This has been a great summer for Maryland books and authors, and just in time for mountain, beach or backporch reading is Ed Okonowicz's True Crime: Maryland. The State's Most Notorious Criminal Cases, published by Stackpole Books.
True Crime is a departure for the Elkton author, folklorist, semiretired University of Delaware professor, freelance journalist and storyteller, who with his wife, Kathleen, has published more than 20 books of ghost stories and regional folklore since 1994.
"I got to the point I was ghosted out and I needed a change," Okonowicz said. "My publisher at Stackpole suggested something a little different."
Okonowicz, an inveterate clipper of newspaper and magazine articles that might provide fodder for a future column or book, threw one story in his extensive files a decade ago that proved especially helpful.
"It was an Associated Press story that was published on Dec. 31, 1999, listing all the major crime stories through the years in Maryland," he said. "My publisher suggested that I select 15 or 18 of them. These were to be high-profile cases that were gory and sensational."
In his introduction, Okonowicz writes that cases that are grisly and sensational, coupled with a "severe or deadly sentence," guarantees that the "ever-curious public will savor every gruesome detail."
Okonowicz's bona fides are genuine. In 1996, while writing a magazine article on Delaware's last hanging, he found himself with 100 other reporters sitting on cold folding chairs in a room at the state prison in Smyrna, wondering if their lottery tickets would gain them admittance to the death chamber.
Okonowicz and 90 other reporters were not among the lottery winners. But they weren't about to leave the prison, as they waited to hear the impressions of colleagues who witnessed "murderer Billy Bailey's state-sanctioned necktie party," he wrote.
"In detail, they described his march up the rustic, 23-step, wooden gallows; the hooded executioner's placement of the noose; the noise accompanying the body's sudden drop through the scaffold's trapdoor; and the slow twirling of the corpse as it dangled from the thick, tightly stretched rope."
Five days later, Okonowicz was summoned back to the prison, and this time, his blue lottery ticket allowed him to witness the second event of what he described as the "First State's execution twofer."
A little after midnight, Okonowicz and the others were seated in the prison's death chamber as murderer William Flamer was dispatched by lethal injection.
Okonowicz said there was no more drama attendant to the event than "watching a baby falling asleep."
He says he can still recall in vivid detail the memories of those two nights, when two murderers were executed 120 hours apart for crimes they had committed in 1979.
Now, before crime aficionados start complaining because their favorite murder is not in his book, omissions, he says, are not oversights on his part. "This limited number of stories offers only a glimpse of the long and varied history of crime, punishment, and criminals - captured, imprisoned, released, executed, or still at large - in the Old Line State," he explains in the foreword.
He provides an informative history of crime in Maryland, beginning in 1634, when Mary Lee, a passenger aboard the Charity bound for Maryland, was suspected of being a witch and was hanged by the vessel's crew. When the deed was done, they threw her corpse into the Atlantic.
Okonowicz examines eight cases, including that of William Bradford Bishop in 1976. The State Department diplomat is suspected of killing his wife, mother and three children, whose burned bodies were found in a hastily dug pit by a forest ranger in North Carolina, 300 miles from their Bethesda home.
Two weeks later, Bishop's station wagon was found 400 miles away in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its owner had vanished, and despite occasional sightings in the intervening 33 years, the case remains open, according to the Montgomery County sheriff's office.
"It was interesting picking up pieces of those stories and wondering about families who were still waiting for justice," he said.
Okonowicz is working on a new book to be published in fall 2010.
The Big Book of Maryland Ghost Stories "will contain 85 percent new ghost stories and 15 percent old stories," he said.