At approximately 8:35 p.m. on July 24, 2012, the police in Baltimore County, Md., received a 911 call regarding a suspicious car. A local couple had spotted a silver sedan parked in a pull-off area of some property they owned by the intersection of Ebenezer Road and Pulaski Highway, near White Marsh. According to the police account, the callers saw a man walking outside the car and an older woman in the backseat.
They asked the man what he was doing. "He made up some story about, 'That's my mother. She's got Alzheimer's,'" says John Divel, a detective with the Aberdeen, Md., police. Then the man drove off.
The couple wrote down the license plate—Maryland SMR 308, according to a Washington Post report—and police found it was assigned to a silver 1998 Lincoln Town Car, registered to Violet Ripken.
Those were the solid beginnings of a kidnapping case that would captivate the Baltimore area, spin out into a vaporous and confusing manhunt, and then settle into an odd, prolonged silence. The disappearance and return of Violet Ripken, the then-74-year-old mother of Cal Ripken Jr., launched the biggest investigation in the history of Aberdeen, a small (population 15,000 or so) town about 35 miles north of Camden Yards.
"We've had double murders and stabbings and shootings," Divel says. "We've never had anything like this."
For a time, every state and local law enforcement agency in the area, plus the FBI, jumped in to find the man who Violet Ripken said had snatched her from her home and taken her on a 23-hour jaunt around the area. Every local and national news organization reported on the search for a camo-wearing armed assailant. Billboards were put up on all the main highways. Even John Walsh of America's Most Wanted jumped in to hype the manhunt, touting the bounty available to anyone simply willing to "drop a dime" on the "dirtbag" who'd done the deed.
But after all that ... nothing. The case seemingly vanished, unresolved.
"I've been here a year, and this is the first time anybody's asked me about it," says Amy Thoreson, spokesperson for the Baltimore FBI office.
The abduction case is all Divel's now. The FBI, like all the other agencies that were once working with the Aberdeen police to crack the caper, now directs inquiries to his office. Divel is beyond stingy with details of what the police know or think they know about the crime, and refuses to release any reports or video evidence related to the crime beyond what was already released more than two years ago. His favorite phrase when discussing the case with media for the last two years has been some form of, "I can't answer that, since this is an active investigation." That active status could be changing soon.
The Ripkens are the biggest thing ever to come out of Aberdeen. The town's second most-famous export is likely the mustard gas and various other chemical weapons manufactured for America's World War I allies at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a munitions plant and artillery-testing area.
Cal Ripken Sr., a local boy who grew up to coach the Baltimore Orioles for decades and manage the team for one season and seven games, died in 1999, and Cal Jr. has belonged to the world (or at least America) since long before his 2001 retirement from the same team. But the family's local footprint remains huge. Cal Jr. founded Ripken Baseball, which has rather quickly become an amateur baseball empire and Little League rival by trading on the ungodly amount of goodwill he built up during a Hall of Fame career. (His bio at the Society for American Baseball Research gushes that he "helped restore America's faith in baseball.") During his playing days, though, he never said anything as grandiose as Ripken Baseball routinely does when describing itself and its various missions. Non-outlier example: "INTEGRITY: Ripken Baseball remains always true to the game, even as we shape its future. We are icons. We are big leaguers. We are leaders, not babysitters. We do things the right way - The Ripken Way."
Cal Jr. and his younger brother Billy are the faces of the operation, and its centerpiece is a sprawling baseball compound now officially known as the Ripken Experience Aberdeen Powered by Under Armour, located just off I-95 on the northern edge of town. The phrase "The Ripken Way" is painted on sidewalks all around the facility, and street signs inside the complex show a lane in the parking lot has been named Ripken Way. The venue has seven fields, including "youth-sized replicas" of Camden Yards, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Memorial Stadium, and Yankee Stadium, and hosts a minor league baseball team Cal owns, the short-season Single-A Aberdeen Ironbirds, plus regional and national amateur tournaments and overnight camps whenever the sun is warm.
So anything involving a family member would be big news around these parts, let alone the bizarre and increasingly mysterious disappearance of the matriarch.
"When something happens to a Ripken, it's personal," reporter Deborah Weiner of the Baltimore NBC affiliate WBAL said in a package shortly after the disappearance.
Here's the working version of what happened to Violet Ripken as the police have it, based on newspaper and TV accounts and discussions with Divel: After that 911 call about the suspicious car—Divel would not release the recording or a transcript—an officer was dispatched to her home on Clover Street in Aberdeen, the house Cal and Billy grew up in. Nobody answered a knock on the door. When family members said they were unaware of her whereabouts and had been unable to contact her, Aberdeen police called in for reinforcements.
Baltimore County police, Baltimore City police, Harford County deputies, Maryland state police, and the FBI were at Violet Ripken's house alongside Aberdeen police, including Divel, who was on the case within "a couple hours" of the 911 call. They found two of her cellphones in the house, Divel says. Police looked for her Lincoln through the night, but came up empty.
