Sandy Bauer’s fingers tremble, the light bouncing off her red nail polish as she clenches her hands together. Her eyes well with more than two decades of grief, frustration, and longing as she recalls the worst day of her life. It’s not often that she talks about her younger sister, but when she does, the emotion and the loss jar her as if it were still 1989. That year someone savagely murdered 27-year-old Terry Schmansky inside her Dundalk apartment. The lifeless body of the young mother of three was found by Schmansky’s brother and her oldest daughter, Tonya, nine at the time, who had just returned from bowling while Terry worked her shift at nearby Squires restaurant.
“She was the sweetest thing on earth. She should have never lost her life,” says Bauer, who babysat her sister’s other two children that September night.
Twenty-four winters have since passed, the case growing colder with each one. Somebody has gotten away with murder.
“It’s hard,” says Tonya, now 32, who has struggled with the unfathomable lingering mental effects of discovering her mother’s maimed body. “I remember every bit of it and, for a long time, it took a very big toll on me. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from that day.” Bauer, a medical-billing specialist who lives in Essex, remains convinced that she knows who killed her sister and, for seven years after the murder, fought tirelessly to convince investigators to see it her way. Police found evidence from the scene, including the weapon, a knife tossed into a Dumpster just down the road at a gas station. But still, no one has ever been named a suspect, a mind-boggling issue for Bauer.
Years of anger, Bauer admits, caused her to lose her religious faith and even blame God. “I was depressed for seven years. I was engulfed in it,” she says. “I was addicted to solving it, and I really just began to realize this is way too much sadness. I had a healthy, beautiful family of my own, and I needed to look at the sunshine, and I needed to let go.”
But police say they haven’t forgotten about Schmansky, or any of the other 233 crimes and missing person cases prioritized by the Baltimore County Police Department’s cold case unit. Many will likely remain unsolved, but since being formed in 2002 by now-retired detective Philip Marll and his partner of 25 years, James Tincher, two-dozen cases—including several decades-old crimes—have been cracked. Each year, the cold case unit’s two or three successes, often transposing new DNA technology onto old cases, bring not just closure for victims’ families, but also for a committed group of detectives that make up the squad. In 2012, police made arrests in two cold cases, including the murder of another young Dundalk woman, 24-year-old Heidi Louise Bernadzikowski, who was killed in the spring of 2000. Already this year, they arrested the suspects wanted for a 2009 Woodlawn murder.
For Marll, who will celebrate his first full year of retirement next month, his dedication to each of the investigations he worked remains as strong as his distinct Bawlmerese accent. But he’s especially committed to ones like the Schmansky case, the heartbreaking crimes that he never solved. After he left the force, he asked to keep his department cell phone active so prosecutors, colleagues, or victims’ families could reach him, if need be, about an unsolved case.
“We e-mail the heck out of Phil,” says Det. Carroll Bollinger, 50, a 28-year veteran who joined the cold case unit nine years ago. “Or I’ll call him and say, ‘Where were you going with this line of thought?’ if I’m looking at a case that was his.”
One cold case Marll worked was the murder of Sheila Rascoe, an Essex woman, raped and strangled in her apartment in 1979. Her killer, Thomas Grant, lived just down the street, it would turn out. He walked free for nearly 20 years before Marll and his unit, using science not available at the time of the crime—the ability to test and identify an individual’s unique genetic encoding molecule, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—put him away.
Rascoe and her boyfriend, Albert Bell, had planned a weekend getaway to Richmond, VA, but when Bell arrived to pick her up, he found Rascoe’s partially nude body with a vacuum-cleaner cord squeezing her neck. Bell himself drew the initial suspicions of investigators when it was discovered that he was married—which Rascoe never knew. But any error of his ways ended there, and police eventually pushed the case aside. “There was a lack of evidence. Back when it happened, they didn’t have DNA,” says Marll.
When Marll and Tincher created the cold case unit, they did so with the intention of going first after unsolved rape and murder cases. The county had just joined an FBI-backed nationwide database called “CODIS,” which stands for “Combined DNA Index System.” The database could match the DNA from crime scenes to criminals, and the detectives knew they had a better shot at solving the cold cases where DNA meant everything.
“Sheila Rascoe happened to be one of the cases. We figured, let’s knock these out, the rape-murders, because if there is any evidence it’s gonna be easy evidence to locate,” says Marll. In 2005, the detectives returned to her case and didn’t take long to spot a T-shirt in a photo of the victim lying near her buttocks area. Sure enough, the shirt sat locked away with evidence from the scene and was sent off to county police forensic biologist Laura Pawlowski, who located a semen stain.
She immediately ordered the semen to be tested at an outside lab and compared against CODIS. Unlike on TV, warns Pawlowski and others in law enforcement, a DNA hit takes time. A lot.
