Weeks before Annie McCann disappeared from her suburban Washington home and turned up dead in Baltimore, her mother, Mary Jane, noticed something strange: The 16-year-old had started attending 6:30 a.m. Mass.
Annie was a devout Catholic, an altar girl who shows up in snapshots with the Washington cardinal, but pre-dawn weekday services are sparsely attended, and a lone teenage girl tends to stand out. Annie didn't go to her family's church, but one closer to home, where the pastor didn't know her parents.
Mary Jane asked whether something was wrong. It wasn't, Annie assured her, and her mother concluded that, at best, her daughter was becoming more spiritual and, at worst, was conflicted but at least had turned to the church for help. Annie had asked about confession times and confided that she had sought counseling from a priest.
Then, on Oct. 31, Annie ran away. Two days later, her body was found next to a trash bin in the Perkins Homes public housing complex east of downtown.
Looking back, four months later, Mary Jane and her husband, Daniel, can't help but wonder whether their daughter was crying out for help and whether those cries hold the clues to her disappearance and death.
Today, the McCanns are holding a news conference to press Baltimore police to do more, to ask people who might have seen Annie to come forward, and to post a $10,000 reward for help in solving the case.
City homicide detectives say suicide is a compelling explanation for Annie's death - she drank a 5-ounce bottle of Bactine, which contains lidocaine and can be lethal if ingested orally. But they have few leads as to what happened from the time she was last seen alive in Alexandria, Va., to when she was found dead in Baltimore. The medical examiner says the case is open, the cause of death listed as pending.
Annie McCann had left wearing jeans and a red pleated jacket, carrying a blue book bag and the box of Cheerios her father had bought the night before. She took not only her savings, a car trunkful of clothes and earrings, but also a fistful of cash her father had placed in a kitchen jar. She took her cell phone and iTouch, and apparently drove off in the white Volvo S60 sedan.
A Fairfax County police officer found a note on her bed stating that she had thought about killing herself but had changed her mind and decided to run away instead.
As the McCanns searched for their daughter, Annie apparently made her way to Baltimore, a city she had visited occasionally for Orioles games. The McCanns say a private investigator they hired found a clerk who thought she saw Annie in Little Italy on Nov. 1 and said she was with an older woman.
Her body was found early the next day, a Sunday, at Perkins Homes on Lombard Street, her car five blocks to the north at a Citgo gas station, her clothes still in the trunk.
Police found what the McCanns hoped would be a significant break - a fingerprint on the car from a Perkins Homes teen who said he saw a white male with a goatee drive up in the Volvo, get out and walk away.
The teen said he and three friends saw Annie's body in the back seat, took the body out and put it by the trash bin. More crumpled notes were found near her body. The teen said he and friends took the car, drove it around and left it at the gas station. The open, empty bottle of Bactine was found near the car, the top under the front seat. Her iTouch was missing; the teen told police he took her cell phone and threw it away.
Detective Sean P. Jones, the lead homicide investigator, said he interviewed two of the youths but only one told him about a white male with a goatee. The other two have not been located. "We are not discarding the possibility the white male exists, but we haven't been able to corroborate it," said Maj. Terrence McLarney, head of the police homicide unit.
The FBI is helping with a more extensive search of the car - as well as Annie's laptop and home computer - and her cell phone account has been left on, but as far as the McCanns know, not a single relevant e-mail or text has been sent or received.
The McCanns have also learned that a priest from the church Annie was attending has Baltimore ties - he was once assigned to a church on Old York Road - and his name appears on the board for a foundation here.
Jones told me that he talked with three priests in Alexandria and handed out photos of Annie. "I told them very clearly that nothing is insignificant in this case," he said, adding that he has not gotten a call back. He said he looked into the ties to the Baltimore foundation but doesn't believe there is a connection.
The McCanns say Jones should have pressed harder. They say that the foundation director denied knowing the priest even though his name is on the foundation's charter and that Jones hasn't done enough to find the kids who moved their daughter's body or the mysterious man with the goatee.
The key lies not in the evidence but in how it is interpreted. Do the notes, coupled with the lidocaine, indicate suicide, as McLarney and Jones say, or that Annie changed her mind yet still somehow ended up dead?
The man with the goatee. The youths who moved the body. The woman who saw their daughter. Her involvement with the priest, and the priest with the Baltimore connection. Too many puzzling questions for the McCanns to concede that Annie took her own life, to accept that the investigation is now a cold case, to believe that everything has been done to find out how and why their daughter died.
Talk with Peter Hermann about crime via the Baltimore Crime Beat blog at baltimoresun.com/crime