In April 2003, William Vincent Brown pleaded guilty to dealing 30 gel caps of heroin to an undercover Howard County detective, but a judge kept him free on bail as he awaited sentencing.
Six days later, Baltimore police say, he raped and nearly killed a prostitute, leaving her for dead in a city park after severing her ears.
The judge's decision not to hold Brown was the first of many breaks the defendant received in a drug case that moved through Howard County's court system at a time when city police say they now believe he carried out three violent attacks on women.
In the two months between pleading guilty to the heroin charge and his sentencing in Howard County, Brown allegedly raped and killed a prostitute and raped and nearly killed another, according to city police.
Authorities charged him with those crimes Friday.
In June 2003, Brown returned to the Howard County courthouse, where Howard County Deputy State's Attorney Mary V. Murphy, who prosecuted the case, said she asked for a five- to 10-year prison sentence for Brown's offense.
Instead, now-retired Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney placed him on probation and delayed imposing a five-year prison sentence - which he set to begin in March 2004 - as an incentive for Brown to stay out of trouble.
But in January 2004, Brown was arrested on drug charges in Baltimore. Sweeney again delayed imposing the prison sentence and declined to rule that Brown had violated his probation, the judge writing that he wanted to wait for the city case to be resolved, according to court records.
On March 8, 2004, city police say, Brown raped and killed a 15-year-old girl.
Brown's trip through the Howard judicial system shows a series of breaks given to a defendant who appeared in court records to be a run-of-the-mill drug dealer, abiding by almost all of the rules of his release and making strides toward turning his life around.
According to court records, Brown promptly appeared before his probation agent, held down a full-time job, paid all of his fines and passed every drug and alcohol screening.
Based on that and the eventual dismissal of the Baltimore drug case - the officers who had arrested him were convicted in federal court of corruption - Sweeney in September 2005 suspended Brown's entire prison sentence.
Sweeney declined to comment for this article.
According to neighbors, Brown lived at Clifton Avenue and Oaklawn Road in the Gwynnbrook Townhomes in Gwynn Oak with a woman, whom neighbors called his wife, and two children. They had three cars: a Toyota, a Lexus and a Cadillac.
The neighborhood is just a short distance from Leakin Park, where the woman who survived the attack was found.
Some neighbors said they saw about eight police officers escort Brown out of his apartment Friday, but none of them would give their names.
Maj. Terrence P. McLarney, the commander of the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit, said Brown, now 41, confessed to killing Emma O'Hearn, 25, a homeless prostitute whose body was found in June 2003. McLarney said it is too early to know if this case can be linked to more recent strangulations of prostitutes.
Thus far, Brown has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree rape for attacks that occurred in 2003 and 2004. The charges are in connection with the fatal beating of one prostitute, the near-fatal beating of another, and the strangulation of the 15-year-old, who police believe was not involved in the sex trade.
"People have to be careful arriving at conclusions based on the manner of death," McLarney said. "There are only so many ways of killing someone. You don't know what is available at the time. You have to be careful concluding things from what we have."
The major also said that it was not unusual for a person to be criminally active and then inactive for a period of time. Other than one day in January 2004, Brown has been on the streets since August 2002, according to court records.
"That is one of the reasons we are interested in him," McLarney said. "But there are others we're looking at."
Earlier this month, McLarney formed a task force to investigate unsolved homicide cases, mostly involving female prostitutes. Detectives have "cast a wide net" and are also investigating open cases of sexual assault, he said.
Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.