At around 5:35 a.m. on July 25, the Aberdeen police issued a media advisory announcing that Violet Ripken was missing.
"We've got everybody at the house and we're rummaging through her stuff," Divel says, "and it's at the point where we're saying, 'We're not going to see her again.'"
But within an hour of that announcement, Ripken and her car were delivered to investigators.
Right around dawn, an Aberdeen neighbor identified by the Baltimore Sun as Erik Snyder approached the law enforcement horde near the Ripken house and told them that Violet Ripken's missing Lincoln was parked just down the street, and that she was in it.
Snyder, the paper said, told police that he had been driving home but had been forced to turn around on Clover Street near the Ripken property by police who were blocking the thoroughfare. After turning around, he saw a woman waving a white sweater out an open car window. (Snyder did not return messages left at his home for this story.)
Divel's records show that Violet Ripken told police she had been accosted in her garage the previous morning at around 7 a.m. by a man wearing a "dark colored ski mask" and "displaying a handgun." He blindfolded her and ordered to get in the backseat of her own car.
Ripken told police she'd spent the next 23 hours riding around in the car, only partially able to see. All the early news reports about the kidnapping said that duct tape and rope were used to bind and blindfold her; Divel said that Ripken's feet were bound when they found her, and that her vision was compromised during the kidnapping, but he would not confirm the reports about the specifics.
Ripken said her captor shared cigarettes and fast food with her throughout the ordeal. Then he drove her back to Aberdeen, parked the car just down the block, and left the area on foot.
How did a guy everybody was looking for navigate a car everybody was looking for through a neighborhood crawling with cops? Divel said the perp got lucky with the timing and because officers weren't expecting to see such an odd denouement to the disappearance.
"It was during a shift change from nights to days," he said. "We had people all around the neighborhood, but nobody ever thought she would be returned home."
While checking on Ripken's condition—she said she was unharmed—the police quickly put out an all-points bulletin for a "white male late 30's to early 40's last seen wearing a light colored shirt, camo pants and eye glasses." Aberdeen police chief Henry Trabert repeated that description at a press conference hours later, for which local TV stations interrupted regular programming. Trabert said he knew of no motive, no connection between the kidnapper and his victim, and no ransom demand, but released no other details.
"This thing is moving very quickly," he said.
The tabloid-worthy abduction of a member of the local gentry was the talk of the town. Orioles manager Buck Showalter held a press conference at Camden Yards before that night's O's game against Tampa Bay to discuss the kidnapping. He praised the "stock" and told a tale of how, in 2000, when he was managing the Diamondbacks, his own mother had been terrorized in her home by an intruder who "tied her up with a cord to the radio" that she had been using to listen to his game.
"Turns out she knew the guy," Showalter said. (The Baltimore Sun reported that the perp in the burglary of Showalter's home "died a few days later in a separate incident.")
Yet all the interest didn't produce much investigative progress. The day after Ripken's return, Aberdeen police released surveillance photos of the alleged kidnapper and announced a $2,000 reward for information leading to the bad guy. Right away, investigators took heat for offering such a paltry bounty, given the seriousness of the allegations and the money the Ripken family has. (Forbes reported in 2013 that Cal, who made tens of millions in salary alone in his playing days, "oversees ventures that generate $30 million a year in gross revenue," and he is said to command a fee of at least $50,000 per speech on the speaking circuit)
Philip Becnel, a D.C.-based private investigator who has worked on some of the biggest criminal trials in the region in recent years, including the Lee Boyd Malvo sniper case, was among the critics. Becnel told the Baltimore Sun, "There are absolutely people out there who know this guy. What's happening now is, this guy's sister or other relatives are saying, 'I know him.' Would you rat your brother or sister out for $2,000? Probably not. But you may do it for $10,000."
But Becnel also told the paper he expected the release of the photos would trump the small kitty: "I think the chances of the crime going cold ... are not too concerning, but it all hinges on whether they have the right suspect. If it turns out to be a person of interest and they clear him, then all bets are off."
Those surveillance photos, Divel says, came from video taken by cameras at the Walmart in Glen Burnie, Md., about 40 miles south of Aberdeen. At some point after midnight, according to police, the suspect went shopping there, leaving Ripken bound in the backseat in the parking lot.
The Harford County Sheriff's office put out a 35-second-clip of that spree, during which the suspect is seen shopping in a rather leisurely fashion while wearing what looks like an orange, white, and black baseball cap, and a white, long-sleeve button-down shirt, which is buttoned up over a dark collared shirt. The light-colored shirt and camo pants of the all-points bulletin are nowhere to be seen.
