A Cold Case Heats Up 50 Years Later: Who Murdered Sister Cathy?
Sister Catherine Cesnik was a beloved teacher and friend. Her murder has haunted the city of Baltimore for almost 50 years and the investigation into her murder has baffled residents and police alike. Was her murder just the tip of a much larger and more sinister plot? Did the Catholic Church help hide a murderer for the sake of covering up a much more malicious operation? Read on to find out the gruesome and mysterious facts surrounding the case of the murdered nun.
Born in 1942, Catherine Cesnik became a nun after high school and then a teacher at the then all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland teaching English and drama. Her students described Sister Cathy as a loving and charismatic teacher that made learning fun.
Her students adored her and looked up to her as a motherly figure. Partially due to her youthful age and attitude, students were able to easily connect with Sister Cathy. But unfortunately, her days at the school were numbered.
For reasons unknown to her students, Sister Cathy and her roommate Sister Russel, who was also a teacher, both decided to leave Archbishop Keough High School. The two teachers began new positions at North Bend Elementary School, a public school.
Sister Cathy continued to meet with and counsel students from Keough even after she left the school which drew the attention of the priests. Very few people knew of the dark and sinister plot that Sister Cathy was unraveling at Keough.
Friday, Nov. 7, 1969, marked an end to an otherwise relatively routine work week for Sister Cathy. She gathered her belongings and headed home for a well-deserved weekend of rest. Around 7:30 p.m. Sister Cathy left her Baltimore apartment to do some shopping at the Edmonson Village Shopping Center.
She cashed her $255 paycheck at First National Bank in Cantonsville on the way. Records show that she also bought some dinner rolls at a bakery in the shopping village and she had told her roommate, Sister Russell, that she was planning on buying an engagement gift for her sister at Hecht’s.
That was the last she was ever seen.
Sister Cathy never made it home from her shopping trip. Somewhere between the shopping center and her apartment at Carriage House, something went terribly wrong. The trip shouldn’t have lasted more than an hour or two but at the hours passed by and the night grew darker, Sister Cathy’s friends began to worry.
Sister Cathy’s roommate Sister Russell called two close friends in the early morning hours of Saturday, Nov. the 8th, Rev. Peter McKeow and Rev. Gerard J. Koob. The duo then drove to the nun’s apartment to assist.
Rev. McKeow and Rev. Koob arrived at the apartment in the early morning hours and after hearing Sister Russell’s story they called the police. The three made a missing person report and then later took a walk around the neighborhood to “calm their nerves.”
At around 4:40 a.m. Rev. McKeow found Sister Cathy’s green 1970 Maverick unlocked and illegally parked on the 4500 block of Carriage Court, just across the street from her apartment at Carriage House. Some accounts show that Rev. McKeow found the vehicle along with Rev. Koob and Sister Russell.
Sister Cathy’s vehicle was parked illegally, partially jutting out into oncoming traffic. The police had received multiple calls about an “oddly parked vehicle” earlier in the evening. Inside the car, police found a bakery box full of rolls. Twigs and leaves were littered across the floorboard.
The strangest item found in the car was a twig hooked around the turn-signal lever attached by a singular yellow thread. It appeared that the car had been driven through a muddy, wooded area but why would Sister Cathy drive through such an area on her way back from shopping and where was she?
The Search for Sister Cathy Begins
The police began a manhunt for the missing nun. She was described as 5 feet, 5 inches tall, 115 pounds with green eyes, blond hair and fair complexion. She was last seen wearing an aqua coat, navy blue suit, yellow sweater and black shoes.
Police immediately searched nearby wooded areas for any clues as to what might have happened to Sister Cathy. Police searched Leakin Park and the Irvington areas but no trace of the nun was found.
On Sunday, Nov 9, 1969, the police organized larger search teams. At least 35 city police officers, five search-dog teams and civilian volunteers searched a 14-block area of Southwest Baltimore from sun-up to sun-down.
Police officers knocked on doors, searched alleys and deserted buildings and searched rain-soaked parks. Sister Cathy’s parents were informed that she was missing and they drove down from Pittsburg to assist with the search for their daughter. The parents told reporters at the scene that they were “very concerned.”
The search continued on through dusk.
End of the Day
By the end of the day, search teams had not found any clues as to Sister Cathy’s whereabouts. A police officer told the Baltimore Sun that they “found nothing” and that “the search is concluded.” That was the first and last large-scale search the Baltimore police would organize in their attempt to locate Sister Cathy.
By Monday, police authorities concluded that there was “no evidence of foul play” in the case of the missing nun Sister Cathy. Captain John C. Barnhold Jr., head of Baltimore’s homicide squad stated that they “could find no evidence of violence of any kind.”
