Who Killed Tracey?
Thirty Years Later, One of Frederick’s Most Notorious Crimes Remains Unsolved
Of Billy and Diane Kirkpatrick’s four children, Tracey was the studious one, with a GPA that hovered between a 3.75 and 4.0. “When we played school at the house, she was always the teacher,” recalls her older sister Deonda Kirkpatrick. “She did a chalkboard. We had homework and everything. She always said she wanted to be more like me—more popular like me—and I always wanted to be smart like her.”
In 1989, the 17-year-old Brunswick High School senior was working two jobs at the Westridge Shopping Center on the Golden Mile in Frederick—one at aileen Ladies Sportswear and another at Barnett Shoes—in order to help pay for college and lessen the burden on her parents. She had applied to Mount St. Mary’s University to study accounting and hoped to one day become a lawyer.
Those plans ended, tragically, on March 15, 1989, when Tracey was murdered during her closing shift at aileen’s. Her body, found in the store’s storage room, had multiple stab wounds in the back and chest. She had no defensive wounds and there was no sign of a struggle at the store, so police believe she may have known her killer. Tracey was not sexually assaulted and no money was taken from the store cash register. No witnesses in the area reported seeing or hearing anything suspicious.
“She didn’t do anything to deserve it,” Deonda says. “She would never put herself in a predicament that would have gotten her into any trouble. She was a hard-working kid that had high expectations in life and just didn’t get to do them. We didn’t get to see her get married. Don’t know how she would have been as an aunt; I can imagine how she would have been as an aunt. It makes me wonder if her kids would have had red hair. There were a lot of things we didn’t get to see with her.”
In the three decades since, no one has been arrested for Tracey’s murder. “Thirty years now means that whoever did this, their child is probably … 17, 18 years old now. So, if they could put themselves in our shoes—if something happened to their child how it happened to [my mother and father’s] child, our sister—wouldn’t they want to know? Wouldn’t they want somebody to come forward? If you saw it, what if it was your child? What if it was your sister? Niece? Aunt? Wouldn’t you want somebody to step up and say something?”
“She would have been helping somebody”
In addition to her professional pursuits, Tracey, with her red hair and hazel eyes, had dreams of being a model, too. With one small hitch. “She hated having pictures taken,” says her father, Billy Kirkpatrick. “She loved taking pictures, but she would not let you take a picture of her. Every one of them she has her hand up blocking so you would not take a picture of her,” Deonda adds.
Growing up, Deonda and another sister, Angie, were the athletes in the family, but Tracey did play one year for a softball team. Deonda recalls Tracey was playing right field when the ball was hit there. “She caught it, but she caught it with her eyes closed. She was as shocked as everybody else was that she caught it.”
Tracey was shy and quiet, but had a great sense of humor. She loved animals and would often take in strays. Though her penmanship was not great, she loved to write poems and had one published in the New American Poetry Anthology in 1988. “I think she would have been an excellent teacher if she would have wanted to go into teaching,” Deonda says. “She would have been helping somebody out in some manner,” Billy adds.
On the night of the murder, Diane stopped by aileen’s at 6 p.m. to bring her daughter something to eat and found Tracey alone reading a book. Tracey told her mom that she wanted to go to bed when she got back home. Two hours later, the store manager came in for a few minutes before leaving Tracey alone. The register did not record a sale after 8 p.m.
Shortly after the 9 p.m. closing time, Frederick County Sheriff’s deputy Don Barnes Jr., who also worked as a private security guard at the shopping center, noticed a light on in the store. Believing the store employee was just finishing up, he did not investigate. Returning around 10:30 p.m., the light was still on. The front door was unlocked so he walked inside and called out to see if anyone was there. He then began searching the store.
Tracey had been late coming home to Point of Rocks the night before, too. On that evening Billy drove up to Frederick thinking her car, which had been having mechanical issues, needed to be fixed. He found Tracey talking to a boy she had dated. The two decided to get back together that night. Her parents warned her to call them if she was going to be late.