Divel says the police got their APB description from Violet Ripken. Asked if he can explain how the criminal appeared in different wardrobes, Divel says, "If I knew, that would help. He could have changed. The victim did hear the trunk open, and did see a bag with him." Divel also says that there could have been more than one kidnapper, a theory which has previously not been publicly disclosed.
Billboards announcing the reward and soliciting information about the kidnapping soon went up on I-95 north of the Fort McHenry Tunnel, and I-83 south of Cold Spring Lane, both major thoroughfares serving Baltimore. "We bought the big billboards, the 60-foot-high things," Divel says.
For the signs, authorities used an artist's rendering of the subject, and not any of the Walmart photos. A dedicated hotline was established through the Maryland State Police to take tips just for the Ripken case.
Because of the renown of the victim's progeny, the search for the kidnapper got national attention. The FBI put out a lookout for the kidnapper on its "Wanted By the FBI" podcast, which directed listeners to the Walmart surveillance video. A beer company in Georgia put the face of the suspect on its cans, Divel says. The most famous crime-fighter in the land, John Walsh, posted the composite drawing on the America's Most Wanted website (since defunct), and used his usual TV tough-guy parlance while rallying his Facebook followers to help solve the crime. "We need your help in finding the sicko who kidnapped Vi Ripken, the mother of baseball legend Cal Ripken, Jr." Walsh wrote as the investigation started. "I have my idea who this loser is."
Early on, Divel said, potential leads had come flying in. Investigators had so many suspects that he "had to break them off into three binders, and rank them, in Top 10 lists, then Top 20 lists, then Top 30 lists."
"We even looked at [Ripken] family members all the way down to grandkids," he says. "We thought, anything's possible in this case."
But one by one, the names got tossed out. The only lead to ever get traction came from a jailbird snitch named Michael Molitor (no relation to baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, an O's nemesis throughout Cal's career). Molitor, a drug offender, said he knew a guy who was involved in the abduction, and brokered a deal in which Divel got him bailed out of the Harford County jail in exchange for his information.
Turned out the cops got punked. Molitor just wanted to get out of the clink.
"We held up our end of the bargain," Divel says, "but he didn't give us anything."
(To pay back the faux tipster for wasting his time, Divel testified against Molitor and helped get him a seven-year sentence for various probation violations.)
Months into the case, Aberdeen police released a different photo of the suspect, one that Divel says was taken the day after Violet Ripken was returned home. This shot was also from a surveillance camera at a Walmart, widely reported in 2012 to be in Middle River, Maryland. Divel would confirm only that it was a Baltimore-area Walmart.
Divel says the suspect went to the second Walmart to return items purchased at the Glen Burnie Walmart on the night of the kidnapping, but would not disclose what those items were. He will say that on his second Walmart trip, the suspect was believed to be driving a minivan of "unknown make and model, possibly green in color."
The photos and video evidence were enhanced by technicians at the FBI's forensics laboratory in Quantico, Va.—the same one used to crack the Lindbergh kidnapping case from 1932 after that investigation went cold. Even with the enhancements, to the untrained eye it's not obvious the two photos are of the same guy.
Divel says that investigators, through the enhancements, have been able to identify the logos on the two ballcaps the man or men are wearing, but he declines to disclose what those logos are.
Joe Cassilly, who has been the Harford County state's attorney since 1982, says that he saw the investigation was flagging by the end of 2012. He attended a gathering of representatives of all the state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies who were involved.
"It was a big sit-down meeting of everybody to figure out where we were, what have we done, are there any investigative stones we hadn't turned over," Cassilly says "We all said, 'What are we missing here?' And nobody had any new answers or new questions."
He hasn't been to a status meeting since.
The Baltimore Sun ran an article in early 2013 reporting that the investigation had lost all momentum, and had various criminologists saying that the Ripken family and county should put up some more reward money to get things moving. Just after the one-year anniversary of the abduction, Cal Ripken hosted a press conference at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards and said that he was upping the reward to $100,000, thanks to contributions from his family, Ripken Baseball, and Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports apparel giant. He confessed that folks who questioned the wisdom of offering a paltry amount at the beginning of the investigation were right.
"I think in some ways maybe this should've happened earlier," Ripken said.
Ripken brought back John Walsh for the reboot. America's Most Wanted had been canceled by then, but he could still talk the talk.
"Amongst the lowlifes that populate this country, one hundred grand is a lot of money," Walsh said, "and if somebody knows who this dirtbag is, they'll drop a dime on him and try to collect that money."
The hotline rang just a bit more after Cal raised the kitty, Divel says. But nothing solid came in, and still hasn't. The two-year anniversary passed quietly in July. Divel says there had been some talk recently among investigators about coming up with some way to get publicity for the investigation for the third anniversary in July, but his heart doesn't seem in it.
"It won't get anything," he said.
