JUNE 26, 2010
The four-door gold sedan was speeding and swerving all over the road, and Mark Rowlands could see that it was about to crash.
The Pennsylvania State Police corporal was off-duty that Saturday afternoon. Wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, he was heading home in his unmarked police car, driving west on Route 329 in rural East Allen Township. An eight-year veteran with the state police, Rowlands had just taken the vehicle to a car wash and was driving toward Northampton, a small working-class borough on the western edge of Northampton County, Pennsylvania.
Although a major roadway in the township, Route 329, also known as Nor-Bath Boulevard, is a fairly quiet country road, with trees and foliage on Rowlands’s right and grassy clearings and a few small businesses on his left. He was approaching a traffic light at the intersection of Route 329 and Savage Road, near the Miller Supply Ace Hardware store, when he saw the Pontiac Grand Prix GT speeding toward him from the opposite direction.
Observing the erratic driving, Rowlands immediately suspected a drunken driver. Just as it approached the intersection, the car cut across the opposite lane of travel, not quite close enough to strike Rowlands.
He pulled his own car over to the side of Route 329 as the Pontiac careened off the roadway, where it became airborne for a few moments before crashing into a patch of trees in a grassy shoulder area just past the intersection.
Rowlands switched on the emergency lights of his car and radioed in to the state police barracks in the nearby city of Bethlehem, which covers this area of Northampton County. He notified the station about the crash and asked them to send the trooper assigned to that zone before exiting his car to head back to the crashed Pontiac. A few people were already milling around as Rowlands approached. Despite his casual attire, he identified himself as a police officer and ordered them to stand back as he approached the driver’s-side window.
The front driver’s side of the car had struck the trees, causing extensive damage and forcing both the driver and passenger air bags to deploy. As Rowlands glanced inside, he found a man slumped over with his lower torso on the driver’s side but his upper body lying across the passenger seat, his head nearly resting on the front passenger door. There were no other passengers in the car. The man—a Caucasian who appeared to be in his mid- to late thirties—seemed to be unconscious, and Rowlands could hear his slow, shallow breaths.
Rowlands called out to the man, but got no response. As he looked closer, he saw that the man was covered in blood, particularly around his lower torso and crotch area. Both the driver’s and the front passenger seats were drenched in the man’s blood.
“Keep an eye on him,” Rowlands said as he turned toward a woman standing near the scene. “Let me know if the breathing stops or anything like that.”
Rowlands returned to his car and called the dispatch center to update them on the seriousness of the incident.
“Step up the responding unit, it looks like a pretty serious crash,” Rowlands said before rushing back to the wrecked car, where the woman still stood watching the driver. After about two minutes, the injured man started to stir and appeared to regain consciousness.
“My name is Corporal Mark Rowlands with the Pennsylvania State Police,” Rowlands told the man. “You’ve just been in a motor vehicle accident. Do not move.”
Rowlands started asking the driver questions to test his memory and cognitive abilities, hoping to keep him focused and conscious.
“What is your name?” Rowlands asked.
“Michael,” the man said slowly, still obviously dazed and in a great amount of pain. He had blue eyes, short strawberry-blond hair, and a goatee.
“Where are you coming from, Michael?”
“I just killed everyone.”
Rowlands was taken aback by the response, but maintained his composure and professionalism.
“What do you mean by that?” Rowlands asked.
“It’s obvious,” Michael replied. “I just killed everyone.”
* * *
Officer Joseph York from the Northampton Police Department was the first to arrive at the scene of 1917 Lincoln Avenue. It was 4:50 p.m., just three minutes after a call had gone out over the radio about a disturbance involving a stabbing at that address. York was one of twelve full-time officers and six part-time officers in the department covering a borough of just over two and a half square miles, where reported stabbings were hardly a common occurrence.
York pulled onto Lincoln Avenue with his white patrol car, the siren blaring, the word NORTHAMPTON printed in red letters along the side of the vehicle. Just a block away from a series of blue-collar row homes, the 1900 block of Lincoln consisted of nicer middle-class town houses. Number 1917 was one half of a relatively large double atop a small grassy hill with a brick front porch and tan siding on the upper half of the house beneath a peaked roof.
The windows had white trimming, and boxes containing an assortment of colorful flowers sat along the edges of the porch. Rows of neatly trimmed bushes ran alongside the front of the home, which was accessible on either side by concrete walkways leading up to a set of steps on both sides of the porch. Several people were staggering around the front yard as York stepped out of his police cruiser.
Most of them were screaming.
Among the crowd was Janet Zernhelt, a fifty-four-year-old woman who said she lived in 1915 Lincoln Avenue, the other half of the twin home. She was nearly hysterical with panic and difficult to understand, but she indicated to York that her husband was inside 1917 and had been hurt badly.
“Help him! Help them!” she kept shouting. “Help them!”
York ordered the people to stay put and wait for him to assess the scene. They would have to be interviewed later, but for now York had to find out exactly what he was dealing with. He rushed up the steps on the 1917 side of the porch, where a small brick wall separated the two halves of the twin home. A bicycle that looked small enough for a young teen lay in a heap in the corner next to a black metal table and set of patio chairs.
