Alone in his prison cell, Darren Witmer pulled out a piece of paper and tried a new way to steal someone’s money.
“May this letter reach your hands with a welcoming comfort,” he wrote last year to a 75-year-old woman living by herself north of Washington.
Witmer, 45, figured he had nothing to lose.
He was serving three life sentences in Maryland for killing three people. In 1994, Witmer broke into the Frederick, Md., apartment of an 83-year-old veteran and beat him to death for $300. Days later, he forced a 78-year-old man in the same town to write a check for $1,000 before he killed him with a small ice chipper. In prison, Witmer strangled his cellmate.
Now, writing his letter — to a stranger whose address he’d swiped from his dead cellmate’s records — Witmer got to his point.
He had “people in position” ready to slip into the woman’s home, carry her to the trunk of a car, take her to a river and kill her. “Trust me,” Witmer wrote, “you won’t even see it coming.”
But for $700 sent to his prison account, Witmer said, she could avoid death.
The woman called the police. Officers paid Witmer a visit. He was charged with extortion. And in a Rockville courtroom Friday, six years were added atop his life sentences.
“Just think how you would have felt,” Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Marielsa Bernard told Witmer, “if your mother had gotten a letter like this.”
Though no one was injured, Witmer had managed to terrorize yet another person.
“He scared the wits out of this woman,” prosecutor Douglas Wink said, telling the judge that the woman moved to Arizona for several months because she thought someone might kill her. “She was terrified.”
Witmer had been facing an extortion trial set to begin Tuesday. The victim had come around to being willing to testify, but only after Wink convinced her that she would be safe from Witmer and anyone who might know him.
Wink earlier had told her over the phone that investigators had come to believe Witmer did not have the ability to hurt her and had seized an opportunity when he was bored and needed commissary funds to try to terrify her.
When Wink called her about the plea, he was able to say Witmer would never see her face in court. But “she’s still scared of him,” Wink said.
The victim declined to discuss the case with a reporter. Wink said she was trying to put it behind her.
Witmer, whose first name sometimes is spelled Daren, did not say much in court Friday. When detectives had interviewed him at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, he said he never intended to hurt the woman.
“It’s risk-reward, a one-hit wonder,” Witmer said, according to a recording of the interview.
Witmer’s public defender, Theresa Chernosky, said in court that Witmer felt deep loss after his father’s death in early 2015.
“His father was the real contact that he had with the outside world,” she said. “And when his father passed away, he lost his best friend and all contact.”
She asked Bernard to impose a term that wouldn’t add any years to Witmer’s sentence, saying he never intended to injure the victim. “He admitted everything to the police officers in terms of, ‘Yes, this was a one-shot deal. I tried to get some money,’ ” Chernosky said. “He told police that he had no outside contacts and there was nothing to back up the threat that was in the written letter.”
Bernard, the judge, struggled over what to tell Witmer. She said she was sorry he felt so alone. She also lamented how he’d treated the woman, and all that he had been part of.
“The loss,” she said quietly after sentencing him.
Witmer had gotten in trouble with the law at 12, and he was locked up for burglary as a young man. In 1994, while on probation, he broke into the home of Owen David Wilson, 83. He had stolen from Wilson before, took another $300, and wanted to kill Wilson so he wouldn’t tell anyone, according to accounts in the Frederick Post. During the attack, Wilson grabbed a flashlight, and Witmer kicked him and choked him from behind, abandoning him injured and exposed to cold air from an open window. Wilson was found alive but died in a hospital.
A few days later, Witmer talked his way into the home of William McSherry Jr., offering to help carry his groceries. He ended up killing McSherry, a retired land surveyor and draftsman, with the ice chipper, according to the newspaper.
Within months of his arrest, Witmer scaled two 20-foot fences at the Frederick County jail, prompting a massive manhunt for hours before he was found beneath a honeysuckle bush. In a jailhouse interview with the Frederick Post, Witmer said he had no plans other than to “cross the seas or something.”
Witmer also talked about his childhood and views on the afterlife:
“I guess I’m the black sheep of the family, just the bad one. . . . I believe there is a paradise and I believe we are living in hell.”
Two months later, in August 1994, Witmer pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and escape. He received two consecutive life terms without chance of parole.
For the next 15 years, Witmer didn’t kill anyone.
Then, on Nov. 25, 2009, an inmate at Maryland’s Western Correctional Institution, Jeffrey S. Kay, was discovered strangled in the cell he shared with Witmer.
Witmer was found guilty and got another no-parole life term.
What wasn’t known at the time, according to recent court hearings in Montgomery, was that before his strangled cellmate was found, Witmer stole some of the man’s papers and mingled them with his.
After Witmer was transferred to another prison, “they gave him his stuff back,” said Wink, the Montgomery prosecutor, “and when they gave him his stuff back,” the murdered cellmate’s “stuff was in there.”
That stash included the name and address of the woman he targeted.
Witmer kept that address for six years before making his extortion bid.
His letter went out Oct. 15, 2015. Witmer told the detectives who came to see him that he didn’t have much to lose.
“I’m going to die in prison,” he said. “Let’s do the risk-reward.”
The detectives tried to persuade Witmer to stop committing crimes.
But he told them that they didn’t understand his philosophy: “That’s like the Gingerbread Man: Catch me if you can. I’m a criminal, homes.”
“You’re telling the criminal to ‘Don’t break law,’ ” Witmer said. “The whole objective is: ‘Don’t get caught.’ ”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.