The next night, with Tracey late again, the couple decided to drive up to Frederick to see what was going on. They found dozens of police vehicles at the shopping center with their lights flashing. Diane thought Tracey had been robbed and told Billy to go find her because she was probably scared. But it was much worse than that.
“I Pray you now will come forward”
Today, there are many television shows devoted to crime scene investigations where a portion of a fingerprint, a skin cell or a tiny droplet of blood can reveal a mysterious killer. Thirty years ago, much of this technology was unknown.
The Frederick Police Department had never faced a case of this kind and mistakes were made. The back doors to the store, through which the killer may have escaped, were not seized and only examined in dim light by flashlight. The phone records to the store that night were also not subpoenaed before the phone company erased them. “I do know one thing,” Deonda says. “I know [the police department] learned from this case.”
A month later, investigators had exhausted their leads. Then the case took an odd turn in June 1989 when a man, claiming his name was Don, called a Las Vegas crime hotline and confessed to murdering Tracey. He said he often would talk to the girl when she was working alone but they had an argument on March 15. “I took out a knife that I have with me at all times, and I killed her.” Though he knew he had “created a lot of sadness,” he would not turn himself in because Maryland had the death penalty at the time.
People might think the call confession would set himself up to be arrested, but Don noted that there were a lot of men named Don in the area. “I’m sorry about what I did but nothing can change it,” he said as the call ended.
Reenergizing the case, Cpl. Barry Horner, who was the lead and first investigator on the case, wrote a letter, published on the front page of The Frederick News-Post on Oct. 10, 1989, asking “Don” to come forward. “I am personally willing to work with you to resolve this tragic situation and I pray you now will come forward to relieve the hurt which Tracey’s family and friends have suffered, as well as the pain which has consumed your life since that night,” Horner wrote.
But through the subsequent investigation, police learned Don made calls to a Massachusetts-based psychic to discuss the case and sent her newspaper clippings about the murder. He was apparently fascinated with homicides and investigations. Police believe he made up the name Don and do not consider him a suspect.
Instead, the murder investigation focused on two suspects, both of whom knew Tracey. Detectives who previously worked on the case believed there was enough circumstantial evidence for a grand jury indictment, but an actual conviction might have been elusive. To avoid a suspect being protected by double-jeopardy, the indictment was not pursued in order to give future investigators the opportunity to obtain more evidence.
“I want people to know that girl”
The case gained national attention in the early 1990s when it was profiled on various national television shows, including Unsolved Mysteries. One person watching was Frederick native Paul Puglisi, who had never heard of Tracey’s murder. He was at a friends’ house and the television was on in the background. “I heard ‘Frederick, Maryland’ on the show and Frederick being such a small town back then, I was kind of shocked there was an episode that was talking about Frederick,” he says. “I just kept watching what it was about. Even as a 9- or 10-year-old kid, I was shocked that this had happened to a girl in Frederick, in my hometown, where nothing like that seemed to happen. Even back then, at that age, it shook me. I felt so bad for Tracey, even as a kid, that they never did find who killed her.”
Today, the Governor Thomas Johnson High School graduate lives in Delaware working as a digital creative specialist. With a passion for movies and documentaries, he does filmmaking on the side and has won accolades for his work, including a 2018 Colorado International Film Festival Best Documentary Feature for Columbus in America.
While in pre-production for that documentary, Puglisi saw 25th-anniversary coverage of Tracey’s murder and was shocked to learn the case was still unsolved. “I immediately remembered, this is that girl that I saw on that show when I was a kid,” he says. “Reading the article and seeing what her family had been through, my heart immediately went out to them and I couldn’t believe nobody had solved this. Her killer was still walking free and just imagining the pain and the suffering that her friends and her family had been through was unimaginable. I just wanted to help in any way that I could.”
Puglisi is applying for grants and has started a GoFundMe campaign in order to make the documentary In the Silent Land: Who Killed Tracey Kirkpatrick? The title refers to a line in 19th-century poem Remember that Tracey read to her family weeks before her murder. “I’m trying to find the money wherever I can to tell this story,” he says. “… I’m so thankful and fortunate that people are reaching out and helping, not just financially but spreading the word that this is something that is important to a lot of people. I’m hoping that through asking for donations this can get the project rolling.”
