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March 23, 2009

Annie McCann investigation ends

In a column published Saturday, I raised the question of when police should suspend an investigation into a death. We're talking about Annie McCann, the 16-year-old girl who ran away from her suburban Virginia home on Oct. 31 and was found dead in Baltimore on Nov. 2. (see previous columns, Part 1 and Part 2.

Her parents, Daniel and Mary Jane McCann, have launched a campaign to find out why their daughter left home, how she got to Baltimore, what she did when she got here, who she might have met and how she ultimately died. They are doing what any parent would do and are understandably upset that police have now all but given up.

But for the police,  and answers the McCanns are seeking do not relate to a criminal case. Investigators now strongly believe that Annie took her own life, and on Friday after meeting with the McCanns and discussing new evidence, said they would soon close the case.

Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said DNA tests reveal Annie's genetic markers on the lip of a 5-ounce bottle of Bactine and on the cap, "indicating that she both removed the cap and drank from the bottle."

The Maryland State Medical Examiner's Office has ruled the cause of death undetermined, neither homicide nor suicide, but said she overdosed from lidocaine, which is in the antiseptic Bactine. Police found the Bactine and the cap near her abandoned car at a gas station five blocks from where her body was found lying next to a trash bin at Perkins Homes, between Harbor East and Fells Point.

The McCanns accept that their daughter died this way but do not accept suicide. They think Annie could've been forced to drink from the bottle (police say no other fingerprints or DNA was found on the bottle) or at the very least she had help or was lured to Baltimore.

That could be plausible. Early in the investigation, the McCanns learned that a clerk at a Little Italy pastry shop saw Annie and another woman with dark hair. Later, after the family put up billboards and announced a $10,000 reward, a bouncer at Club Orpheus said he recognized Annie and the woman. Meanwhile, a clerk at Costco's in Northern Virginia has said she recognizes the woman. And a number dialed from Annie's cell phone went to a house in Virginia occupied by a drug dealer.

Baltimore police say they will do two more things before suspending the investigation. They will go to the Caroline County Detention Center to determine whether a woman being held there is the woman Annie was seen with at the two locations in Baltimore. Police said they also will finish scanning Annie's laptop and desktop computers, though that could take up to three weeks.

Annie's parents still want police to press four teens for information; one of them admitted to moving Annie's body when he saw it in the backseat of her car apparently abandoned at Perkins Homes and then taking the car for a joy ride. And the McCanns don't accept that the note Annie left on her bed indicated she wanted to kill herself. The note says she thought about suicide but changed her mind and wanted to run away instead.

Guglielmi said police have invested 1,200 hours and used up to 44 people in this investigation, and that it's now time to bring it to a close. "Truly, we gave it everything we had," he told me on Friday. "Our detectives and our investigators are trained to follow evidence. It's truly a devastating case. It's sad and I can't begin to articulate how it must be for the family. But the evidence we are able to get out of this does not point to homicide. It does point to suicide."

The spokesman says the lead detective, Sean Jones, did what he thought was right in the case. Asked whether the youths who said they took her car could've been pressed harder (one talked, one through his father refused and the two others are known only by their nicknames), Guglielmi said: "I have to stand behind the work of the detectives."

Guglielmi noted rightly that cases are never closed, especially this one since the Medical Examiner has not made a conclusive ruling. "If a year from now or a day from now, if someone comes forward with new leads or clues, they will absolutely be investigated."

The meeting with the McCanns police on Friday, which included Guglielmi, a colonel, a major and the lead detective, ended on a bad note. The McCanns questioned whether detectives had done enough, angering police commanders. Guglielmi said the commanders got angry when the detectives' integrity was impugned. "They were criticizing the efforts of the department," the spokesman said. "The colonel said, 'You can't sit here and criticize members of homicide."

Daniel McCann, driving back to Virginia, said he left the meeting frustrated and called the police "defensive, hostile and adversarial."

The McCanns' private investigators will continue to push this case forward. It's never easy for police to reach this conclusion, especially with so many questions yet to be answered. I've gotten many emails about my columns on this subject; some criticizing me for giving too much attention to this case above other murders. I will add one of the emails below, but I will say that it was the mystery that propelled my writing. Most killings in this city are, sadly, related to drugs and the utter despair that permeates some Baltimore neighborhoods. Even if Annie killed herself, why did she come here, and how? And whom did she meet, and how? And what can we learn from the death of a young girl whose parents thought she had everything, and was happy and content?

It was not my intent to push this case to the top of the list in homicide, and I doubt that happened. It was simply a different type of case than we are used to in Baltimore, and tragic whether Annie killed herself or not. The lead detective on the case, Sean Jones, summed it up best when he told me a few weeks ago that Annie simply "fell off the grid."