“It would take me at least a few weeks to do the DNA process,” she says. “I enter it into CODIS and CODIS will not just spit out a name. It’ll tell me [if] I have a match. Then I have to contact the lab I have a match with. They have to do all these confirmation steps before they release a name to me.” Once a suspect’s name is retrieved, investigators must then swab the suspect after he’s charged and do their own confirmation to avoid any potential computer errors.
“The CSI shows are about as real as professional wrestling,” says Lt. William Duty, commander of the homicide and cold case units. “You’ll see a guy [on TV] bring a technician in a DNA lab a piece of evidence, and they’ll work up a profile and enter it into their CODIS without any kind of authentication. And then they come up with a name from a computer while he’s standing there, like he’s waiting at a McDonald’s for a cheeseburger.”
Eventually, however, Grant’s name came back after being entered into CODIS sometime during one of his five prior arrests over the years on sex offenses. In 2008, a judge sentenced him to two life terms after the case’s trial. “When we went back with the family, it was jubilation,” recalls Marll. “They were extremely happy because they still cared about her from 1979 like it happened yesterday.”
The four officers and the commander who make up the Baltimore County Police cold case unit warn that the artistic license taken by our favorite crime dramas goes well beyond condensed storylines, sometimes with real-world implications. Shows like CSI and Cold Case have also made it harder when cases are brought to trial, tainting jurors with what police refer to as the “CSI effect,” according to law enforcement.
“In our homicide trials, the prosecutors have to spend time in the beginning of the trial explaining to the jury that this isn’t CSI, that they have to forget what they watch on TV,” adds Cpl. Larry Gick, 40, an 18-year veteran who joined the cold case unit in 2007.
The process of getting prosecutors to take a cold case to a jury can also be painstaking, not like the quick meetings so often portrayed on Law & Order. Prosecutors don’t hesitate to send detectives back to work for a more complete investigation. “Certainly when we say ‘no’ I believe they’re disappointed,” says Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger. “We only get one bite at it so if you go to trial and lose, even if the person turned around and said after, ‘Yeah, I did it,’ you could never prosecute it again.”
“It’s definitely not the one-hour show you see on TV,” adds Gick, 40.
And of course, there’s the process of looking into a case gone cold, requiring detectives to examine several thousand pages of documents and notes from binders bursting at the rings. They’ll reach out to former detectives and re-interview witnesses, occasionally traveling out of state as witnesses or family may have moved away after so many years.
For the cold case detectives, time often counts on money. This year, for example, the unit will work from a tighter budget after losing a federal award they’d received the past two years. The grant could be applied to travel, DNA costs, and overtime. It’s a frustrating, but not completely debilitating hit for the unit.
“It is a little depressing we don’t have it because it was always something we could fall back on,” Gick says. “The cases won’t suffer. It just presents doors that are a little harder to push open.”
In fact, Gick says, funding cuts could slow new DNA testing on a potential clue in the Terry Schmansky case. He notes investigators have recently taken up evidence that they hope will shed new light on a potential suspect thanks to the latest updates in DNA technology and are awaiting results. “It varies how long it will take [for results] because with the grant running out, it depends on whether this evidence will make it out [in time] to be tested under the grant, or if it has to happen in house and that may take a little longer,” he says. “This is the last piece of evidence to be tested for DNA. There’s nothing left,” says Gick. “So if this doesn’t provide us with anything, we have nothing left to test.”
Marll holds out hope that justice will be brought to Schmansky’s killer, no matter how long it takes. He admits that the difficulty in solving the murder stems from a lack of physical evidence. “It’s a very tough case. When you commit a crime by yourself, and you don’t tell anybody, and there’s no witnesses to testify against you, and you don’t leave any physical evidence there, it’s almost impossible for police. We look like dunces that we can’t clear it,” he says.
However, not all cases rely on hard evidence, physical clues, or DNA technology in order to be cracked. Sometimes, investigators believe all a case needs is testimony from the right witness to bring a suspect to trial.
Meanwhile, Sandy Bauer checks in with police periodically. The last time was a year and a half ago.
“I just feel like there’s nothing more I can do,” she says. But still, she keeps the cold case unit’s number tucked in her pocketbook.
And Tonya Schmansky still thinks about her mother every day. She sees her in her two young children, especially her daughter, now 10—who shares a middle name, Anne, with her murdered grandmother and is just a year older than Tonya was when she found her mother’s body. She revels in the good memories of their time together to ease the pain of all the time since lost.
Her aunt feels the same way.
“I don’t want to say I’ve given up hope, but I guess I’ve learned to deal. You can’t live your life worrying and worrying and worrying about something you can’t control,” Bauer says. “I’ve just kind of learned to live with the fact that we won’t know.”
Only time will tell if her sister’s story has an ending.
“I think that for some weird reason it’s just not meant to be solved,” Bauer laments, adding that perhaps there is still somebody out there who will call with a tip that turns the case.
“It would be nice for me to be wrong.”