A neighbor called police to the house on Meadowfield Court in Elkridge that November Sunday morning in 1998. When Howard County police arrived, a machete was lying in the front yard. The front porch window was smashed.
Inside, Sara Raras lay dead in the family room, blood pooled beneath her body. There were deep gashes in her neck, wrists and stomach. Bloody smears were everywhere; detectives theorized that Raras had crawled--or was dragged--about the house during the fatal attack.
Attention immediately focused on Raras's husband, Lorenzo. The two had been in the midst of a nasty divorce. He had allegedly threatened to kidnap their child and flee to Switzerland or his native Philippines, and five months earlier, she had obtained a civil protective order against him.
But Lorenzo Raras had an alibi. His father, Antoniov Raras, told police that Lorenzo and his 15-month-old son had been with him and Lorenzo's mother at their Baltimore County home all weekend.
Sara Raras was buried in Montgomery, Ala., near her family's home. The trail went cold.
Today, Lorenzo Raras's mother, Emilia Raras, 63, goes on trial in Howard County Circuit Court on charges that she paid a hit man $3,000 to kill her daughter-in-law, Sara, 35.
If convicted of the most serious charge, first-degree murder, she could be sentenced to life in prison.
Police and prosecutors allege that Emilia Raras planned and paid for Sara Raras's killing because she felt that her daughter-in-law had not accorded her the respect due a grandmother in Philippine culture, and because Sara Raras was trying to keep her from seeing her grandson, who she told police was all-important in her culture "because they carry the name."
At trial before Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, prosecutors will try to show that Emilia Raras, a nurse, hired a laundry attendant at the nursing home where she worked to kill Sara. Emilia Raras has told detectives that she discussed paying the attendant, Ardale Tickles, to take some action against Sara Raras but insisted that she had bargained only for a stoning of her daughter-in-law's home, in the biblical sense.
Tickles, 20, now serving 25 years for shooting his former boss at a Baltimore McDonald's during a robbery, is also charged with first-degree murder in Sara Raras's death. He is scheduled to stand trial in March.
In an unusual twist, Howard County police say that their investigation of Sara Raras's death remains "very active" and that they are working to identify other suspects.
Detectives believe that more than a cultural divide led to Sara Raras's death. They believe her contentious relationship with her husband may also have played a role.
Lorenzo Raras could not be reached for comment for this report. Emilia Raras has pleaded not guilty. She says Tickles decided to kill Sara Raras on his own.
"Look at [Tickles]. This is a brutal man," said Clarke F. Ahlers, Emilia Raras's attorney.
Sara J. Williamson was born near Cape Canaveral, Fla., graduated from high school in Albuquerque and received a math degree from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. After college, she took a technical job at the White Sands Missile Base, married and soon followed her husband to Maryland.
She worked as a statistician with the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, where complex foreign military codes are deciphered. And not long after moving to Maryland, she was divorced.
In the late 1980s, she began classes in operations management at Johns Hopkins University. There, she fell for a younger classmate, Lorenzo Raras. On Sept. 7, 1994, they were married and moved to the Elkridge house where she would later be found slain. Three years later, their son--Lorenzo Williamson, whom they called Will--was born.
But six months after that, in January 1998, Sara Raras called police when her husband allegedly made "murder threats" against her, according to documents she later filed seeking a civil protective order.
She said she told police she feared for her life because her husband, who had been diagnosed with depression but was not taking his medicine regularly, owned two revolvers, two rifles and a semiautomatic machine gun.
Records show Lorenzo Raras sold the guns soon afterward.
On June 27, 1998, Sara Raras, baby in hand, told Lorenzo she wanted a separation. In her court papers, Sara Raras said that her husband became abusive and that as she went to call 911, he grabbed Will, pushed her to the ground, kicked her and rushed out of the house.
"He told me I'd never have him or see him again," she stated in court papers.
But she said Lorenzo called that evening and told her that she would never see Will again unless she had sex with Lorenzo.
Sara Raras said later that she was blackmailed into having sexual relations twice that weekend. Lorenzo Raras said in court papers that he was trying to reconcile with her and that no force was involved.
