Evelyn Player filled her days volunteering at Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, arriving early to greet worshipers and staying late to help the choir rehearse.
The 69-year-old retiree was at it again Tuesday morning, arriving just after sunrise to let in construction workers, not long before she was found stabbed to death in a church bathroom, police said.
“Who would want to hurt my mother?” asked Alethea Finch, crying on the porch of the East Baltimore home she shared with her mother. “How could someone hurt someone in such a sacred place? … My heart’s broken into a million pieces. I don’t understand why this happened.”
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said at a news conference the longtime church volunteer was found dead in the bathroom after being attacked. Finch identified the victim as her mother, a devoted member of Southern Baptist and retired office worker at the medical publishing company Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Police did not disclose anything about a possible motive or potential suspects.
Church administrator Diane Lashley said an employee found Player’s body and called police around 7:20 a.m. to the Broadway East neighborhood church.
Player’s death puts the city just two killings away from hitting the grim milestone of 300 homicides for a seventh straight year. The staggering total has become an unofficial marker in Baltimore’s struggle to quell the deadly violence.
Harrison and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott urged anyone with information on Player’s killing to come forward.
“We know for a fact people were around. Someone saw someone,” Harrison said. “We implore you to call us, we beg you you to call us right now. Not only so we can hold this person or persons accountable, but so we can also bring justice and calm and closure to this family.”
Scott called Player’s death “unspeakable” and “cowardly,” saying it’s a priority for the police department to solve the case. He made an impassioned plea for people to “man the hell up” and remember it could have been their grandmother killed.
“If you’re scared to say something to the police, say it to me. I’ll say it,” the Democratic mayor said.
The Rev. Donte L. Hickman, pastor of the 4,000-member Southern Baptist Church, said Player is the fourth or fifth generation of her family to attend the church, and that she has done so for more than 50 years. She would bring her daughter and grandson with her to services.
Hickman said he was dropping his son off at school when he got the call about her killing. He raced to comfort the family and find out what happened.
“It’s just unthinkable,” he said. “We pray that whoever the culprit is, is brought to justice. But we want them to know that our work and mission will continue.”
In addition to serving as church sexton, Player sang in the choir, dished up meals and helped in the church’s COVID vaccine and testing clinics, Hickman said. She had a reputation for keeping order in the church, so much so that congregants nicknamed her “The Sheriff.”
“She was everybody’s friend,” the pastor said. “You could always find her holding conversation with anybody that passed through the doors.”
The pastor said the church was preparing to gather in person next week for the first time since the pandemic started. Instead, they will postpone gathering until New Year’s Eve to “close out a bad year and celebrate what’s to come.”
Hickman said he can’t help but think the postponement was meant to be.
“A few weeks ago when I suggested returning around Thanksgiving, Evelyn sort of scoffed and said ‘I think New Year’s Eve might be better,’” the pastor recalled. “The world works in mysterious ways.”
Councilman Robert Stokes Sr., who represents the neighborhood, said he came to the church after hearing what happened.
“It’s heartbreaking,” the Democrat said. “I just had to come up here.”
The councilman said he was shocked to find out Player was attacked in the church. He thought to himself that it didn’t sound right because it was so early and churches are usually closed. Then he found out she was an employee.
“That’s sick, that’s what it is,” Stokes said.
He watched as two police crime scene technicians left the building, carrying brown paper bags and a uniformed officer removed crime scene tape before the remaining officers left the scene.
Gregory Holcombe, 52, who grew up in the neighborhood, stopped by the church Tuesday after seeing TV news cameras and reporters.
“A lot of shootings go on in East Baltimore but to hear that somebody was dead inside the church…” he said, trailing off. “I’m sorry to hear that.
Holcombe, who was on his way to bring food to his mother who lives in a nearby apartment building, said he’s always reminding her to stay safe.
“That’s why I always tell my mother to keep the doors locked. She’s 87,” he said.
Sitting on the porch of their East Baltimore home, Finch called her mother her best friend and managed to smile remembering how her mother relished detective shows such as “Perry Mason.”
Player was on the girl’s basketball team at Dunbar High School and graduated in 1970. She delighted in the winning Baltimore Ravens and considered her favorite player tight end Mark Andrews.
Finch said the shock of her mother’s death has left her numb. Still, she finds comfort in their last words. She worried about her mother traveling early to the church by herself so they had a routine.
“I’m here. Have a great day. Love you,” her mother texted at 6:03 a.m., before she was killed.
Finch replied like she always did. “Love you, too.”