The banging sounded as if furniture was being slammed in her daughter’s bedroom. Startled by the noise just before 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Suzanne Zaremba dashed down the hallway of her suburban Maryland home to 16-year-old Charlotte’s room.
She found her slender, brown-eyed daughter wrestling with a masked intruder. Charlotte, she recalled, was screaming, “Call 911!”
Suzanne, a 52-year-old registered nurse, shouted for her husband, Jim Zaremba. Then she vaulted onto the floor by the bedroom window, where Charlotte and the stranger were on their knees grappling with each other.
Recounting what happened that night for the first time publicly, Suzanne said she wrapped her arms around Charlotte, trying to yank her away from the intruder. All three of them tumbled into the middle of the room where Charlotte had slept all her life.
Then, without warning, the stranger pointed a gun at Suzanne’s chest, she said. She grabbed the barrel of the gun, which he held in his left hand, pushing it downward.
The weapon went off and the bullet tore into Suzanne’s left leg. She can’t remember hearing a second shot fired, but she looked down and saw Charlotte had been wounded, too.
“Charlotte was unconscious, and her eyes were wide open, and she was gasping for air,” Suzanne said shortly after. She forgot about the gunman and began performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the younger of her two daughters, a high school sophomore who wanted to become a surgeon and who talked about joining the Peace Corps. Her husband, Jim, 51, also a registered nurse, had rushed into the room and began performing chest compressions.
The intruder, whose eyes were the only visible part of his face, scooted backward to the bedroom wall, decorated with a jungle mural Suzanne had painted when she was pregnant with Charlotte. The Zarembas ignored him in their desperation to save their daughter.
“He could have shot both of us and left the room and ran away,” said Suzanne, who insisted, “I wasn’t being brave. I was saving my baby.”
But the Ellicott City, Md., couple had done enough CPR in their lives to know there was little hope. Charlotte was dead or close to dying.
“I tried to will the bullet so that it just went through the one lung,” Jim said. “Because you can survive that.”
The intruder just sat and stared at the Zarembas. After a moment or two, he lifted the gun to his head. There was another shot, and he lay dying, too.
It wasn’t until Suzanne was released from the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center on the afternoon of Jan. 1 that she learned the name of her daughter’s attacker: Sean Crizer.
He was 15 years old and a classmate of Charlotte’s at Howard High School, police told her.
“They said, ‘Do you know this name?’ And Jim and I looked at each other and said, ‘No,’ ” Suzanne recalled. The Zarembas and their older daughter, Audrey, 20, had never heard Charlotte mention him.
On Friday, the Howard County Police Department announced that after reviewing cellphone records and computers, it had found no evidence that Crizer targeted Charlotte. The teens were described as “acquaintances,” but investigators do not believe they had “a close friendship or relationship.”
“Police still do not know Crizer’s motive for entering Zaremba’s house in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, and may never be able to determine his intent,” the statement said.
But in an interview with The Washington Post last week, one of Charlotte’s closest friends, Juliana Torres, said Crizer had asked Charlotte out for homecoming in the fall, and that she had turned him down.
“He asked her to homecoming,” Juliana remembered, “and she said she just wanted to go with her friends. [He told] her that he had feelings for her. She didn’t reciprocate, but he didn’t react poorly. She said she wanted to go with friends. She was kind about it.”
Juliana, 15, a sophomore at nearby Centennial High School, said Monday night that she had not yet been interviewed by police.
Sherry Llewellyn, a Howard County police spokeswoman, said detectives declined an interview with The Post because the investigation is still active.
Sean Crizer lived a half-mile away from Charlotte with his grandfather, Earl Crizer, a retired technician with the National Institutes of Health. In an interview, Crizer said he was shocked by the news and grieves for the Zarembas.
“I feel a lot of pain because when I try to rest at night, I also think about the pain Sean’s younger brother has, in addition to my own personal pain,” Crizer said.
Crizer said he didn’t detect anything unusually aggressive in his grandson, who had been an altar boy at an Ellicott City Catholic church.
“His grades were very good. Would he back talk . . . from time to time? Yes,” Crizer said. “Was it violent? It wasn’t violent.”
But police said the teen had burglarized a couple of homes in the neighborhood and had stolen the gun that he used in the shooting.
After Charlotte was killed, the Zarembas heard that Sean Crizer might have asked their daughter to homecoming. But they still can’t fathom what he was doing in her bedroom that night.