That's not easy in today's society, and is a reason I found this case so interesting. Here are two views from readers:

As a friend of Mary Jane and Dan McCann I felt the need to write to you to let you know my feelings about the lack of interest that the Baltimore Police Dept. has shown in discontinuing the investigation into Annie's death. I met the McCanns on January 1st, 4 days before what would have been Annie's 17th birthday at a memorial service at my church The Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation here in Baltimore. Very sadly we remembered the 43 children 18 and under who were killed due to violence in Baltimore City last year. So far this year we have 7 children to light a candle for and to remember their precious lives. This is not acceptable.They keep telling us that violent crime is down in Baltimore City. It certainly doesn't sound like it. I know that it is the belief of the police department that Annie committed suicide. Why would she drive all the way to Baltimore, bring quite a bit of money and clothes with her to do that. She could have done it in Alexandria. I know about the notes that she wrote but nothing adds up and it is very pathetic to me that so many of the people that came in contact with her while dead and alive have never been questioned Someone is walking around in her shoes. The McCann's did everything they could do to try to find answers to this mystery to be told that it wasn't worth the Dept's time and trouble to go further until they have answers.That speaks very badly about the Baltimore Police Dept. The McCanns were also treated very rudely on Friday at the briefing. This was their daughter !. All unsolved murders or deaths need to be solved regardless of color.

And an opposing view:

I believe that you have written at least 3 columns about the tragic death of Annie McCann. It seems you have unintentionally fallen into the same trap that the media  is often accused of, i.e. valuing a victim more who is white, pretty, well-off - someone that you and I can relate to. Of course I have tremendous sympathy for her parents and I'm sure I would be doing exactly what they are: questioning, agonizing, investigating, chasing every possible clue to try to solve this unsolvable mystery of how a seemingly normal, grounded and well-adjusted teen went so off course with tragic results. But how can the police be faulted? This beautiful young girl was suicidal, was found without a scratch on her body and the medical examiner has ruled that a homicide did not occur. In a previous article, you mentioned her parents' belief that some of her active actions before her death proved that she was not suicidal; however, it is well known in the psychiatric literature that those suffering from depression frequently appear much better right before they kill themselves precisely because they have made the decision to do it and so are relieved. Perhaps Annie made the decision and then purposefully put herself in harms' way, in a crime-ridden part of a dangerous city, for that very reason, i.e. because she no longer cared about her life.
 
I certainly have no idea what really happened and my heart breaks for the suffering of the family and this beautiful young girl who could have been mine. But in a city with hundreds of actual, real murders each year, how can we blame the police for not devoting more time and resources to what does not appear to be a crime?
 
Nancy S. Spritz

Here is a statement the McCanns released after Friday's meeting with Baltimore police:

We are bitterly disappointed in Commissioner Bealefeld. On March 2, we received seemingly reliable reassurances from his official spokesman that the Commissioner viewed the investigation into Annie’s death as a high priority, and that all available resources would be committed to it.  “We’ll do everything we can.”  In point of fact, since March 2, the Baltimore Police Department has done next to nothing on Annie’s case.

In the 18 days since the Commissioner’s commitment to us, and to the investigation into Annie’s death, this is what has been done:

 The detective handling Annie’s investigation received 13 days of training.
 It took over a week to develop a simple flyer.  It has never been distributed.
 It took seven days to get us a simple consent form, apparently required before the police would search our computers.
 Forensics work has been done.
 Two detectives canvassed a club; a bouncer there had reported on March 12 that he had recognized the woman from our sketch and Annie as having been at the club together.  The detectives got no “hits.”  They never interviewed that bouncer, off duty that night.  They still haven’t.  Again, for this “high profile” case, they have never simply interviewed that person who believed he had seen Annie and the woman in the sketch together in a Baltimore club.
 A tip late last week linking a name to the sketch has led to the identification of a woman in police custody.  Police have not interviewed her yet.

How could Commissioner Bealefeld assure us this is a high priority case, and then let his officers and detectives slow-walk it so?

