Surviving an Encounter With a Killer

The Route 40 Killer anniversary brings up memories of an editor’s own confrontation.

Around the newsroom, it became known as the “Loudermilk egging incident.” To me, it was the day I came face to face with a brutal killer. I hadn’t thought about that sweltering August morning for a long time.

Then I read “Dangerous Mind” (page 76), Jeff Mordock’s chilling reexamination of the inexplicable late-’80s exploits of Delaware serial killer Steven Brian Pennell. At one point in the investigation, an undercover female police officer was approached by the murderer. She was able to get away. Others weren’t as lucky. Twenty-five years ago this month, Pennell was convicted of the gruesome killings of two women he picked up along Route 40—and it’s likely there were at least three more. Sadly, he took many secrets to his grave, including the whereabouts of at least one victim. Mordock became fascinated with the case for several reasons. “Pennell was not your typical loner serial killer. He was married, had a good job, and was—according to a stepdaughter’s testimony—a good dad,” says Mordock. “It is unique as a law-enforcement story, because he was the only documented serial killer in Delaware.”

As for my situation, it revolved around a horrific crime in a suburban Baltimore neighborhood. The three victims, all in their 20s, were found bound and gagged. All had suffocated after dry-cleaning bags were placed tightly over their heads. The community was in a panic, so there was much relief when a suspect was finally apprehended. That day, in typical newspaper fashion, I joined other reporters in seeking comments from family, neighbors and coworkers. I was assigned to the alleged murderer’s house. I showed up alone on an eerily quiet street. After I knocked on the accused’s front door, a young man screamed at me from an open window to go away. Returning to my car, I watched in a panic as the guy came running toward me, shirtless, a gun in his waistband and eggs in his hands. Soon enough, he was at the window, gold teeth flashing, threatening bodily harm if I didn’t leave.

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As I took off, he hurled the eggs at my car. I later regaled my editor and fellow writers with the story. All in a day’s work, we decided. But I wasn’t so nonchalant when that same man was arrested as an accomplice in the slayings. I recognized his mug shot immediately. I still remember the fear I felt in the aftermath. I can only imagine what those involved in the Pennell case are feeling after 25 years. “He had these cold, dark eyes that didn’t move around a lot,” Pennell’s attorney Eugene Maurer told our writer. “I tried to work with him, but people are who they are.”

Adds Mordock, “It seemed like everyone I talked with had a personal story about a strange event that occurred during their involvement. Others were deeply moving.” State prosecutor Kathy Jennings received a heartfelt “thank you” after Pennell’s conviction—a bouquet of flowers with a card that read, “From the women of Route 40. You made us feel like human beings.” There are faces behind every crime.

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