Montgomery authorities charge man in 1975 murder

Bobby Coley walked into the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office this week, hoping to clear up what he thought was a minor warrant because he was trying to get a job. The 63-year-old was told to take a seat in the lobby.

In a back office, Sgt. Chris Wade typed Coley’s information into Maryland’s law enforcement database. Nothing there. Wade tried a second source and was stunned by the decades-old information in front of him. “Boys,” he remembers telling colleagues nearby, “I think we might have someone with a murder warrant out front.”

The deputies quickly confirmed that the warrant was valid and took Coley, of the District, into custody — opening up a case that has raised as many questions as answers.

“Quite candidly,” prosecutor Peter Feeney told District Court Judge Eugene Wolfe on Wednesday, “we cannot tell you what the viability of this case is at this point.”

Viable or not, the allegations are startling:


Bobby Coley (Courtesy Montgomery County Police)

In 1975, according to the original 1984 arrest warrant, Frances “Ricky” Chromak told police that her husband, Leopold Chromak, then 29, had disappeared after leaving their apartment in Wheaton.

In fact, according to the warrant, she hired men to kill Leopold because he allegedly beat her, broke her nose, tried to force her to have sex with her dog and then killed the dog. Coley was identified as one of the hit men, who strangled or suffocated the victim, wrapped him up and took his body away, according to the arrest warrant.

As the allegations were stated in court Wednesday, Coley, wearing a green jail jumpsuit, his hair flecked with gray, shook his head. He was otherwise calm — as officials said he was the day before when placed under arrest. A prosecutor said in court that Coley had denied being involved in a murder but had told of meeting Leopold Chromak, apparently in a half-way house.

Authorities said it was not immediately clear whether Frances Chromak or anyone else had been charged before, and detectives were scrambling to dig up details of the cold case. Feeney said in court that Frances Chromak is thought to be alive.

The Washington Post was unable to locate a working phone or current address for Chromak or her relatives. At one point, according to the arrest warrant, she changed her name to Barbara Ann Stevens.

Leopold Chromak has not been heard from since 1975, according to police records. His body has not been found.

Coley’s attorney, John Lavigne, noted in court that Leopold Chromak was on parolein the 1970s.

“We don’t even know if there was a murder, because we don’t even know if the person is dead or if he just absconded from parole and disappeared,” Lavigne said.

Coley continues to be held without bond. Wolfe, the judge, gave prosecutors time to come back with more facts. “You have one week to do something and do something very seriously,” Wolfe said. “Otherwise in one week, we’re probably going to look at this differently.”

Various accounts

Even back in the 1970s and ’80s, the case was a long time in developing. Although the disappearance dates to 1975, it wasn’t until 1981 that Detective Gerald A. Boone got a big break in the case, according to the arrest affidavit he wrote in 1984.

One unnamed source told Boone that Frances Chromak had said she had her husband killed and then reported him missing to police. The source told Boone that Chromak hired three men who were painters at the company she and her husband owned, Miracle Paint Co.

The three men, including Coley, allegedly entered the couple’s apartment and had a casual conversation with Leopold while Frances Chromak went into another room. At that point, according to the affidavit, the men killed Leopold and wrapped his body in a rug. One of the other men, not Coley, is described as kissing Chromak on the check and saying, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Chromak.”

Then the men loaded the body into a painting van and drove away, according to the arrest documents.

The source also told Boone about six other people whom Chromak allegedly had told about her husband’s death. Boone was able to track down one of them, who told him that Chromak had said she paid “some” men $3,000 to kill her husband, according to the arrest warrant. The men entered the couple’s apartment, strangled Leopold, wrapped his body in some bedding and removed the body, according to the warrant.

The detective spoke with a third unnamed source, who alleged that Chromak had said two men went to the couple’s apartment, had a casual conversation with her husband before she “was told by one of these men that she should go into the other room because they didn’t want her to watch them kill her husband,” according the warrant.

The two men did so, holding a pillow over his face, the source told Boone. In this account, the men wrapped Leopold’s body in a painter’s dropcloth, and Frances Chromak was hysterical and afraid in the days after the incident.

In court Wednesday, Feeney said detectives were trying to verify the information. “We don’t know the identity of these three individuals who provided this information,” he said.

Officials also were trying to figure out why it took so long for Coley to be picked up. He has been in and out of jail and has been stopped by local police in recent years for traffic infractions. Part of the explanation may be contained in the arrest warrant.

When Boone wrote the affidavit in 1984, he listed Coley’s address as the D.C. jail. Montgomery County Sheriff Darren M. Popkin said Wednesday that the information could have been given to officials in the District as a “detainer” and, therefore, not entered into active warrant status.

Popkin said it is possible that Coley was moved to another facility and that the detainer didn’t follow him.

Searching the records

Capt. David Gillespie, commander of the Montgomery police major crimes division, said detectives had not been looking for Coley, given the age and inactivity of the case. They are trying to comb through case records and talk to any of the available players. “There’s absolutely no way for us to tell yet what the substance of the evidence is,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said that in one sense, time could be on his detectives’ side. As years go by, people who know about crimes can alter allegiances or begin to feel a need to clear their consciences. “People can change their lives,” he said.

But Lavigne, Coley’s attorney, said outside court that prosecutors have a tough road ahead of them.

“If this gentleman is actually even dead, I think the state, at this point, would have a very difficult time coming close to proving it,” Lavigne said. “I’m sure they will be working very diligently in the next week.”

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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