Unwanted neighbor: Island reels from Rice's arrival
Kent Island, Maryland is in an uproar after a man implicated in several high-profile kidnapping and murder cases quietly moved to the upscale community of retirees and white-collar commuters following his July 17 release from federal prison. Darrell David Rice was convicted of an attempted kidnapping in the Shenandoah National Park in 1997 and took an Alford plea in an attempted kidnapping on Rt. 29 near Culpeper. He was indicted, briefly, in a brutal double homicide, also in Shenandoah National Park, in 2002, and publicly suspected but never charged in the "Route 29 stalker" case.
"Say it ain't so!" says the first of dozens of posts on a Kent Island community message board where news of Rice's arrival first broke on September 6. Subsequent posts on that board as well as on the Hook's website suggest a community struggling to assess what some see as a danger in their midst.
"Our high school events have been adjusted and women are gossiping in fear," writes one. "How do we live with him... or get him out of our small town?"
The fear and uncertainly have quickly escalated.
"People are hysterical," says Lt. Dale Patrick, spokesman for the Queen Anne County sheriff's department. By Friday, September 14, Patrick says, deputies were struggling to respond to a flurry of often hysterical and wildly inaccurate Rice-related reports. Among them: that Rice had hijacked a school bus and was attacking children inside; that the local high school was on lockdown after a Rice attack; and that Rice had cut off his GPS tracking device and was engaged in a shootout at a gas station following a high-speed police chase.
All the claims were quickly discredited, says Patrick, who adds that on the same day those reports came in, both a sheriff's deputy and Rice's federal probation officer independently confirmed that Rice was safely at the luxurious waterfront home where he lives with his mother, his GPS device still firmly attached.
"Rumors like that are draining resources," says Patrick, who adds that his department is now dealing not only with the community's fear of Rice but also with the safety concerns of Rice's family and immediate neighbors. Rice's mother, Lenna Mays, declined comment. "We have nothing to say to the Hook," she said, before hanging up.
Sweet Briar Lane, where Rice now lives, is a private road, says Lieutenant Patrick, but that hasn't stopped a steady stream of cars from making their way up to check out Rice's new digs.
"It's become almost like a tourist attraction," says Patrick. Part of the problem, he admits, is the sparse information offered by the federal government about the conditions of Rice's probation. Patrick says his department has requested meetings with federal agents to learn the exact conditions to which the convicted felon is bound.
While court documents show he'll be on supervised probation for three years, for instance, Rice may not have to wear a GPS monitor for that period of time. The nature of the GPS monitoring is also unclear– is a government agent actually watching Rice's every move 24 hours a day, or is the device simply reporting his movements to a computer? Rice's federal probation agent declined comment on the time or method of GPS monitoring, citing a supervisor's order. That supervisor did not return the Hook's call, nor did U.S. Attorney Thomas Bondurant, who worked on the Park murder case.
Patrick says further complicating his department's ability to inform the public is the fact that although the charges were withdrawn, Rice is still considered a suspect in the 1996 murders of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams, killed at a campsite in the Shenandoah National Park in May of 1996.
"The safety of the community is first and foremost," Patrick says, "but we don't want to impede a homicide investigation being conducted by another agency."
That homicide investigation gained steam in July 1997 when Yvonne Malbasha was passed by a man in a pickup truck while she was biking in the Park. After she'd turned onto a more remote road, the truck, with Rice behind the wheel, passed near her, causing her to fall. As she righted herself, Rice stopped, and, screaming obscenities, attempted to abduct her.
Malbasha fought back, throwing a water bottle at him and grabbing her bike when he tried to force her into the truck. Rice then attempted several times to run her down, fleeing only when she took refuge behind a tree. By the time rangers caught Rice attempting to leave the Park, he'd changed clothes and had reattached license plates removed before the attack. Rice eventually pled guilty to attempted kidnapping and received an 11-year sentence.
His legal woes were just beginning. When investigators reviewed videos taken at Park entrances during the time of the double homicide the year before, they noticed that Rice had entered the park on May 25, the day after the last known sighting of Winans and Williams, and again on May 26– through a different entrance.
On April 10, 2002, then-attorney general John Ashcroft announced that a federal grand jury had indicted Rice for Winans' and Williams' murders. Because the two women had been lovers and Rice had allegedly made anti-gay statements in the past, Ashcroft called the killings "hate crimes" and sought the death penalty. But the largely circumstantial case crumbled without any direct DNA link to Rice.
In addition, Rice's lawyers have pointed out, male DNA from someone other than Rice was found at the scene, and a recorded statement that prosecutors used to illustrate Rice's anti-gay bias had actually been incorrectly transcribed to change its meaning.
Though feds couldn't pin the murders on him, in another case they did manage to convince Rice to take an Alford Plea– in which a suspect denies guilt but admits there is enough evidence to convict. That case involved a 1996 attempted kidnapping of a female motorist on Route 29. Six years after that incident– and soon after Ashcroft had named Rice in the Park slayings– Carmelita Shomo identified Rice as the man who motioned her off the road and convinced her there was something wrong with her car. When she accepted a ride, Shomo testified, Rice drove around for a while, then stopped and forced her head into his lap while pushing a screwdriver into her neck.
Shomo was one of numerous women pulled over in this fashion by a man who became known as the "29 Stalker" and who has never been caught. The stalker's final victim, Alicia Showalter Reynolds, was murdered in 1996, her body discovered several months later. No physical evidence has ever tied Rice to her death, but Rice was publicly branded a suspect.
Despite the attempted kidnapping conviction, four lawyers for Rice say he had nothing to do with the attack on Shomo, and that they persuaded him to accept the plea against his wishes. Regarding his assault on Malbasha, they claim he had mental illness but is now totally trustworthy.
In a letter to Kent Islanders, the lawyers blame the panic on law enforcement agencies who have "maliciously and falsely prosecuted him" and the media, in particular the Hook, which ran two cover stories in May, two months before his release. ["Cold Case? Alicia Showalter Reynolds & the fall and rise of Darrell Rice," May 17, 2006, and "Murder in the Park: Rice release revives memories," May 24, 2007]
"You have nothing to fear from Darrell Rice, and we hope that he has nothing to fear from you," writes Charlottesville-based Deirdre Enright, the lead attorney who represented Rice, in a letter to the Island. In a particularly strong statement of support, Enright writes, "After all these years, we count him as a friend as well as a client, and he is welcome in our homes and around our children."
Some residents of Kent Island say they are not so comforted by the letter– which was posted on the Queen Anne County sheriff's website "to help get information out," says Lt. Patrick– or by Rice's GPS tracking device.
"Right now everyone's on guard," says one Kent Island mother of a six-year-old daughter, who like most people the Hook contacted, asked for anonymity, citing fear of Rice. "What happens in three, four, five years when people forget, and they don't have their guard up?"
The biggest concern, says the woman, is the island's "treasure"– miles of secluded walking and biking trails frequented by female joggers and young mothers walking their children to school. The woman says she no longer feels safe, even in a small group.
As for Rice's lawyers' impassioned letter of support, she's not impressed.
"Even if he didn't commit the murders, what he did to that woman in Shenandoah Park, that's bad enough," she says, referring to Malbasha. "We don't need that."