Rapist gets 2 life terms in '79 slaying

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County prosecutor Susan H. Hazlett says she had never before called anyone a predator in court.

"But for this man, by his criminal history. ... I think that descriptor is appropriate," she told a judge yesterday at the sentencing hearing of Thomas J. Grant, a Salisbury man convicted of the rape and murder of an Essex woman in a long-cold case that was finally cracked through DNA evidence. "He preys upon those women in society who he feels he can violate."

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Mickey J. Norman agreed.

After considering the facts of the 1979 case in which Grant was convicted of raping and strangling a woman who lived on the same street as he did - as well as a violent sexual assault that occurred a month earlier for which Grant was never fully prosecuted - the judge imposed two consecutive sentences of life in prison.

For the family and loved ones of Sheila Bazemore Rascoe, yesterday's sentencing hearing brought to an end the questions that have haunted them for nearly three decades.

"I wanted to find out what his sentence was going to be and to bring to a close that chapter of my life. This is closure right here," Rascoe's boyfriend, Albert Bell, said after the hearing.

It was Bell who found the woman's body at her Essex apartment in the early morning of Sept. 15, 1979. The couple had planned to leave later that day for a weekend trip to Richmond, Va.

Rascoe was strangled and left partially naked on her bed with the cord of a vacuum cleaner wrapped loosely around her neck. A newly purchased blouse was partially ironed and her hair was in rollers. Her shoes and bed pillows had been tossed about the otherwise meticulous apartment, suggesting a struggle that ended with Rascoe's death, according to trial testimony.

A North Carolina native, the 28-year-old woman was a London Fog seamstress known for her fashionable good looks. She went by the nickname of Sis and had moved to Essex after leaving her husband of eight years.

The three-day trial in September brought together not only her six siblings, but also her estranged husband and Bell, the bus driver she met on the No. 22 bus line, whom she had been dating for four to six months, without knowing that he was married.

Police initially focused their investigation on the two men.

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, a detective testified at trial.

Police also questioned Elton Rascoe, who admitted to police that he had hit his wife, grabbed her around the neck and fired a handgun in her presence to frighten her, the detective said. Police confirmed with his then-girlfriend that he was in New Jersey when Sheila Rascoe died.

But from there, the trail went cold - until 2005.

During the county Police Department's review of unsolved sex crimes that might have evidence that could be tested for DNA, investigators traced a semen stain on Rascoe's nightshirt to Grant.

The Salisbury man - now age 51 - had a criminal record that included five previous arrests for rape and other sex offenses and convictions in 1988 for second-degree rape and sodomy.

One of the arrests was in Baltimore County in October 1979 for the rape of a woman in the Essex area 38 days before Rascoe was strangled.

In that case, Hazlett told the judge at yesterday's sentencing hearing, a man grabbed a woman at knifepoint, dragged her to his car and raped her in a more remote area. She called police about two months later from a pay phone to say she saw the man who had attacked her.

After being arrested, the man initially identified himself as John Brant and told police he lived in an apartment in the 1600 block of Gail Road in Essex - the exact address where Thomas John Grant lived with a girlfriend.

Police took the man's fingerprints but smudged one of them - an error that prevented the prints from being included in the FBI's national database of criminal suspects, Hazlett said. As a result, there were no matches, she said, between the fingerprints lifted from Rascoe's apartment and the FBI's national database.

Grant told police that he had engaged in consensual sex with the woman who accused him of rape in the August 1979 case - the same explanation Grant offered the detective who questioned him in July 2005 about Rascoe's death.

The rape case was placed on an inactive docket after the victim moved out of state, Hazlett said. Two pending rape cases in Wicomico County were also placed on inactive dockets after Grant's convictions in the Rascoe murder, court records show.

Defense attorney Jerri Peyton-Braden told the judge that she didn't think he should consider the prior arrests when determining Grant's sentence, characterizing the charges as "bald allegations" and pointing out that they were never proven in court.

She also told Norman that her client had asked her not to say anything on his behalf during the hearing.

Grant also declined to address the judge in court. He clasped his hands behind his back and hung his head as Norman announced the two consecutive life sentences.

"We believe he got what he deserved," said Rascoe's sister, Jean McKenzie, 64, who came from Atlantic City, N.J., for the hearing. Other siblings traveled from North Carolina.

"The last time we were here for the trial, it was the same day and date that we buried her," McKenzie said. "It seemed like we were just going through the same thing all over again. So we're glad it's over."

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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