One resident of Sister Cathy’s apartment complex told police that her he had noticed the nun’s car parked in her parking space at around 8:30 p.m. and was then discovered illegally parked across the street at around 10:30 p.m. The timeline left police with just a two-hour gap to fill in.
Witnesses at the scene when Sister Cathy’s vehicle was found said that something was off. Rev. Koob stated that the twig attached by the yellow thread “looked like it was put there deliberately.” He added that Sister Cathy always locked her doors, she “was always very careful about that.”
Missing or Kidnapped?
Sister Cathy’s friends and family knew that something was wrong, that the nun would not have just run away. The police, however, were not willing to act without any solid evidence. Captain Barnold told reporters that if the department “had any inkling of an abduction they would have called in the FBI.”
The police were unfortunately not much help in locating Sister Cathy. Her friends and family were certain that she had been abducted but that wasn’t enough for the police.
Four Days Later
Just four days after the disappearance of Sister Cathy another Baltimore woman, Joyce Helen Malecki 20-years-old, went missing. The similarities between the two cases were striking. Joyce never returned home from shopping and her car was found parked in a lot of a vacant gas station. Her glasses and groceries were still in the car.
The very next day her body was found floating in the Little Patuxent River of Soldiers Park. The autopsy revealed that Joyce had been stabbed in the throat and strangled death, her hands were bound behind her back with a cord.
Joyce’s murderer has never been found.
A pair of black high-heeled shoes were found on the river bank at the site Joyce’s body was found. The shoes were similar to the ones Sister Cathy had been wearing at the time of her disappearance. While police stated that they would look into a possible match, there was never an official response.
On Jan. 2nd 1970 all major Baltimore newspapers went on strike for 74 days. The very next day, Jan 3rd, a major discovery would be found in the Sister Cathy case. Unfortunately, due to the strike, it wouldn’t get much exposure.
Sister Catherine Cesnik’s body was found on Jan. 3rd in a remote are in Lansdowne, Baltimore County by two hunters, two months after she went missing. Her body was frozen, partially covered by an embankment and covered in snow. The autopsy revealed that her skull had been fractured by blunt force trauma.
Official police statements said that she had either been carried to the area or forced to walks there as a car could not have reached the area. Little evidence was found at the scene and the body was in poor condition, meaning that evidence of the killer might have been destroyed by the weather.
Was She Assaulted?
According to the Baltimore County Police, detectives during this time period: “conduct numerous interviews and polygraphs. Physical evidence from the scene is collected and preserved; relatively little physical evidence is found at the crime scene. Because of the poor condition of the body, detectives are unable to determine if Sister Cesnik had been sexually assaulted.”
The police efforts yield very little to no results. The case of who murdered Sister Cathy goes cold. The community is left shaken by the unsolved murders. The few who know the real story guard it with their lives. But there was still more to come.
In 1992 two former students of Archbishop Keough High School come forward with allegations that Rev. Joseph Maskell sexually assaulted them while they were students at the school. The two were students at the school during the period that Sister Cathy was teaching English and drama.
Rev. Maskell was ordained in 1965, received a master’s degree in psychology and also served as chaplain for the Maryland State Police, Baltimore County Police and Maryland National Guard. Rev. Maskell was well-known and respected in the Maryland police organizations. He also had a very dark secret.
The allegations by the two students were the first official allegations made against Rev. Maskell to the police. Maskell was removed from his position by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and sent for evaluation at a psychiatric hospital.
Maskell was evaluated for “psychological or sexual abnormalities” at the Institute of Living in Hartford Connecticut. When no such abnormalities were found he returned to Baltimore and was later named pastor of St. Augustine’s in Elkridge. But the accusations were only just beginning.
Finally, in the spring of 1994, a former female student from Archbishop Keough came forward with testimony that Rev. Maskell had sexually abused her and horrifyingly took her to the site of Sister Cathy’s body weeks before discovery. She said that she was told her fate would be the same if she ever told her story to anyone else.
Her account of the body also included information that was not released to the press. She detailed seeing the mangled body of Sister Cathy, semi-clad and her face full of maggots.
The witness also stated that she had met another man, who was never named, in Maskell’s office. He allegedly told her that Sister Cathy had been beaten to death because she was aware of the molestation that was going on in the school.
Maskell had been interviewed about Sister Cathy’s murder but had never been a suspect. Police were never able to verify or disprove the testimony of the woman who came forward so many decades later.
The allegations against Rev. Maskell continued to build. Over a dozen former students of his came forward stating that he had sexually abused them at Archbishop Keough during the late 1960s and 1970s. Amid the pressure, Maskell left his parish and sought therapy.
