"Come on, killer," Victoria Gertson's attorney teased his 14 year-old, 97-pound client as he escorted her to a news conference last week. Her ordeal over, the charges that she had murdered her mother finally about to be dropped, it was time for an ironic joke.
Two months ago, when the Langley Park girl had been portrayed by Prince George's County authorities at a bond hearing as a teen-ager gone amok, a hellion who had confessed to slaying her mother in an argument by smashing her head against a nightstand, there had been little to joke about. She had run away from home after the crime and was now, a prosecutor said, "a clear threat to the community."
In the intervening weeks, from her arrest to the announcement Friday that the murder charge against her would be dropped, Vicki Gertson's case had become increasingly confused, full of contradictory statements from police, medical authorities and even Gertson's family and friends. In fact, the autopsy report, which said that Vicki's mother, Maria Gertson, died of a long-festering brain abscess, is the only absolute answer among the many questions raised since Maria Gertson was rushed to the hospital in a coma May 21.
Accounts differ on what happened that morning. Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. told a reporter July 21, after the autopsy, that there was "no doubt the young lady struck her mother's head against a table," and he reaffirmed that incident Friday, even as he announced dismissal of the murder charge.
Yet Gertson's attorney, Joseph DePaul, said that he didn't need an autopsy to decide his client was being falsely accused of murder.
"There was no blood, no bruise, no wound. . . . The physical evidence completely ruled out any assaultive action," he said. Complaining that county prosecutors and state medical examiners were quick to charge and slow to exonerate, DePaul said he thinks the handling of the Gertson case should be investigated.
At the center of this drama is Vicki Gertson, a slight honey blond with a discordant home life and a penchant for skipping school. Tough talking, defiant and street-wise beyond her years, she had little supervision, her family acknowleges, for one so young.
Still, the notion that Vicki Gertson could have killed her mother seemed unbelievable to her family, friends and neighbors. Only two days before Maria Gertson was taken to the hospital, Emilio Casella was fatally stabbed at his home less than two miles from where the Gertsons lived, and Casella's daughter and two teen-age friends had been arrested. It seemed inconceivable there could be a second case so similar.
The investigation of Maria Gertson's death has raised concerns about the operations of Prince George's police and prosecutors, the practices of state medical examiners and whether the various authorities involved in the case were in timely communication with one another. In a statement issued Friday, chief prosecutor Marshall did not address any specific questions about why it took more than two months to dismiss the murder charge, and county and state officials have declined further comment.
But interviews with Vicki Gertson, some of her relatives, close friends and her lawyer have provided a rough, if conflicting, chronology of her two-month ordeal.
Maria Gertson and her husband, Andris, lived in a red-brick duplex on 12th Avenue in Langley Park, along with Vicki and their 18-year-old son, Andy, but the couple's marriage was a stormy one and the two had been going their separate ways for the last 2 1/2 years, according to Vicki's father. The mother and the daughter were very close, but Vicki and her father did not get along at all, and he had pretty much left her supervision to his wife. A younger brother, Bobby, 12, had been living with an aunt in Laurel since January.
At 5:30 a.m. May 21, Maria Gerston returned home and appeared drunk, according to Vicki, who shared a bedroon with her.
Staggering around the bedroom, she woke Vicki up, yanking her daughter's hair and demanding to have the CB radio microphone the two kept on a nightstand by the bed.
Andris Gertson remembers being awakened by "noises. . . yelling" that morning, and said Vicki came into his room at one point and said her mother was acting strangely and pulling her hair. Gertson said he heard nothing that sounded like a physical fight between his wife and daughter. Vicki Gerston said there was no fight.
A little later, according to Vicki, Maria Gertson wandered down the hall and began vomiting in the bathroom. Later, after Vicki was up and her mother had gone to bed, the daughter said she walked into the bedroom and noticed that her mother didn't seem to be breathing properly. Since her father had already left for work, she called her brother in to look at their mother and went to a neighbor's house to call the rescue squad. The Gertson phone had been disconnected because of an overdue bill.
Maria Gertson was taken to Washington Adventist Hospital where family members say she remained in a coma and died on May 24, her 49th birthday. During her mother's hospitalization, Vicki Gertson visited her several times but refused to return to the family home. Police would later call her a runaway, although Vicki said she remained in touch with relatives almost every day and attended her mother's funeral May 28.
The body was examined at the hospital the evening of May 24 by Dr. John Rogers, Montgomery County's deputy medical examiner. Prince George's police, according to the statement issued by Marshall, say Rogers told them there was evidence of "external trauma" to the head and that there were reports of previous physical abuse for which Maria Gertson had been treated at the hospital's emergency room.