In some circles, the lack of closure after all the initial hubbub, combined with the bizarre or clichéd nature of the few details released about the crime and investigation—a masked gunman in camo, with duct tape? A kidnapper who goes shopping, makes no ransom demands, and then gives his victim fast food and a ride home? A $2,000 reward for a Ripken?—has cast doubt on whether Violet Ripken was ever really kidnapped.
"It's kind of died down, but a lot of people around the Orioles think it's a little on the bogus side," a source close to the team tells me, expressing a common, if softly whispered, sentiment. "They have what appears to be a fairly clear picture of the alleged kidnapper, but can't seem to find anyone who knows who it is."
But there's no simple, competing explanation that would account for the 911 call or how Violet Ripken's car made the trip to White Marsh and back. Becnel, the private investigator who publicly criticized investigators when the paltry reward was first announced, says lots of cases only make sense once they're solved.
"The police can only go on what they have, and what they have here is mostly what she said happened and how she said it happened, and that is indeed bizarre," says Becnel, who adds that he has done no work on the Ripken case and has no inside information about the investigation. "But bizarre doesn't mean it's made up. I've seen so many cases that seem bizarre because you don't have all the facts."
Divel won't put himself among the doubters.
"Something happened to her," Divel says. "She was tied up when we found her, and she didn't tie herself up. Something happened."
There are now "several thousand pages" in the Aberdeen Police Department's Ripken file, Divel says, almost all of them from early in the investigation. He describes the file as full of unreleased photos and videos of the guy they've tabbed as the no-goodnik, including visual evidence from three fast-food drive-thru lanes taken during the kidnapping, and says that surveillance film from those eateries shows the suspect driving Ripken's car and her in the backseat. The kidnapper felt comfortable behaving so brazenly, Divel says, because he'd put "something in the back window" that obscured passersby's and surveillance cameras' view of the passenger.
Divel will not say what that obstruction was. He has declined to release any photos or video showing the suspect in the car or showing the suspect and victim together. He will not say if investigators have recovered any DNA evidence. And a formal request for reports and records relating to the Ripken investigation filed with the Records Office of the Aberdeen police department returned just two documents: a 2012 press release, and a 2013 press release.
"I know: It's been two years. Why not just release it all?" Divel says. He didn't answer the question.
Cassilly, who will prosecute the kidnapping case if an arrest is ever made, says he understands the lack of attention.
"Everybody moves on in their own little sphere of concern," he says. "If the latest terrorist attack isn't bothering you, then probably a crime that happened two-and-a-half years ago isn't on your mind either."
The police can't forget about the case so easily, though. An old wanted flier is still hanging in the Aberdeen police station, with "$$$ Cash Reward $$$" over the same photo of the suspect that the department released within days of crime. But the public's loss of interest in the case's primary person of interest has gotten to Divel. He tells me he's called for a meeting Feb. 10 with Special Agent Lance Griffin of the FBI's Baltimore office to discuss the Ripken investigation. Aberdeen officials have hosted periodic confabs with other law enforcement agency reps to update the status of the case. But those gatherings have become less frequent as the supply of fresh information and unpursued investigative angles has dwindled to nothing.
The next summit with the feds could be Divel's last.
"We're going to go into the conference room and go over all the suspects and make sure we didn't miss anything," he said, "and make a decision whether to suspend it."
Though he's the lead investigator, Divel can't unilaterally put the investigation on hiatus. The kidnapper may have driven Ripken across state lines at some point—Aberdeen is within about 25 miles of both the Delaware and Pennsylvania borders—which would make this a federal crime, and take it out of Divel's bailiwick. So the FBI will have to sign off on any change in the status of the case. (Griffin requested that questions about the case be emailed to him, but did not respond after they were sent.)
Should they opt to suspend the Ripken investigation, the case will remain open; there is no statute of limitations on kidnapping or on the weapons charges the suspect could face if apprehended.
A suspension of the investigation could, paradoxically, make it more likely that it ends up solved: it would free Divel to let the public know what he knows. He says he's mulling publishing all the photographs he's got of the suspect—mostly stills taken from the Walmart surveillance video and enhanced at the FBI labs—in one place at the same time. He dreams that a big-splash approach could bring in that one tip the drip-drip strategy didn't. Certainly, withholding minutiae such as the logos on the suspect's baseball caps makes less sense with every passing month.
"If [the FBI] says let's go for broke and put more details out, I'm all for it," he says.
And, Divel says, even if the investigation gets moved to the cold-case file, the hotline (1-888-540-8477) will remain open, and the reward will stay up for grabs. So folks who think they know something are still encouraged to pass that information along, and Divel promises to follow it up. He wants the guy who terrorized an elderly widow in his town behind bars. He wants somebody to take home the $100,000 pot.
"Just an arrest and a conviction," he says, "and the money's yours."
Know more? Email Dave McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Jim Cooke, photo via AP