Longtime residents of old town Elkridge have only vague memories of Vernon L. Clark: He did yard work for elderly women around town; he spent time at bars with his small circle of friends; sometimes he reeked of rotting flesh after getting off his job at an animal processing plant.
But they remember the slayings. Six killings in and around Elkridge between 1979 and 1989; three of the victims were elderly women. Clark, 43, was convicted of one slaying in 1991.
Now, detectives in Howard and Baltimore counties and the Maryland State Police say Clark is the lone suspect in the five other slayings. In September, he was indicted in Baltimore County in the 1981 bludgeoning death of one of the five, Evelyn Dietrich, 68, of Catonsville. Steven Roscher, assistant state's attorney for Baltimore County, said he will seek the death penalty when Clark goes on trial next year.
In coming weeks, a Howard County grand jury will consider evidence that Clark slashed to death a second of the five victims, Rebecca H. "Dolly" Davis, 70, of Elkridge, in 1980.
And DNA testing is being conducted to determine whether Clark is linked to the 1979 slayings of an Elkridge couple and an 80-year-old Ellicott City woman in 1984. Of the six victims, Clark had worked for four and another lived near the slain couple.
Clark's lawyers, Franklin Draper and Katy O'Donnell, both assistant public defenders with the state's capital defense division, said they would have no comment on the new charges or the investigation.
Contrary to public pronouncements at the time, authorities said, they always believed that the first four slayings were linked and that the killer lived in the Elkridge area. Now, investigators believe, Clark may be their serial killer, among the worst in the state's history.
Authorities credit advances in DNA testing with their being able to close the two additional cases and reopen their investigations of the three other slayings. They said a tip they received during the summer--which turned out to be erroneous--rekindled their interest in the old cases.
"We put every resource we had into these cases. Expense was not an issue," said Paul Rappaport, Howard's police chief from 1979 to 1987. "You don't forget cases like these."
For three years, Howard police had as many as 30 detectives working on the slayings. They traveled as far as Texas following leads. They employed a psychic. On the first anniversary of Davis's murder, they staked out her grave site.
But over the years, as leads disappeared, the investigations all but halted. The evidence from each case--piles of notes, photos and physical evidence--sat in boxes in the police department's property room.
Even the use of DNA testing in Clark's 1991 murder trial--the first in the county to use such technology--was of no help: The physical evidence was old, and the tests were not sophisticated enough to make a match. Again, investigations of the five other killings were stalled.
"As new procedures turn up, we see if we have the physical evidence that can be matched up by that procedure," said Sgt. David Schickner, of the Howard police's violent crimes unit. Officials said DNA matches to Clark have been made in the Davis and Dietrich slayings. Investigators say there is a 1-in-2.6-billion chance that the match is to someone other than Clark.
The cluster of six killings--four in Elkridge and two others just outside of town in Baltimore County--long ago passed into local lore, especially among older longtime residents who knew the victims. The town, a collection of antiques shops, small factories and elegant 19th-century homes five miles southwest of Baltimore, has never experienced much crime. But of the 16 unsolved slayings in Howard County from 1976 until this year, four occurred in Elkridge.
In 1980, after the first three killings, residents discovered a mannequin, lashed up 20 feet up in a tree near where one of the bodies had been found. It was splattered with red paint; a knife was in its chest. The killings became known as the "mannequin murders."
"Everybody was kind of on edge. It was a time of turmoil," said Sam Merson, 70, a retired construction worker who was friends with four of the victims.
Dolly Davis was a portrait painter who lived alone in the affluent Lawyers Hill section of Elkridge and was active at Grace Episcopal Church. She was last seen leaving the Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, where she tutored.
She was found partially buried near her house, according to police reports. She had been stabbed and sexually assaulted. Clark had been her handyman.
"You put these things out of your mind as the years go by," said James Davis, Davis's nephew. "It seemed awfully bizarre at the time."
A year later and a few miles from Davis's home, Evelyn Dietrich was killed. Dietrich also lived alone. A passerby found her--she had been bludgeoned and strangled--in bushes near her house. Clark was her gardener.
Clark has been charged with first-degree murder, two counts of rape, two counts of attempted breaking and entering and attempted burglary in Dietrich's death.
Investigators are conducting DNA tests on evidence from the 1979 slayings of Carvel Faulkner, 58, his wife, Sarah, 56, of Elkridge. Carvel was found slumped in front of his bed with a bullet wound in his head. His wife was found lying in a pool of blood on the bed, her throat slit, her hands and feet bound. Investigators said there was no sign of forced entry at their home and $1,000 in open view was left undisturbed.
Clark worked off and on for the Faulkners' poultry feed and sanitation company, according to state police investigators.
Five years later, the partially clothed body of Iva Myrtle Watson, 80, who lived just down the road from the Faulkners, was found in a pine grove a block from her Ellicott City home, according to police reports. "Multiple trauma" to the head was the cause of death, according to the autopsy.
Clark was convicted in 1991 of first-degree murder, assault with the intent to rape, a weapons violation and perverted practices in connection with the death of Kathleen Gouldin, 23, who was shot to death. Clark was connected to that case through fingerprints on a pizza box left outside Gouldin's apartment. Then Clark was linked to the case through DNA testing. He is serving a life-plus-28-year sentence at the Maryland Department of Corrections Annex in Jessup.
Clark's only surviving family member is his stepfather Samuel Carter, 66, of Elkridge.
Carter said his stepson's only stable job was at the Brauns Rendering Plant, where he loaded slaughtered animals into boilers for processing.
Carter described his stepson as a generally a quiet person--though with a temper.
"The only time he got violent was against policemen. It would take four or five of them to handle him. He was small, but he was strong--a scrapper," he said.
On Aug. 9, 1989, two officers who tried to question Clark regarding the Gouldin murder got into a wrestling match with him. He bit one of the officers, drawing blood, according to court records. He was arrested a short time later and has not been out of custody since.
A local resident is the prime suspect in five killings which occurred from 1979 to 1989 in or around the town of Elkridge, Md. Vernon L. Clark was convicted of a 1989 Elkridge murder. The following shows Clark's actual and suspected victims.
1. Kathleen Gouldin
Shot to death
July 4, 1989
2. Iva Myrtle Watson
Beaten to death
December 28, 1984
3. Evelyn Dietrich
Beaten to death
March 29, 1981
4. Rebecca H. Davis
Slashed to death
February 15, 1980
5. Carvel Faulkner
Shot to death
April 26, 1979
6. Sarah Faulkner
Slashed to death
April 26, 1979