Gertson's lawyer said Rogers' report discusses signs of internal rather than external injuries. In any case, Rogers listed the cause of death as "pending" and sent the body to Baltimore, where Dr. Dennis Smyth, assistant Maryland medical examiner, conducted an autopsy May 25. The body was cremated May 26, but not before Smyth had sent the brain to a Johns Hopkins Hospital neuropathologist for further tests.
"There were no bruises on the head at all," Smyth said last month, denying Prince George's police statements that he had initially indicated the death appeared to be a homicide. What Smyth did see during the May 25 autopsy, he told reporters, were signs of a brain lesion--possible evidence of a natural death.
It wasn't until July 20, according to Marshall's statement, that county authorities were officially told Gertson's death was due to natural causes.
On May 27, Vicki's father said, county police told him that his wife's death might be a homicide. It was then he started thinking of the Casella case, recalling that Vicki had said she knew Lisa Casella, 15, Daniel Eric Reedy, 14, and Fred Allan Mozingo, 19, the teen-agers accused of murdering Emilio Casella. He told police, he said, that his daughter had watched television accounts with him of their arrests and had talked almost boastfully of her friends who were charged with murder.
"I began to wonder myself what was going on," Andris Gertson said.
After her mother's hospitalization, Vicki moved into the apartment of a friend, Heidi Walker, 20, assistant manager of the Pizza Oven at the Metzerott Plaza in Adelphi, the mall where Vicki and many of her friends hung out.
On May 31, Vicki's aunt, Mary Ann Gerston, learning that police wanted to question her niece, told police she would meet her at the mall and bring her in to make a statement.
"I didn't know they wanted to arrest her," she said last week, adding that she never for a minute thought Vicki capable of hurting her mother.
As they were driving to the police station, however, a police cruiser following behind "cut us off," according to the aunt, and to her surprise, she said, an officer jumped out of the car and announced he was arresting Vicki as a runaway.
At the police station, the aunt was outside the room and could hear the police interrogation of her niece, she said. "Vicki was crying, 'I didn't, I didn't,' and then this detective came out and said, 'I've almost got her broken.' "
Shortly around 10:30 p.m., the aunt said, the detectives, who also questioned Vicki about the Casella case, came out and told her Vicki had confessed to her mother's slaying. The teen-ager spent the next two nights in jail until Ingrid Walker, the mother of Vicki's friend, posted $30,000 bond and took the girl home with her.
Vicki said Friday she confessed to the killing "because I was drowsy, and he'd already had me crying for an hour and a half. . . . I thought I would be able to go home."
Before her confession, Vicki's aunt said her niece seemed almost eager to spend a night in jail, remarking that her friend, Lisa Casella, was there. But after she was locked up, in the same cell as Lisa, according to Heidi Walker, she became terrified and started calling the Walkers and pleading with them to get her out.
Ingrid Walker said she stepped forward to bail out Vicki and hire her an attorney, DePaul, because it was an emergency and she couldn't reach anyone else in the family. So far, she said she has spent $15,000 and is angry because no one in the family has offered to reimburse her.
The aunt said Walker injected herself into the controversy while the family was making arrangements to get a public defender. She said she doesn't want her niece staying with Walker and doesn't plan to give the woman any money toward Vicki's legal expenses.
The murder charge hung ominously over Vicki Gertson's head until July 21, when DePaul got word via reporters that the examination of Mrs. Gertson's brain showed the woman had died of an abscess. His client, he said, was relieved, as was her family. But that relief turned to anger and confusion as as nearly three more weeks passed before county prosecutors announced that the charge would officially be dropped.
"Vicki Gertson was made to stay under the gun for two months," DePaul said. "Obviously, there's a serious problem with somebody dragging their feet."
The aunt said she was furious at county police. She said Vicki's ordeal was also hard on other children in the family, who were taunted at school as having a "murderer" for a relative.
As for Vicki, she has gone from worrying "that I was going to be in jail the rest of my life" to trying to make future living arrangements. She completed summer school at High Point High School in Beltsville and hopes eventually to catch up with her 10th grade classmates.
What has she learned out of this experience? "Never trust police," she said last week."
Marshall's statement said Vicki's "family situation" had been referred to county social and juvenile services officials. There has been speculation she might be made a ward of the court, but her family hopes not.
"I think Vic will be okay, but we'll have to turn her around," said Mary Ann Gertson, the aunt. Maria Gertson "was no disciplinarian" and without supervision, the aunt said, Vicki would smoke, drink, wear heavy makeup, cut school and stay out to all hours. "But over here, with me, she's basically a little girl."
Vicki's father, who has struggled with his own problems with alcohol in recent years, is talking now of selling the Langley Park house and moving nearer to Mary Ann Gertson, to share supervision of the teen-ager.
"At the moment she is out of control," Andris Gertson said sadly. "I didn't realize the importance of environment on kids, and I did not realize how much the games between her mother and me affected the children."