Gaumer and his date, Josie P. Brown, however, indicated otherwise, said a Baltimore police detective and a Verizon Wireless records custodian who testified yesterday on the first day of Gaumer's capital murder trial.

Although Gaumer, 23, would later admit to police that he beat Brown to death in a wooded area just off a highway exit ramp after she changed her mind about going home with him, it was cell phone records that initially led investigators to the senior biochemistry major who had no criminal record, who once played college football and who still drove to southern Maryland every Friday for dinner with his parents.

"Cell phones are an amazing thing," prosecutor Susan H. Hazlett told jurors yesterday during her opening statement. She later added, "We get to the defendant by Josie's cell phone records."

Prosecutors also played for jurors a chilling phone message accidentally recorded during the attack when Gaumer's cell phone inadvertently dialed Brown's.

Gaumer faces a possible death sentence if he is convicted in the Dec. 30, 2005, killing of Brown, 27, whom Gaumer had met a day earlier on MySpace.com, a social networking Internet site.

Forty days after Brown was last seen by her roommates leaving for a date, Gaumer led detectives to her body in a streambed in a wooded area at the interchange of Interstate 95 and the Baltimore Beltway, south of the city. Later that night, in a videotaped interview with homicide detectives, Gaumer described in gruesome detail the steps he took to disfigure the woman to prevent her from being identified.

Gaumer is charged with first-degree murder, rape and other offenses.

Given his confessions to police, Hazlett told jurors that she doesn't expect defense attorneys to dispute that their client is responsible for Brown's death. Rather, she said, she expects them to argue that the killing was not first-degree murder.

"I would ask you, when you're listening to the testimony, to please be mindful of the violence - the sheer number of blows inflicted, and not only the number, but how," Hazlett said. "Consider the time it takes to kill someone with your bare hands."

That, she said, is premeditated, deliberate murder.

Defense attorney Gayle L. Robinson did not challenge the facts of the killing in her opening statement. She told jurors that in preparing for the trial and trying to "make some sense as to what happened," she has come to think of it as "the perfect storm" - a series of events that are neither remarkable nor alarming on their own but that can create "total devastation" in a certain sequence.

"It's nothing that can be perceived," Robinson said. "It caused a flurry of emotion and tragedy and nobody - nobody - saw it coming. Not Josie and not John."

As defense attorneys in other death penalty trials have done recently, Robinson also attacked one of the charges that prosecutors have filed other than the murder counts - in this case, a charge of first-degree rape.

Whether jurors find that Gaumer raped Brown in the course of the attack could be significant if he is convicted of murder. Maryland law requires an "aggravating circumstance" - such as kidnapping, armed robbery or sexual assault - in a murder case before a death sentence can be imposed.

Although Gaumer told detectives that he sexually assaulted Brown with a stick, Robinson said that the autopsy of Brown's body does not support that.

"The remarkable thing is that he starts to embellish," the defense attorney said. After 16 or 17 hours in police custody and being asked repeatedly whether he had raped Brown, Gaumer "starts to tell them what they want to hear," Robinson told jurors.

The two witnesses called to testify yesterday focused on the cell phone records that police used in the case, first to find people with whom Brown had talked to around the time of her disappearance and then to create a timeline of her evening with Gaumer on Dec. 29 and into Dec. 30 of 2005.

The call logs show that both Gaumer and Brown's phones were moving south through Baltimore about the same time that Gaumer told police he was driving north to drop Brown off after their date in the city's Mount Vernon and Station North Arts District neighborhoods.

The 42-second voice mail message played yesterday captured a series of thumping noises, shouting, what sounded like grunts or coughing, and brief bursts of a woman's muffled screams. The phone message was recorded at 12:46 a.m. Dec. 30, according to the automated date stamp of Verizon's voice mail system.

Both the outgoing call from Gaumer's phone and the incoming call to Brown's phone hit off a cell phone tower near Arbutus, Phillip Smeak, a records custodian with Verizon Wireless, testified. That meant that the two phones were within a mile and a half of that cell tower when the message was recorded, he told jurors.

Timothy Gardner, a detective with the Baltimore Police Department's missing persons unit, testified that he made a recording of that voice mail message on Feb. 6, 2006, with Verizon's automated date stamp and identification that the call had come from Gaumer's cell phone.

"It was at that point that I wanted to speak to John Gaumer," he told jurors.

The next morning, police arrived at Gaumer's apartment on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus. They took him into custody. And during questioning by police - his third interview since Gardner first contacted him Jan. 30 - Gaumer admitted that he killed Brown.

A jury of six women and six men - in addition to three female alternate jurors - is hearing the case. Baltimore County Circuit Judge Mickey J. Norman, who is presiding over the trial, dismissed one alternate juror. Lawyers in the case declined to discuss the reason for the woman's departure.

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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