Two of the students filed a $40 million-dollar lawsuit against Maskell. After two years the courts ruled that the lawsuit could not move forward due to the statute of limitations. The prosecution argued that the women had only recently recovered their memories but the court rejected their argument.
Due to the landslide of allegations against Maskell and his connections to Sister Cathy, the murder case went from cold to warming. The Archdiocese of Baltimore offered a reward for any information leading to the killer’s conviction and Maskell was interviewed “at length.” The police, however, still did not consider Maskell a prime suspect.
From 1994 to the early 2000s at least half-a-dozen DNA profiles were made and compared to crime scene evidence. Police hoped that the new and improved technology would finally close the case. The results, however, were all negative according to the Baltimore Police.
In April of 1995, the Baltimore County Police declared the case of the slaying of Sister Cathy Cesnik once again a “cold case.” Just one month earlier the church formally revoked Maskell’s priestly duties. Maskell himself was reportedly still in a residential treatment facility.
He claimed that “he needed help coping with the stress and anxiety the case had caused him.” By this point at least 30 women had come forward against him with first or second-hand testimony that he had sexually abused students at Archbishop Keough.
Unknown to the public, Maskell was no longer at the treatment facility. Sometime, just a few weeks after checking himself in, he covertly checked himself out. His location was a mystery until July of 1996 when a bishop in Ireland contacted the Archdiocese.
Maskell fled to Ireland amid the mounting accusations against him and was employed as a psychologist during his time there. While he was in Ireland Maskell continued to say mass, despite being defrocked.
Until Death Do We Part
Maskell eventually returned to the United States in 1998 and then died of a stroke on May 7, 2001. While alive, he denied all accusations against him. Any secrets he had, he took with him to the grave. After the sexual abuse allegations went public many fingers were pointed at the Catholic Church.
Nowadays the Catholic Church is well known for cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and their efforts to cover-up cases of abuse.
But was the church aware of any abuse by Maskell?
As the years go by more and more churches are opening up about past abuses. The Archdiocese of Baltimore published a list of 71 clergymen who have received what the church calls “credible accusations” against them for sexual abuse.
Rev. Maskell was on that list. The church further revealed that since 2011 the Archdiocese of Baltimore had paid $472,000 in settlements to the victims of Maskell for the alleged sexual abuse and over $97,000 in counseling assistance. Maskell was never convicted of sexual abuse during his lifetime. And that wasn’t all.
Almost 50 years after the murder of Sister Cathy, the case of her murder was reassigned due to detectives retiring. The Baltimore County Police Department reported that: “Activity on the case intensifies as victims of sexual abuse discuss information about Sister Cesnik’s circle, including Maskell. Numerous interviews are conducted. One living suspect is reinterviewed.”
Many of the witnesses, victims and suspects in the case have already passed away due to old age. Police, spurred along by the sudden re-interest in the case, are desperate to close the case before it’s too late.
The former Rev. Maskell as it turned out had very close ties to the police. He had served as chaplain for the Baltimore County Police Department as well as with state police and the National Guard. Maskell’s brother was also a lieutenant in the police force.
Many witnesses have stated that Rev. Maskell’s best friend was a police officer and frequently went out on patrol with the squad and went out drinking with them. Elements both within and outside the Baltimore County Police have said that the force was very corrupt during the 1970s.
People involved with the case now believe that the sexual abuse at Archbishop Keough was far more widespread than previously thought. “There was something wrong at the Catholic high school where Sister Cathy taught,” former homicide detective Roemer said while reviewing new evidence during an interview.
“What you had there was a whole lot of sex going on among priests and students. Can you imagine the scandal, in 1970, if that stuff had ever come out in a trial? Hell, it could have blown the lid right off the Church!”
Was that why Sister Cathy was murdered?
Out of Hiding
Many witnesses began to reveal their identities after the death of former Reverend Maskell. Jean Wehner named herself as the student who Maskell had taken to see the dead corpse of Sister Cathy at the dump.
Another former student named Teresa Lancaster came forward saying that prior to her death Sister Cathy had “confronted” Maskell about the sexual abuse in the school and had “lost her life for it.” Lancaster added that she had been abused not only by Maskell but also by police officers.
Former Archbishop Keough student Teresa Lancaster detailed her experience of being sexually abused by multiple police officers. “Father Maskell picked me up, took me to a wooded area where there was a lot of policemen gathered around, he left me in the backseat and two policemen abused me while Maskell stood next to the car.’”
“Before I knew it, there was a big man on top of me and then I thought that would be it and another policeman came in and I could hear Maskell in the distance talking and laughing. Maskell was a police chaplain and he knew people in high places – that’s how they got away with it. They scared the living hell out of us.”