“He took his reasons with him and his feelings,” Suzanne said. “Two families lost a child that day.”
Suzanne entered her daughter’s bedroom, still hobbled slightly by the bullet doctors decided not to remove from her left leg. The blood has been cleaned from the floor, and the room is filled with artifacts of Charlotte’s life: a Polaroid camera on a shelf, a stuffed hippo (her favorite animal) flopped on the bed and a fish tank, with the teen’s handwritten instructions for “My Fishy” whenever she was away.
Suzanne and Jim moved into this white brick ranch house, about an hour north of Washington, in 1999. They’d been living in Southern California and chose Howard County for its affordability and good schools.
“Somewhere family-oriented,” Suzanne said.
“Safe,” Jim said.
Now, nearly everywhere the Zarembas look, there are memories of Charlotte: The chickens she wanted as pets — Phyllis, Gladys and Bertha — in the coop outside her bedroom. A framed living room poster from an Amos Lee concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl that the entire family attended. And the chalkboard-painted door of Charlotte’s bedroom, scrawled with her words about fate: “If yee cud chenge yer fet wutcha?”
Charlotte stayed in Girl Scouts even when her friends dropped out. Last summer, she traveled to Costa Rica on a service trip through Global Leadership Adventures, where she worked in a rural village. “I’ve loved every minute, even breaking concrete in the direct sun, because I was besides amazing people helping to make an amazing change in the community!” she posted on Instagram. “This photo was taken of us on the playground with the children of Escuela Libertad.” She already had plans to make another trip with the company this summer, in Peru.
At Howard High, where she made the honor roll, her favorite classes were science and Spanish. She had set her sights on Towson University, her parents said.
When Charlotte wasn’t in school, she threw on blue scrubs and volunteered at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, where she completed one shift in the pediatric emergency room and several others in the intermediate care unit. Although she talked about a career as a doctor, her father thought she might become an FBI agent, because she loved watching “Homicide Hunter” on the Investigation Discovery network.
“She liked finding out how things happened, why they happened,” Suzanne said.
“She liked puzzles,” Jim said.
“That’s what drew her to medicine,” Suzanne said. “She wanted to fix things.”
On the last night of Charlotte’s life, she spent New Year’s Eve at the home of a sick friend, giving her a foot massage. Marisa Poisal, 15, a Howard High sophomore, said Charlotte might have stayed overnight if she hadn’t been sick.
“She came here because she wanted to take care of me,” Poisal said. “She was going to stay here all night, but I was throwing up.”
Instead, Suzanne picked Charlotte up and drove her home.
Now Poisal, who lunched most days with Charlotte in the atrium next to the school cafeteria, keeps a box of memories to remember her friend: the program from Charlotte’s funeral on Jan. 7, some concealer Charlotte had given her, and a roll of toilet paper that Charlotte fetched for her on New Year’s Eve when Poisal ran out of tissues. But Marisa also prizes Charlotte’s Instagram photos.
Charlotte had two accounts: charlOttez , a public account with 64 posts, and her private one, with 521.
Poisal laughed when she arrived at a photo Charlotte posted Dec. 14 of the two of them.
“Picture with someone I love bc I just decided to start writing the book of which I’ve been thinking about the plot for months y’all it’s gonna be great,” Charlotte wrote.
Poisal was privy to the plot of her friend’s novel-in-progress.
“Her book was about some sort of society where you weren’t supposed to have feelings, but this one character had feelings and . . . it was weird,” Poisal said, smiling. “And you had to take something, like a drug, so you wouldn’t have emotion.”
Jim said he draws on Taoism for strength.
“If I fill my heart with anger, guilt and despair, in the end it will only lead to my own demise,” he said. “If I fill my heart with love and appreciation of the time I had with her, then I can go on and be the person she wants me to be. I can go on and try to make the world a better place, as she was doing.”
He and Suzanne still have work to do. Thank-you cards need to be written and mailed. A headstone needs the right words, and Jim is wondering whether the marker should be engraved with the lyrics of an Amos Lee song. And then there is Charlotte’s bedroom. Suzanne and Jim want to keep some of her clothes there — shirts with hippos (which she fell in love with on a trip to Disney World at age 3), and a sundress with palm trees that she wore in Costa Rica.
“We’re leaning toward keeping it intact,” Jim said. “Like a sitting room.”
“Not like a shrine,” Suzanne said. “More of a place of peace. After all, your life shouldn’t be defined by these horrible moments. Neither should your home.”