York’s eyes were immediately drawn to the blood.
A trail of red droplets stained the porch floor in a tiny path leading from the front door toward the steps. It was a light drizzled pattern—almost like someone had flicked a line of red paint with a brush onto the floor—and it stopped before it reached the stairs, as if somebody had started to leave that way from the front door but doubled back inside. A screen door was closed but the front door was wide open and York, who had probable cause to enter the house due to the blood, opened the screen door and stepped inside.
The front door opened into a living room area with a television sitting on a brown wooden stand in the corner, and a red-and-black-plaid couch across from it behind a wooden coffee table. The carpet, like the porch, was stained by a trail of blood, and a pair of legs was just visible, sticking out between the couch and the coffee table, which had been knocked askew.
York rushed over and found the body of a man curled on his left side almost in a fetal position, his arms folded atop each other in front of him, the fingers from his right hand outstretched as if he were trying to shake someone’s hand. His bloodied face, which bore a brown mustache and light stubbly beard, lay in a grape-colored puddle of blood on the carpet.
Wearing a white T-shirt and pair of black athletic shorts, the man had been stabbed repeatedly and was covered in blood, with deep stains especially around his face and down the back of his shirt below the neck. The tip of his left thumb was completely severed from the hand. Some plastic children’s toys lay on the floor next to him.
Aside from the screaming of the people standing outside, York could hear very little within the home except what sounded like a television set in a room deeper inside. York stood and walked toward the next room, a dining area accessible from a large open doorway.
Painted on the wall above that doorway was an inscription in black letters that read: LEARN FROM YESTERDAY, LIVE FOR TODAY, HOPE FOR TOMORROW.
The dining room was empty except for a large oak hutch with a few framed photographs along the edges and a dining table with piles of papers and junk on top. There was nothing unusual except for a familiar trail of blood drops leading into the next room. York followed that trail into the kitchen, where he found a scene even grislier than that in the living room.
The blood-soaked body of a woman lay flat on her back in the middle of the floor, with a huge crimson puddle splayed out alongside her, staining the brown Formica tiles. Her arms and legs were spread out, as if she were about to hug someone. Like the man in the living room, she wore black shorts and a white T-shirt, although her body was so covered in blood that it was difficult to see what color the shirt was at all.
She looked as if she had been stabbed dozens of times, even more times than the dead man in the living room. A tattoo of a multicolored rose was just visible on her ankle amid all the blood, as was a tattoo of a stylized dragonfly on her right foot.
York tore his eyes away from the woman and quickly surveyed the rest of the kitchen. The cluttered table contained an array of regular household items: plastic cereal containers, piles of mail, a loaf of bread, a plastic tub of pretzels, a few prescription bottles of pills, and a red-and-black plastic children’s lunch box.
The dead body lay in front of a black refrigerator, a white dishwasher, and a row of white cupboards. A few of the cupboards were stained with blood, particularly those just above the dead woman’s head, where a large crimson smear was visible. A few drops of blood were still running down from it, dripping onto the floor.
York noticed what appeared to be a couple of bloody footprints around the corpse. Even at a glance, it was obvious that whoever had done this had worn boots. The noise from the television set was even louder now, and he could tell it was coming from a room through a doorway on the other side of the kitchen. The dead woman’s left arm was stretched out directly toward that doorway, as if it were pointing, or perhaps reaching for the room.
York stepped from the tiled kitchen onto a pepper-colored Berber carpet. It was a tiny room, much of which was taken up by a hospital bed in the corner. In the middle of the room sat an elderly man in a wheelchair, his head leaning back, sitting just a few feet away from a small television atop a folding table. A baseball game was playing on the TV, and at first glance you might believe the man had simply fallen asleep while watching the game—if not for the gruesome gash in his neck.
It was a ghastly sight, even after the two horribly maimed corpses elsewhere in the house. The man couldn’t have been much younger than ninety. His head lay back against the headrest of his wheelchair, his eyes shut, his toothless mouth wide open, his neck cut open in a bloody slash about three or four inches wide. A purplish stream of blood ran like a waterfall from his neck all the way down his gray T-shirt into the seat of his chair, where blood dripped through onto the carpet underneath. A Lifeline alarm was still wrapped around his neck, drenched in blood. The middle finger on his left hand looked shredded, with a bloody chunk of skin peeled away from the knuckle up, as if he’d tried to block the attacker with his hand before he died.
After a few more moments of investigation, York cleared the remaining rooms on the first floor and found nobody else, alive or dead. He reported what he had found into the radio, and let the dispatcher know they were dealing with multiple homicide victims.
Copyright © 2014 by Colin McEvoy and Lynn Olanoff
Colin McEvoy and Lynn Olanoff are reporters for The Express-Times, a daily newspaper based in Easton, Pennsylvania. They covered the Rhonda Smith murder case extensively and it was during a jailhouse interview with them that Mary Jane Fonder first acknowledged responsibility for her crime. They wrote about the Fonder case in the St. Martin’s True Crime book, Love Me or Else. Colin and Lynn have been married since 2008. Lynn is a graduate of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and Colin graduated from East Stroudsburg University in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. They currently reside in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.