The main theory in the murder case is that Maskell killed Sister Cathy because she knew about the abuse being perpetrated by the priests at Archbishop Keough High School. Joanna Suder, who represents many of the sexual abuse victims surrounding the murder case has said that “there is no question that Sister Cathy knew what was going on.”
“There is no question that Sister Cathy told them that she would do something about it,” Suder added. However, this is not the only theory as to who murdered Sister Cathy.
One alternative theory as to who murdered Sister Cathy is that she had accidentally fallen victim to a possible serial killer. At least three other young women went missing from shopping centers then were found murdered around the same time period in the Baltimore area.
The three women, Joyce Helen Malecki, Pamela Lynn Conyers and Grace Elizabeth Montanye all went missing from shopping malls and all looked quite similar. Their bodies were found in different police jurisdictions which apparently delayed any connections from being made. None of the murder cases have been solved.
The Main Suspects
Rev. A Joseph Maskell remains to this day the main suspect in the killing of Sister Cathy at least in the public eye despite police statements to the contrary. Apart from allegedly murdering Sister Cathy dozens of witnesses and victims to his abuse have come forward explaining how he raped and psychologically manipulated female students at Archbishop Keough during the 60s and 70s.
Jean Wehner, one of Maskell’s victims, stated that Maskell prostituted young girls at the school out to clergymen and law enforcement officers. And what about Rev. Koob?
Rev. Gerald Koob
There was a reason that Reverend Gerald Koob was one of the first people Sister Russell notified when Sister Cathy went missing. He was romantically involved with Sister Cathy and had even proposed marriage before she had taken her vows as a nun.
Sister Cathy turned down the proposal but the two continued to write love letters to each other. Some say that he was furious after being rejected and eventually killed Sister Cathy out of revenge for his unrequited love. Police consider his alibi “airtight” but the only witness to back it up is a fellow priest…
Billy Schmidt lived across the street from Sister Cathy at the Carriage House apartments. His family is convinced that he and his brother Ronnie had something to do with the murder based on their drastic behavior changes. Ronnie, for one, started using drugs and abusing alcohol.
Billy became an introverted shut-in and eventually killed himself. His mother, Barbara, found a mannequin hanging from his attic rafters dressed like a nun. Police are still looking into Billy Schmidt as the possible killer. And there were other suspercts, too.
Edgar Davidson’s possible connection to the murder of Sister Cathy was revealed by his first wife. She has stated that on the night of Sister Cathy’s disappearance Edgar returned home with blood on his shirt. Although he told his wife that he had gotten into a fight with his boss, she never believed the story.
According to his wife, when news of Sister Cathy’s disappearance hit the news he said that “by the time they find her body, it’s going to be wintertime, she’s going to be buried in snow.” Edgar also called into a live radio show decades later saying that he knew of evidence in the case.
The final main suspect is still unidentified but was called “Brother Bob” by Maskell. Abuse victim Jean Wehner who was a former student at Archbishop Keough recalled that “Brother Bob” was present when Maskell would take her to St. Clement Church to be abused by other men.
Wehner once heard “Brother Bob” admit that he hit Sister Cathy after she told him of her plan to report the abuse in the school to the police. He added that he “didn’t mean to kill her.”
Maskell’s body was exhumed on Feb. 28, 2017, by the Baltimore County Police to compare his DNA with that found at the crime scene of Sister Cathy’s murder. His body was reburied the very same day. Two months later the department announced that Maskell’s DNA did not match evidence from the crime scene.
Experts say that the results do not necessarily rule Maskell out as a suspect, just that there is a lack of physical evidence connecting Maskell and the crime scene. The testing was done at a forensics lab in Virginia.
Netflix released a seven-episode documentary exploring the murder of Sister Cathy on May 19, 2017. The series offered an in-depth view into the murder case and was well-received. The Archdiocese of Baltimore added a FAQ page to its website in response to the series and the accusations made by the survivors.
“While Sister Cathy Cesnik’s death remains a mystery, its after effects include both crushing heartbreak and, for the amateur sleuths who seek to crack her case, a sense of making a difference…. This isn’t just more respectful to the victim than other true-crime stories, with their breathless delight at new clues. It’s also more effective,” Time magazine stated.
The release of the Netflix series has sparked new interest in solving the murder case, as well as the three other unsolved murders around the same time in Baltimore. Since the series’ release, numerous victims and witnesses have come forward offering new evidence and testimony in the case.
The survivors and victims all hope to find justice for Sister Cathy before it is too late. The murder case is now almost 50 years old and many of the witnesses have already died. Soon there may not be any left. Who killed Sister Cathy?
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