Homicide Investigation Fails To Catch A Killer

by Pamela Young
     Everything went wrong from the beginning. As Fran Sirbaugh, the victim’s mother, says, “All the luck was toward the killer that night, and none was toward Keri.”
     It started with a 911 call from Keri Sirbaugh’s downstairs neighbor, alarmed over hearing a man’s voice, a woman’s voice, a scream outside her Northeast Baltimore apartment. But during the call, the neighbor indicated to the dispatcher that she did not want to be identified. Therefore, police didn’t respond to her address.
     About an hour later, after having heard more noises, the neighbor called 911 again and asked that police come to her apartment, the first floor of a square brick building on Everall Avenue--a dead-end. When they arrived, police failed to check Keri’s apartment upstairs. But by then, she probably had already been dumped in the adjacent thick woods, where her father would find her battered, lifeless body the next day-- June 21, 1995.
     Six weeks shy of 22, Keri Sirbaugh had just completed her junior year as a journalism major at American University. Lively, hopeful, driven, she was a spark ready to ignite, a young woman just finding her voice. She wrote articles for classes and school publications--essays on equal rights, sexual harassment, rape, abortion, and birth control.
     Possessing street-smarts and savvy, Keri knew the hazards of being a young woman in Baltimore, of being a woman in any city. She had escaped uncomfortable, even dangerous, situations before. Yet neither dangers nor serious issues had doused her jubilant spirit with disillusion. In fact, says her mother, Keri’s joy often erupted with “a big belly laugh.” Tall and strong, with fiery hair and a radian presence to match, Keri, at 5’9” and 160 lbs., left her parents unable to grasp how someone could “take her down.”
     But take her down the killer-- or killers--did, leaving a family desperate for answers.
     “Bill called me at work,” Fran Sirbaugh says of her husband, “He wanted to know where Keri was. I said, ‘What do you mean, where’s Keri?’ She’s at work.” But he had picked up a message at home from a co-worker of Keri’s: She hadn’t shown up at her waitressing job at Louie’s Bookstore Café on Charles Street. He blurted, “I’m going to her apartment,” and hung up.
     Later, says Fran Sirbaugh, her husband came to her office to get a copy of their daughter’s apartment key. He had already been to Keri’s place and found her Volkswagen parked in the driveway, but he could get no answer at her locked door. It was then he knew something was terribly wrong. The couple drove to Everall Avenue, where Fran called police after entering the empty apartment and finding evidence that Keri had been there the previous night.
     “When we came down the steps [outside the apartment], we were supposed to be showing the officer Keri’s car... I think Bill was drawn to the woods because he was so frightened there was something wrong. I remember turning around and going, “What are you doing?” and he just kept walking [into the woods], and the next thing I knew he was screaming.” After that, Fran says, everything was a blur.
     Lack of information: Although news reports indicated Keri was beaten and strangled, the police will not verify this information. Even the family has never been told exactly what happened to Keri. Police will not say publicly whether or not Keri was sexually assaulted. In fact, they will say very little about the case, citing the “ongoing investigation.”
     They will not say if there are any similarities between this murder and the unsolved 1989 murder of Bridget Phillips, a Hopkins student bludgeoned to death in her Charles Village apartment. They won’t say whether outside agencies, such as the FBI, have ever offered help with the case, and if so, whether such help was accepted. And they won’t respond to the question of whether or not the Baltimore City Police Department has looked into a reported 450-plus hotline calls about this case.
     Now a “cold case”: What they will say is that they have made no arrests, and that the case is now in the hands of the “cold case” squad after passing through two groups of homicide investigators.
     But if the trail has gone cold, the family wonders why. The Sirbaughs wonder why three years have passed and no one has been charged with Keri’s murder. They wonder why they have been left out, particularly since they have always taken such an active role in trying to find out who killed their daughter: They raised $25,000 for information leading to the arrest of Keri’s killer, and they set up and now operate a hotline, handing over caller information to the police.
     Unwelcome help?: Fran Sirbaugh says she has interviewed over 30 of Keri’s friends and acquaintances; the family has provided police with tag numbers and “anything and everything we thought was important [information].” But, says Mrs. Sirbaugh, police have not been supportive of these efforts. “Any idea I had, they thought was taboo,” she says, adding, “My husband and I really have no rights, and Keri has no rights.”
     The Sirbaughs, like many families, feel the criminal justice system works better for the criminals than for the victims and their families. The family feels victimized not only because they feel ignored and left tormented by wondering what happened, but also because they do not believe their murdered daughter is getting the treatment she deserves. “This has been a nightmare no family should have to go through,” says Mrs. Sirbaugh.
     But, apparently, many families go though just this--left not only to deal with the violent deaths of their loved ones, but then to grapple with never encountering justice, never learning the identity of the killer, and never knowing why.
     Why do homicides remain unsolved?: Police inexperience, Fran Sirbaugh believes, is one reason these families do not meet justice. And it is this inexperience that a 1996 City Paper article attributes to Baltimore being named one of the worst cities in the nation for solving homicides. According to third district City Councilman Martin O’ Malley, who is conducting a study of Baltimore’s homicide clearance rates, things are getting worse. He says clearance rates are dropping while the number of homicides is rising.
     In addition, police rotation--Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier’s policy of transferring officers to different units to ensure that most officers do not remain in the same job for more than four years-- almost guarantees that less experienced investigators take on homicide cases. Intended to revive police department morale and create more well-rounded officers, this rotation policy has been highly criticized. As Fran Sirbaugh says, “Do you want a rookie looking into your child’s murder?”
     The inexperience problem is compounded: “Major Patek [Commanding Officer, Crimes Against Persons] acknowledged a clearance rate problem which correlates with a lack of supervision,” reports Councilman O’Malley.
     Breakdown of accountability: While police aren’t acknowledging publicly that these problems exist, a memo written earlier this year to Commanding Officer Major Kathleen Patek from Sergeant Mark Tomlin refers to a homicide clearance rate in need of improvement. Tomlin writes, “ is clear that a breakdown of accountability between supervisors and detectives has caused many cases to be left unattended, or simply pushed to the side.” The memo goes on to say that, as new cases come into the unit, “...the first cases are stale, unworked, or at worst completely forgotten.”
     “Completely forgotten.” A woman’s life, radiating youthful hopes. A voice silenced, then placed aside. A family waits to hear answers.
     And unless things change in the homicide division of the Baltimore City Police Department, there will be more murders where the surviving loved ones are choked voiceless.

     Penny Young will graduate from Towson University this month with an M.S. in professional writing. She worked for 10 years in human services, including working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
     Anyone with information about the Keri Sirbaugh case or other unsolved Baltimore City crimes should call 410-276-8888.

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This story was published on Dec. 2, 1998.