By David Snyder and Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 27, 2005
Antoinette C. Starks left the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup about 2:30 Tuesday afternoon after serving 16 months for malicious destruction of property.
The next night -- less than 28 hours after being freed -- she was back in police custody after more than 25 witnesses told investigators that Starks, wielding four large butcher knives, chased several women at a Nordstrom store in a Montgomery County shopping center, stabbing two of them, police said.
State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler called the attacks an "absolute aberration" in the otherwise safe Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery and neighborhood of Bethesda. The last high-profile crime in what was then known as Montgomery Mall was a shooting at a store in 1995.
The incident Wednesday started in Nordstrom's third-floor customer service area. Witnesses told police that Starks, carrying a black purse and the knives -- two of them taped together to create a double blade -- stabbed Sarah Paseltiner, 24, of Bethesda, then chased two other women while dozens of people frantically dialed 911 on their cell phones. Employees and customers scurried for any available exit, and shoppers were corralled in stockrooms and other areas that are normally restricted.
Adam Karcher, an off-duty FBI agent from the Philadelphia office who is on assignment in the District, told investigators he saw Starks thrust a butcher knife several times into Jacqueline Greismann, 48, of Potomac, who was descending the escalator from the third level to the second, according to court papers.
The attacks ended when Karcher pointed his service weapon at Starks and ordered her to drop her knife. She complied, police said.
Greismann and Paseltiner were seriously wounded. Sheida Shahandeh, 21, of Rockville -- a Nordstrom employee, a company official said -- suffered an asthma attack after Starks chased her through the store, according to court papers.
The victims do not appear to have been selected for any particular reason, police said.
Officials said Starks, 48, may have been living out of a storage shed before she was sent to prison. She had been in a handful of scrapes with the law and was convicted in 2003 of vandalizing vehicles, business signs, buildings, sidewalks, windows and patio furniture in Rockville with the spray-painted phrase "David is a [expletive]." Before Wednesday night's incident, she had not been accused of such a violent felony.
It could not be determined last night whether Starks had obtained a lawyer. A public defender said during Starks's bond hearing yesterday afternoon that no public defender had interviewed Starks yet.
Early yesterday, police filed an affidavit charging her with 16 crimes, including three counts of first-degree assault, three counts of attempted second-degree murder, concealing a deadly weapon and reckless endangerment.
Starks appeared at the bond hearing via closed-circuit television in Montgomery District Court. Wearing a beige prison jumpsuit, she shielded her face with her hands yesterday and told Judge Gary G. Everngam that she did not want a bond hearing. Assistant State's Attorney Tom DeGonia asked that she be held without bail.
Everngam ordered Starks held without bail and also ordered that she receive a psychiatric evaluation.
Starks had two psychiatric evaluations as part of her 2003 trial on 11 charges of malicious destruction of property.
Timothy L. Fitts, a Baltimore lawyer who represented her in the trial, said in a telephone interview that he argued in court that she was not criminally responsible for the charges because of a mental condition.
He did not specify what condition had been diagnosed but said "there was a high probability that she was in need of some treatment."
Starks disagreed, he said, and lunged at him during a hearing while he argued that she was not competent to stand trial.
"I was standing with my back to her, and I turned around and next thing I saw, two deputies [were] restraining her," Fitts said.
Starks demanded another attorney, Fitts said. She was assigned a Montgomery public defender, court records show.
She received a 2 1/2 -year prison sentence on five of the 11 counts. It could not be immediately determined why she was let out after 18 months. Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said yesterday that as a condition of her release, she was supposed to be under the supervision of parole and probation officials until May 2006.
Starks's criminal record indicates various addresses in the Baltimore area before she moved to Montgomery. Fitts said he believes she has relatives who live on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
The two women seriously wounded Wednesday were released from hospitals yesterday. Paseltiner was treated at Washington Hospital Center, said hospital spokeswoman Paula Faria. She was stabbed in the back, the left hand and the shoulder blade.
Greismann, who was stabbed eight times in the back while she rode the escalator, was treated at Suburban Hospital, said her husband, who asked that his first name not be published for privacy reasons.
Karcher, the FBI agent, declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement: "Thankfully, neither of the victims' injuries was life threatening, and the suspect was apprehended before causing any further harm."
In the Nordstrom store yesterday, escalators were running and customers were riding them. The third-floor customer service area where the incident began was open as usual.
"I figured today would be the safest day of all," said Sarah Mead, 17, who was shopping for a prom dress with a friend.
Stepped-up security measures in the store included uniformed guards, who are not typically used by the store.
Counselors were on hand yesterday at the mall and at the Bullis School in Potomac, where Greismann works as an upper school librarian, said Tom Farquhar, head of the school.
Farquhar said the mall is a popular shopping spot for faculty, students and students' families.
"This is in our neighborhood, and it's generally thought of as a very safe place," Farquhar said. "It's alarming and confusing to have a place in the community that you thought of as safe to be the location for a senseless and disturbing incident of violence."
Staff writers Katherine Shaver and Allison Klein and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.