Two days later, Sara Raras sought and received a protective order against Lorenzo after she alleged that he engaged in a "persistent campaign of harassment and harshness." He was prohibited from contacting her and ordered to leave the house. Two months later, a Howard County judge signed an order giving custody of the child to Sara Raras. Lorenzo got him every other weekend and on Wednesdays until 8 p.m.
Less than a month later, Sara Raras told the court that Lorenzo had threatened to kidnap Will. His attorney confirmed that on July 25, he applied for a passport for his infant son. Sara Raras called the State Department to try to block it. Instead, Lorenzo Raras's attorney agreed to hold the passport, barring Lorenzo from taking the child overseas.
Lorenzo Raras, in court papers, began to argue that he should be the child's caretaker. He accused Sara of having an affair with her boss and said he had read amorous e-mails between the two. He also said Sara often locked herself and the baby in the bedroom. Moreover, she refused to let him hold or diaper the boy. A court hearing on the divorce was scheduled for Dec. 3, 1998. She was killed Nov. 15.
The search for Sara Raras's killer or killers had long been stymied until a taped jailhouse conversation landed on the desk of Howard County Detective Nathan A. Rettig last June. Rettig, who has investigated the Raras case from the first day, was stunned.
Earlier that month, a Baltimore County Detention Center inmate named Edison George told police that his cellmate, Ardale Tickles, had been bragging about two "murders."
Tickles, known on the streets of Baltimore as "Wisdom," is a stocky man, fond of Ninja mythology, which glorifies black-clad Japanese martial arts assassins. Detectives say he also holds hostile views of white society.
According to court records, one of the "murders" Tickles bragged about was actually the attack on his former McDonald's boss--who survived--that resulted in the attempted murder charge that had landed him in jail.
(During his subsequent attempted-murder trial, Tickles tried to attack the judge and had to be tackled by police officers.)
The second "murder" seems to fit the facts of Sara Raras's death.
Police detectives wired George with a recording device and asked him to try to get Tickles to repeat what he had said earlier.
On the tape, Tickles was fuzzy on the specifics. He was unable to recall his victim's name. ("It was a white girl name.") He said she lived near Columbia. (Sara Raras lived about 10 miles from Columbia in Elkridge.)
But he recalled the killing itself in chilling detail. He recounted slitting the woman's throat, wrists and neck with a jagged Army surplus knife, calling her a "devil."
He said he stomped on her head with his Timberland boots, then watched her beg to be killed as he considered raping her.
"Blood was everywhere. [She] was just chopped up. . . . I ain't have no mercy," he said on the tape.
George pressed him for a reason.
"The lady where I was working at, she told me. I'll give you, you know, five thousand dollars to go hit this lady off for me," he said.
Tickles didn't mention Emilia Raras by name. He called her his "Chinese" patron and an "Asiatic black sister." He said she had told him "she's scared of this woman" and paid him $5,000 to kill her.
Emilia Raras's family and attorneys have refused to talk about her background and life. She has a master's degree in nursing and is a diabetic, according to court documents.
In an interview with police, Emilia Raras said the rift between her and Sara centered on young Will and had started even as Sara was in labor with him.
She said Sara gave her a "nasty look . . . as if she was telling me get out of here." Emilia Raras described it as "an insult."
The morning after Will was born, Emilia Raras told the detectives, she wanted to hold him but Sara "tried to tell me to put him down. . . . That means to say she does not want me to hold the baby."
Within a year, Sara and Lorenzo Raras were in divorce proceedings.
Emilia Raras later told detectives that she thought Sara was suffering from postpartum depression and had confronted her.
"Just be patient," Raras said, re-creating the encounter for detectives. "Give [Lorenzo] time. Both of you have problems. . . . Sara, you do not know what you're doing. If anything happens to this family, it will be your fault."
Emilia Raras said her daughter-in-law "practically spit on my face, saying that I should not come back. . . . That is a slap. A slap on my face. And it was even more than death to me," Raras said. "The mother in my country is revered and respected."
Emilia Raras's trial is expected to last five days, and even as she was questioned by detectives last summer, she already had a outcome in mind.
"I want to go home. You can imprison me in my house. House arrest. That's all. I will not work anymore. I will stay in my house. I want a peaceful life," she said. "And just crochet inside the house."
It's the same house where her husband, son and grandson now live.
CAPTION: Prosecutors say Sara Raras was killed because she tried to keep her son away from her mother-in-law.