Thirty years ago Friday, a young woman was brutally murdered: Bridget Bernadette Phillips was a 22-year-old graduate student in Byzantine and medieval history at Johns Hopkins University. I found her body in the apartment that she generously let me share with her on the nights that I spent in Baltimore — a fellow history student, I was commuting from Northern Virginia where I lived with my husband. I have never recovered from the shock, the horror and the profound sense of loss. I know that I am not alone.
Thirty years after her death, Bridget's murder remains unsolved. It seems unreal that this warm, lovely and talented human being could have disappeared from our lives in this way and that no one has been held accountable.
Based on details surrounding the case, it seemed clear that her killer was someone she knew. And he left behind evidence: He spent time in the apartment after bludgeoning her to death, cleaning up in the bathroom. A footprint — reportedly a Head Edge II athletic shoe, size 8 ½ to 9 ½ — was left in her blood.
I was sure that the police would eventually find the killer, but the years passed without an arrest. Occasionally, an article about the case would appear in the paper. In 2014, 25 years after her death, The Baltimore Sun's "Crime Scene" cold case feature ran a short video about her death, with the narrator claiming that despite "several people of interest, detectives did not have a clear motive or a murder weapon or a strong witness."
This kind of tragedy leaves a huge, gaping wound. Bridget and I were both first-year grad students in history at Hopkins when we met, the only two students in John Baldwin's medieval history seminar. We were in different places in life; I had worked for the government for a couple of years after getting my master's degree and was married, whereas Bridget headed to graduate school right after college. But we bonded over our workload as we struggled to master the details of English and French history in the enormous tomes that Professor Baldwin assigned us. We talked late into the night in her apartment, wearing matching red union suits. (She had gifted me with one when I admired how comfortable hers looked; I am sure we looked ridiculous, but we loved wearing them.) She stayed with me in Arlington when she came to work at the Dumbarton Oaks library. We grew very close, but because I spent only a couple of days on campus, our friendship was isolated from her larger social circle.
The newspaper descriptions of Bridget never managed to capture the person I knew. She was warm and generous and led with her heart. She got to know people from all walks of life. She adopted a stray dog that sadly turned out to have a terminal illness; she spent the little money she had to take him to the vet. She was, as her father once said, perhaps a little too trusting. I worried about her, especially the fact that she had no telephone — I gave her the money to have one installed, but she refused. Despite her gregarious nature, I think that she also liked to be unreachable when she wanted to be.
I found her body on a Thursday afternoon. It was spring break, but Professor Baldwin had decided that we should meet anyway (ah, Hopkins). Bridget didn't appear, and we assumed she must have forgotten. I offered to run over to the apartment to see if she was there. The door was locked — I had to use my key to get in.
I carry the horror of that moment with me to this day, along with a deep sense of grief. I have watched my own daughters grow up and cannot imagine how Bridget's parents carried on. I lost touch with them several years after her murder, but I hope that they know I think of them often.
At her funeral, the Reverend Donald G. Burt told the congregation that Bridget's death was not God's will. He said, "God's heart was the first heart to break. The first tears that were shed, were God's. How God must cry out, 'My children, this is not what I created you for.'"
God's heart may have been the first to break, but it was not the last. And while this murder remains unsolved, there are many of us who know no peace. Thirty years after her death, I hope some piece of evidence may surface that will finally allow the truth to emerge.