Vi Ripken abducted at gunpoint, quietly returned

Aberdeen Police Chief Henry Trabert speaks about Violet Ripken's abduction during a press conference in Aberdeen Wednesday afternoon.

Bound and abducted in her own vehicle, Violet Ripken was gone for 12 hours before her disappearance was reported to authorities. And amid an intensive search, she was quietly dropped off by her kidnapper on her secluded Harford County street.

A neighbor, Erik Snyder, 28, was arriving home from an overnight shift at a local warehouse when he saw a woman waving a white sweater out of a car window.

"There's a woman who's tied up in a car down the street," he told nearby officers, who "zoomed over" to free the 74-year-old mother of Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

Police are trying to piece together why she was taken — and whether her kidnapper even realized who he had been ferrying around Central Maryland for nearly a day.

According to Gus Kowalewski, 72, a longtime neighbor who spoke to Vi Ripken about the ordeal, the man confronted her in her garage between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. Tuesday, blindfolded her and forced her into her 1998 Lincoln Town Car at gunpoint. But he also lit cigarettes for her and gave her food. He told her that he wasn't going to hurt her, and he didn't. Baseball and the Ripken name never came up.

"Right now, we can't speak on what the motive is," Aberdeen Police Chief Henry Trabert said at a brief news conference. "We are looking at every witness, every clue."

Her return seems as mysterious as her disappearance. Though police said officers were in the area conducting patrols in marked and unmarked cars, the suspect was able to drive back to her street about 6 a.m. Wednesday, where he parked her car and apparently fled on foot.

Police are searching for a white man in his late 30s to early 40s who was wearing a light-colored shirt, camouflage pants and eyeglasses. Trabert said the suspect is "armed and should be considered dangerous."

Ripken's children include Cal Ripken Jr., the Orioles legend and baseball "Ironman" who holds the streak for the most consecutive games played, and broadcaster and former Orioles second baseman Bill Ripken.

She has lived for more than 46 years in her Clover Street home, where she established roots with her high school sweetheart and husband, Cal Ripken Sr., a former Orioles coach and manager who died in 1999. She has always been a familiar face in the area, doing charity work and watching the minor league IronBirds at Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium, which her family helped build.

In a 1986 interview with The Evening Sun, she explained the importance of Aberdeen to her family. "I hope I never have to move," she said. "Our life simply centers on Aberdeen. It's a small town — my family, our neighbors. ... I don't think money or being a media family will change our lifestyle — we will always be just what we are."

The family, in a statement, expressed relief that she was returned safely.

"This has been a very trying time for our family, but we are grateful and relieved that Mom is back with us, safe and healthy," the statement said. "We want to thank everyone for their tremendous support, especially all of the law enforcement agencies that worked so hard and quickly."

Jerry Bainbridge, a die-hard IronBirds supporter who earned the nickname "IronFan" and tossed out the ceremonial first pitch before this season's home opener, said he was shocked when he learned of the abduction.

"I don't know who would want to do that to her," he said before the team's Wednesday night game. "I've known Vi and the family for years. She's a tough, tough lady."

Ripken told Kowalewski that the man was hiding in her garage and tied her with rope.

"He put a mask on her and told her he just wanted her car and her money, but [that] she was going with him," Kowalewski said. At some point, she could tell that they were driving on the Beltway, but was not sure where else they went.

Police would not say whether the kidnapper took her credit cards.

Relatives and authorities were unaware that Ripken, who lives alone, was missing until Tuesday night, after Baltimore County police received a call about 8:15 p.m. about a suspicious vehicle in the Ebenezer Road area, near White Marsh and the border between Baltimore and Harford counties. Police would not release the 911 call.

Kowalewski said Ripken told him the man had driven her to a convenience store and that someone inquired after spotting her in the back seat. Her abductor said she was his mother and that she suffered from Alzheimer's, he said. The person didn't believe the story and called police.

Lt. Fred Budnick said the caller provided a tag number, which showed that the car belonged to Ripken, setting off the investigation.

The FBI was assisting Harford County authorities in the investigation, along with Maryland State Police and Baltimore County police.

Mike Hudson, whose mother is a neighbor of Ripken's, said he was startled when police knocked on his door around midnight.

"This is unheard of in this neighborhood," he said. "For anyone to knock on your door at midnight, it's really frightening."

For Snyder, who knows of the Ripkens as an Aberdeen "institution," it was his first introduction to his well-known neighbor.

Snyder said she had managed to get between the front and back seats and rolled down a window. She asked him for a knife to cut the ropes that bound her feet.

"She was stressed, but she knew exactly what she wanted," he said.

It was unclear how Ripken was returned to the home amid the increased police presence. Snyder said officers had closed off her street at one end but could not see where he found her from there.

"There was an APD presence at the house throughout the night," Aberdeen police said in a statement, primarily at the rear near the garage.

"Marked and unmarked police units patrolled through the neighborhood, including down Clover Street, during the evening and early morning hours. There were multiple patrol units within two blocks of the home when her vehicle was discovered on Clover Street," the statement said.

A Harford police official briefed on the case said the circumstances of the abduction puzzled investigators.

"The fact that she was returned, the fact that he brought her back to the house — there's a lot of things that are not normal abduction-type stuff," said the source, who was not authorized to discuss the case and asked not to be identified.

The first public attention to the investigation came at 5:35 a.m. Wednesday, when the Baltimore County Police Department issued a media advisory calling the case a missing persons investigation and distributing Ripken's picture.

The case has shocked members of the Orioles family who have known the Ripkens for years.

"Certainly, Cal Sr. was the Orioles' guru, but Vi was the backbone of that very vibrant family," said Ray Miller, a former Orioles pitching coach and manager. "She got four kids packed up and took them to wherever he was managing each year. She took them all to play their own sports, when dad was away."

Barbara Hawkins, 68, who has lived across the street from Vi Ripken for seven years, said an Aberdeen police officer came to her door around dusk Tuesday, asking if she had seen anything unusual. She had not, but mentioned that she had told police about a week ago that she had seen an unfamiliar pickup truck driving back and forth along the street.

The officer said only that he was investigating an incident in which a person had gone into a lady's house, Hawkins said, and she did not realize what had happened until she turned on the television Wednesday morning.

"She's so sweet ... such a kind person. Never passes by without waving," she said of Ripken. "We are all so comfortable in this neighborhood."

Aberdeen City Councilwoman Ruth Ann Young said she knows Vi Ripken and that abduction is "something, in my mind, we don't think of in Aberdeen."

"It's despicable," said Harford County Councilman James "Captain Jim" McMahan Jr. "We're living in a different world, my friend."

Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Mike Klingaman and staff writers from The Aegis contributed to this article.