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Jurors to begin deliberation in 1979 rape, killing

The Baltimore Sun

Sheila Bazemore Rascoe was preparing for a weekend trip with her boyfriend.

A London Fog seamstress known for her fashionable good looks, Rascoe got her hair done, painted her nails, put her hair in rollers and began ironing a new blouse that she had just bought. But before she even finished that task, Rascoe was dead.

When her boyfriend arrived at her Essex apartment in the early morning of Sept. 15, 1979, he found her strangled and partially naked on her bed with the cord of a vacuum cleaner wrapped loosely around her neck. Her steam iron was still on.

For 26 years, police had no leads and the case went cold.

But in 2005, semen left on the nightshirt that Rascoe wore the evening she was raped and killed led police to a suspect -- Thomas J. Grant, 51, who lived down the street from Rascoe in 1979.

Many long-cold rape cases have been cracked in recent years in Baltimore County and elsewhere by comparing DNA extracted from crime scene evidence against a database of collected DNA samples. But Grant is one of few defendants charged with murder as a part of that review.

Noting that Rascoe's family has waited 28 years for someone to be held accountable for her death, prosecutor Thomas Tompsett told jurors hearing Grant's case this week, "He would have had them wait a lot longer. But his DNA wouldn't let him."

Defense attorney Jerri Peyton-Braden concedes that the evidence proves that Grant had sex with the woman. After initially denying that he knew Rascoe, Grant eventually told the county's cold-case police detectives as much in 2005 during questioning.

But there is no way to tell when the semen stain was left on Rascoe's nightshirt, the defense attorney told the judge presiding over the case yesterday, and there is nothing to link him to the killing.

"All that has been proven is that my client slept with this woman. That is not a crime," she said in asking Baltimore County Circuit Judge Mickey J. Norman to acquit Grant of rape and murder without sending the case to the jury.

Norman declined to do so. Jurors are expected to begin deliberating today after closing arguments from both sides.

A North Carolina native, Rascoe went by the nickname of Sis. She moved to Essex after leaving her husband of eight years. At age 28, she was known among her friends and relatives as a tidy housekeeper and a stylish dresser -- so much so that her sisters often rummaged through her suitcases when she came to visit to see what she would be wearing during her stay, Tompsett, the prosecutor, told jurors during his opening statement.

She took the bus to and from her job at London Fog in Baltimore until she could afford to buy a used Mercury Cougar. It was on the No. 22 bus line where she met Albert Bell, a bus driver and the man with whom she was planning the weekend trip to Richmond.

He testified Tuesday that they dated for about four to six months before her death.

Police initially focused their investigation on Bell and on Rascoe's estranged husband, according to trial testimony.

Investigators noted inconsistencies in some of Bell's early statements -- discrepancies they eventually cleared up when he confessed that he was married and did not want his wife to find out about his affair with Rascoe, testified Michael Parks, the original homicide detective on the case.

Police also questioned Elton Rascoe, who admitted to police that he had hit Sheila Rascoe, grabbed her around the neck and fired a handgun in her presence "to frighten her," the now-retired detective said.

Police confirmed with Elton Rascoe's then-girlfriend that he was in New Jersey when Sheila Rascoe was killed, Parks testified.

From there, the trail went cold.

Several years ago, the Baltimore County Police Department began reviewing unsolved sex crimes for evidence that could be tested for DNA. Since November 2002, the department has cleared 51 cases.

In 2004, Phil Marll, a detective assigned to investigate cold cases in the department's homicide unit, reviewed crime scene photographs from Sheila Rascoe's apartment with one of the department's forensic biologists.

The black-and-white images -- some a bit yellowed with age -- show the victim's slippers tossed across the living room, a bottle of Sally Hansen nail polish on the coffee table, the partially ironed blouse on the dining room table with a butcher knife.

One photo caught the eye of the biologist, Laura Pawlowski, who thought she spotted a stain on Rascoe's nightshirt. Investigators tracked down the shirt in the department's evidence room and sent a piece of it out for DNA testing.

By June 6, 2005, a forensic analyst had extracted a DNA profile from the semen stain and authorities had matched it to a DNA sample in the FBI's national database from Grant, who was arrested in Baltimore County in October 1979 for the rape of a woman in the Essex area 38 days before Rascoe was strangled.

When detectives interviewed Grant in July 2005 about Rascoe's death, he initially said he did not recognize her photo or name. Told that the detectives investigated homicides, Grant "immediately stated that he remembered that a woman had been murdered" in his neighborhood while he lived there, according to charging documents in the case.

Toward the end of the questioning, Grant told the detectives that he knew Rascoe and had had "contact" with her. "Eventually," Marll wrote in the charging documents, "Mr. Grant claimed he had 'sex' with the victim the night before she was murdered."

Grant has been held in Wicomico County while awaiting trial in another rape case.

Ashley Fulmer, the DNA analyst who conducted the testing, testified yesterday that the likelihood that the DNA on Rascoe's nightshirt came from someone other than Grant is one in 110 trillion in the African-American population.

For Bell, the man who found her body, the trial unfolding in Baltimore County Circuit Court was a welcome development in a long-stagnant case.

"It has stayed with me. It stays with me today," he said in an interview after he testified.

Even though he was married during the time he spent with Rascoe, he said he loved her and had imagined a future with her.

"She was marvelous," he said. "She had a good sense of humor and she was fun to be with. We got along real good.

"She didn't deserve this," he added. "No woman deserves this. You can go down to Baltimore Street or wherever and buy a woman. But to take something from a woman who's not giving it, that's wrong."

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com


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