But for a fateful twist or two during the early morning hours of April 3, Stephanie Ann Roper might still be alive, according to testimony at today's opening of the trial of one of her accused murderers.
Lisa Thomas, the college roommate of the 22-year-old Frostburg State senior, said Roper had planned to spend the night at her home in Prince George's County, following an evening at The 21st Amendment, a George Washington University hangout, but changed her mind at the last minute.
Instead of staying with her friend, Roper picked up her car at Thomas' home in Clinton and set off for her parents' house in Croom in southern Prince George's County.
After a half mile, however, Roper's car ran off the road. A woman motorist noticed the disabled car with its headlights on, but concerned for her own safety on the dark and winding country lane, did not stop to investigate, according to testimony.
It was shortly afterward, according to State's Attorney C. Clarke Raley, that Jack Ronald Jones, 25, and Jerry Lee Beatty, 17, offered Roper a ride back to her friend's house. The drive ended instead in a deserted area near the Patuxent River in St. Mary's County. There, Raley said, Roper was raped, struck with an iron chain, shot in the head and set afire.
"Thus ended the life of Miss Stephanie Ann Roper," Raley said in opening remarks to a jury of seven women and five men who began hearing the case against Jones today. The trial was moved here, to the seat of Baltimore County, because of publicity in St. Mary's County that a judge there deemed prejudicial to the defense.
Among those present today were the victim's parents and two of their four surviving children. Accompanying them were about 15 members of the Stephanie Roper Family Assistance Committee, formed in June to provide moral support for the family and to lobby for more stringent sentencing laws. With the Ropers' encouragement, petitions demanding the "maximum penalty under law" in this case garnered more than 5,000 signatures.
Prosecutor Raley has indicated he intends to seek the death penalty.
Raley told the jury that Beatty, who is scheduled to be tried separately in Annapolis next month, will testify against Jones.
The lead-off witness was the victim's father, Vincent W. Roper, 49, a Navy captain on the staff of the chief of naval operations in Washington. From photographs, Roper, dressed in a blue pinstriped suit, identified the 1978 orange four-door Dodge Omni that his daughter had driven the night of the slaying.
Roberta Roper, 45, his wife, described in detail the clothes her daughter wore that evening. She noted that her daughter was awarded a posthumous degree magna cum laude a month after her death, and she proudly displayed a copy of the resume her daughter had compiled and produced the week before her death.
Her last night of revelry was recalled by Thomas, a friend since their high school days together in Suitland and Roper's roommate during their freshman, junior and senior years at Frostburg. They had driven home from the Allegany County campus in Western Maryland for a weekend that was to include an evening at the Foggy Bottom bar, Thomas said.
Thomas drove her car into town, the two women had three or four drinks apiece at the bar, where Thomas said she met a mutual friend. "It appeared to (Roper) he was going to be my potential boyfriend," Thomas said. "She was kind of frightened she'd lose my friendship."
So around 2:15 a.m. Thomas recalled, Roper said, "Lisa, I'm leaving," and walked to her friend's car. Thomas caught up with her, and drove them both to Thomas' house in Clinton, where Roper abruptly announced her change of plans and said she was going to go home.
The partying had ended on a sour note, Thomas testified. "She was somewhat depressed the last time I saw her," she said.
After the car mishap, Thomas speculated, Roper may well have voluntarily entered another vehicle. "She saw good in everyone," Thomas testified. "I don't think she could really see bad in anybody. She was very trusting . . . by nature."