Here is some of the basic police work we feel should have been done for a high priority case:

 Promptly interview the bouncer
 Promptly interview the woman in police custody
 Locate and aggressively interview the juveniles placed at the scene with our car and Annie dead inside.  Explore discrepancies in the changed account of one juvenile.  Interview family, friends, and neighbors of these juveniles.
 Interview the Northern Virginia person with a narcotics record and strong Baltimore ties, and text ties to Annie’s cell phone.
 Follow-up on strong recognition of sketch at Costco in Northern Virginia
 et cetera

Appalled at the pace of the “high priority” investigation, but still striving to work with the police, we sought to meet with the Commissioner to discuss our concerns in private.  He couldn’t meet with us until next Wednesday, so we agreed to meet today with Colonel John Bevilacqua, Chief of the Criminal Investigation Division, and “absolutely empowered” to speak for the Commissioner on the case. We were told we would receive a briefing on the case status and progress.  We prepared a briefing of our own, expressing our concerns.  It is attached.

Colonel Bevilacqua opened the meeting by offering condolences, and then asked what we wanted to say. We explained that we had been led to believe we would receive a briefing. The lead detective in the case then informed us that all-but-final DNA testing shows only Annie’s DNA around the mouth of the container of Bactine – the source of the lidocaine that killed Annie.  Having believed, with the police, since December that Annie had died of an oral ingestion of Bactine, we were not stunned by this non-news. We were astonished to hear the detectives term this simple point of new information as conclusive proof that Annie had killed herself.

We have never imagined that Annie had shared Bactine with anyone. We politely pointed out that someone could have forced Annie to drink the Bactine, or that she might have drunk it on the floor of our car as a desperate and terrified captive, hoping it would end her misery. Colonel Bevilacqua, in particular, seemed confused by the latter possibility, and we had to repeat it for him. It seemed strange to us, explaining to seasoned police officials the potential for evil in some people.

When we moved to express our concerns with the police investigation, Colonel Bevilacqua, loud and defensive, shut us down.  Wagging his finger in one face, he shouted that the meeting would be over if all we were going to do was “bash” his detectives. The meeting did not last much longer. Colonel Bevilacqua did explicitly state they are certain that Annie committed suicide, and it doesn’t really matter what happened before that.

The Baltimore Police Department will complete computer forensics and interview the woman in police custody, we are told. Barring new leads from those two sources, the investigation will be suspended.

18 days after receiving Commissioner Bealefeld’s assurance that Annie’s case was a high priority, we feel betrayed by him, and by his department’s sluggish and ultimately ugly response. With new leads still coming in, he and his department have fallen back on a stale and superficial finding they could have made in December. In failing miserably to live up to his commitment, Commissioner Bealefeld has broken our hearts.

We will continue with the private investigation.

Posted by Peter Hermann at 8:16 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Annie McCann
        

Comments

I have been following this case since the beginning. I have never been involved in police work but have always valued the work of the police.

In the case of Annie McCann, I am confused. I can believe that Annie did drink the Bactine. However, given the various people who witnesses say were seen with Annie in the time just before and the area around the time of her death, I hope that the police would have the time and resources to be interested in the "why" and the "how." This seems more like an assisted or defensive suicide than a simple suicide.

Shouldn't the police be interested in who helped -- or forced Annie -- so that this kind of criminal tragedy will not happen again? Can't the police budget afford a few more dollars to get information that may very well prevent this from happening again?

I know that all citizens -- parents or not, black or white -- would rest easier knowing more about what happened in Baltimore to make Annie McCann drink that Bactine.

Having experienced a similar situation - the unexplained loss of a child, I feel the pain of the parents, and the frustration of the police. Until an unattended death is more aggressively investigated, immediately - this will go on. If a person assisted Annie, they will probably do it again for a few dollars and personal property.

Please people wake up to the reality that we are living in evil times.

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About Peter Hermann
Peter Hermann started covering news for The Baltimore Sun in 1990, first in Anne Arundel County and, starting in 1994, reporting on the Baltimore Police Department. In 2001, he was assigned to Jerusalem as the Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent. He returned in 2005 as an assistant city editor overseeing crime coverage. In 2008, Peter returned to the beat as a daily reporter and blogger. A recent BBC report featured him in a segment on the harsh realities of covering crime in Baltimore.

Coverage will focus on crime trends, problems in neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere, profiles of victims and police officers and try to offer readers a fresh perspective on one of the most vexing issues facing Baltimore and its future.



Contributing to this blog is Justin Fenton, who joined The Sun in 2005 and has covered the Baltimore City Police Department and the criminal justice system since 2008. His work includes an investigation into Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league baseball stadium deal with his hometown of Aberdeen, a three-part series chronicling a ruthless con woman, coverage of the killing of five Amish children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and a job swap with a British crime reporter to explore differences in crime-fighting. A special report looking into how city police handle rape cases led to sweeping reforms that changed the way sexual assaults are investigated in Baltimore. He was recognized as the best reporter in Baltimore by the City Paper in 2010 and by Baltimore Magazine in 2011.
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