By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009
Annie McCann was a sweet-natured, sheltered suburban girl from Fairfax County. She didn't hang out at malls or party with friends. At 16, she still collected "Arthur" cartoon DVDs and "Madeline" books.
But last Halloween, Annie ran away from home, leaving behind a note saying "I was going to kill myself." She took off with a bunch of clothes, jewelry and $1,000 in cash. Other notes were found later, crumpled and crossed out, discussing her hidden depression and anorexia.
Annie was always smiling and upbeat, her friends and family members said. She was a devout Catholic, a vegetarian and a talented artist who was preparing goody bags to hand out Halloween night. She had no sense of direction and couldn't find the nearest Metro stop.
Two days after she disappeared, Annie was found dead behind a dumpster in a Baltimore housing project. She had swallowed a fatal amount of lidocaine contained in Bactine, an over-the-counter antiseptic spray, the medical examiner said. There were no signs of foul play.
Suicide, Baltimore police concluded. Case closed.
No way, said everyone who ever knew Annie.
A year after her death, the baffling contradictions remain, and Annie's family and friends continue to press for answers. She was so well liked that on Friday, her classmates at West Potomac High School, where she would have been a senior this year, painted a large rock outside the school in her memory. This week, they will plant a tree on campus in her honor.
There's enough confusion about how Annie died that her family can't help but continue to ask questions.
Renowned pathologist Michael Baden said in an interview Friday that he had analyzed the autopsy and tests done by the Maryland medical examiner's office. To ingest the amount of lidocaine found in her system, Annie would have had to drink five or six bottles of Bactine, he said.
"Five ounces of Bactine," the amount in a single bottle, Baden said, "would not contain nearly enough lidocaine to give the levels in the body that she showed at autopsy." He said that the medical examiner's finding that the manner of death was "undetermined" was correct but that police should not have concluded suicide without definitive evidence or witnesses.
But Maryland's chief medical examiner, David R. Fowler, said the test results were checked and rechecked. He said he also questioned the idea of a Bactine overdose. But his pathologists checked with the "PhD toxicologist who runs our laboratory. He assured us they had looked at that and verified that there was enough lidocaine in" a single bottle. Police said they consulted Bayer, the manufacturer, and found that there was more than enough lidocaine in one bottle for a fatal dose.
Annie's parents, Daniel McCann and Mary Jane Malinchak-McCann, don't rule out that their seemingly happy daughter killed herself. But they focus on the innumerable factors that seem to contradict that.
"I think it's distinctly possible she's the victim of a sophisticated predator," Daniel McCann said.
Considered and dismissed, police said. "That investigation is done," said Maj. Terrence McLarney, head of the Baltimore police department's homicide unit, which investigated 234 homicides last year along with dozens of suicides and unattended deaths.
"Annie drank Bactine," McLarney said. "It's just a poison. People drink poison. It's true we can't find another one with Bactine. When they decide to kill themselves, they use what is there. The point is, she poisoned herself."
In his first detailed interview about the McCann case, McLarney said that Baltimore police spent 1,200 hours trying to figure out what happened to Annie, although they determined almost immediately that she was not a homicide victim.
She had no wounds or bruising, external or internal, McLarney said. "We know it's not a homicide at that point," he said. But police investigated anyway, trying to determine whether someone was luring young people to Baltimore and "trying to give the McCanns some closure," McLarney said. "I feel really bad for them. I have a son myself."
Daniel McCann responded: "What gives Major McLarney the omniscience to understand the circumstances under which lidocaine was ingested in a greater volume than a full container of Bactine? The idea that a human being, in despair, would say, 'Maybe this will do it' and knock down large quantities of it is preposterous. How the hell did that much lidocaine get in her?"
The McCanns want the investigation reopened and have turned to the Baltimore mayor's office for help.
Baltimore police say that isn't happening. In a letter McLarney wrote to his superiors in September, he said that "the homicide section of BPD went the extra mile . . . but the simple truth is that Annie McCann was not murdered. Expending further investigative hours on her death is not warranted."
On Friday night, a Baltimore deputy mayor sent the McCanns a letter saying that the case would not be reopened. "In mourning this weekend," Daniel McCann said. "We are again bitterly disappointed."'Nothing was wrong'
Still, the maze of contradictions remains.
"She always had a smile on her face," said Tiara Suggs, a friend of Annie's since middle school. "She was a happy person, a religious person. The day before she went missing, we had lunch together. Nothing was wrong." She said that Annie stayed late to earn extra credit in a class that day and that she was looking forward to a trip to New York on Nov. 1 to visit her brother at college.
The next day, Oct. 31, 2008, Annie didn't show up at West Potomac High. Her parents weren't notified until late in the afternoon and couldn't find her. When they called police, a Fairfax officer found a note that started, "This morning, I was going to kill myself. But I realized I can start over instead. . . . If you really love me, you'll let me go." Another note was later found under her bed. It also mentioned suicide.
A man taking out the trash at the Perkins Homes housing project near East Lombard Street in Baltimore found Annie on the ground at 3 a.m. Nov. 2, a Sunday morning. The family's Volvo was found at a gas station several blocks away. Crumpled, crossed-out notes found by Baltimore police discuss a depression that Annie had refused to share as well as hidden anorexia.
"We've never known what to make of the notes," her father said. "They will never stop hurting us. But they were, and are, completely out of character with Annie as we know her."
Annie was skinny, but her parents said they and her doctors monitored her for anorexia. Her friends watched her eat lunch. "She never seemed like she was in a bad mood," said her friend Michael Littleton. How she wound up in Baltimore was particularly puzzling, Littleton said, because "Annie didn't know her way around" Groveton.
McLarney said police flooded the area, suspecting that the teenager might have been killed in the housing project. They asked drug detectives to bring in neighborhood thugs. They made repeated trips to Fairfax.
"We interviewed dozens of people," McLarney said. Nothing. No hint of abduction. No signs of foul play from the autopsy. "A lack of something, in our world, is something," McLarney said.
A fingerprint found on the Volvo later in November led to a neighborhood teenager, and then another. Police brought them in, and "we interrogated them like crazy," McLarney said. But the youths said they only found the Volvo with Annie's body in it. They said they dumped Annie and took off driving.
The McCanns hired private investigators who also talked to the teens and identified two more kids who were possibly involved. The police didn't talk to them.
"In the overall scheme of Annie's case, it's a non-significant thing," McLarney said. "Throwing the body out is shocking. But it doesn't tell us" anything about how she died.
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that two 16-year-old Baltimore teens were arrested on suspicion of stealing the McCanns' car, unauthorized use of a vehicle and conspiracy to commit a felony. No one has been charged in Annie's death.'There's more to the story'
In March, the medical examiner finalized his findings. Death by lidocaine intoxication. Manner of death "undetermined."
Annie had a Bactine bottle to spray on her newly pierced ears. The bottle had her DNA on the cap and lid, police told Annie's parents. It was too weird to be believed.
At West Potomac, "she was a talented writer and artist, and her drawings still decorate my classroom wall," English teacher Kelcy Pierre said. History teacher Sal Olivo said that "it was apparent when she was gone how much she was missed by her classmates."
One of her best friends, Daniel Singer, wears a pink bracelet he said he won't remove until he finds out what happened to her. "She was always just really happy," he said. "I highly doubt she would kill herself. I think there's more to the story."
The McCanns turn to their Catholic faith. "Where's God in this?" Mary Jane Malinchak-McCann asked, sobbing. "I have to believe God is going to help us."