Puglisi notes his production will pretty much be himself as a one-man band with the funds he raises going toward camera equipment, computer software and licensing rights. “I can do a lot with a little,” he says. “… This is as frugal as I can possibly be but it is important to be able to go back to that time and tell how her story was being told in 1989 and the early ’90s. Nobody gets into documentary filmmaking to make it rich. I just want to be able to tell the story.” (Donations to Puglisi’s documentary can be made at www.gofundme.com/the-silent-land-who-killed-tracey-kirkpatrick.)
In December, Puglisi left a dozen red roses on Tracey’s grave in Industry, Pa., and he has received permission from the Kirkpatricks to tell Tracey’s story. “I want to bring to life who she was and why she meant so much to so many people,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many people have already reached out to me saying they care so much about her and they still do. They think about her a lot. She sounded like a very remarkable 17-year-old girl who had a really bright future ahead of her that she was forging on her own. I want people to know that girl before going into the tragedy that happened to her and her family.”
Deonda Kirkpatrick is glad Puglisi plans to celebrate Tracey’s life, not just sensationalize her death. “People will look at me and say, ‘You look familiar’, and I say, ‘Well I’ve been on TV.’ My sister’s name will come up and they will say, ‘She’s that girl who got killed in Frederick.’ She no longer has a name. She’s ‘that girl who got killed in Frederick’ or ‘that girl who got murdered in Frederick.’ Her name went with the memory. She’s not Tracey anymore. [Puglisi] wants to paint the picture of her and who she was along with her story. He wants to give her a face again. That felt pretty good. … I’m hoping the movie triggers something in someone somewhere, I hope. Maybe whoever did it sees it, maybe grows a conscience after 30 years. I don’t know how you could live with yourself for 30 years knowing that you took an innocent life. Why? What did she do [to die] so brutally? It wasn’t an accident. You purposely went in there and did this to her and brutally.”
“We still feel this case is solvable”
Inside the Frederick Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division is a full filing cabinet and a couple more drawers devoted to Tracey’s case, which remains open and under investigation. Though no investigator had been specifically assigned to the case in recent months, Sgt. Andrew Alcorn says the department has been following leads and hopes to have the case formally reassigned to a new detective coming into the division by this month’s anniversary.
Several years ago, one former detective took the case to the Vidocq Society, a group of investigators who evaluate cold cases from around the world. “The group said this case is definitely solvable,” Alcorn says. “They gave [the previous detective assigned to the case] some tasks, if that’s what you want to call them, to follow up with. He followed up on some of them. He didn’t get to all of them before he got moved, so we are still looking to follow up on some of the tasks they had recommended as well as new advancements in technology and DNA.”
Some of the Vidocq Society recommendations included tying up some loose ends by following up on witness statements. The Kirkpatricks remain skeptical. “It sounded good but you are talking 30 years and you are asking somebody to remember something from 30 years ago,” Deonda says. “I’m lucky if I can remember something from yesterday, let alone 30 years ago, so I don’t know.”
The department has resubmitted some evidence for DNA testing. “We are looking at the new wave of DNA testing and what is required for it,” Alcorn says. “[There are] limitations. The limitations of the testing. The case is 30 years old. A lot of the evidence has already been tested. We are starting to run into a situation where we don’t want to test something unless we know we are going to get the result we want back. When I say that, we don’t want to test something and then they come back and say, ‘Sorry. It’s inconclusive.’ We want some type of resolution to this case, whether, ‘Yes, this is the person’ or ‘No, this is not the person.’ We want to be able to send something down to the lab and say, ‘Yes, this belongs to this person’ or ‘No, it does not’ 100 percent rather than, ‘Oh, it’s inconclusive,’ because inconclusive doesn’t really help us with the investigation at all.”
Billy Kirkpatrick says his frustration with the case might have been felt by the previous detective on the case. “He told me the same thing,” he says. “No money. We have to wait until we get money so we can send something to the lab. That’s all they have done for the last 10 years is send stuff to the lab. Same old thing.” Thirty years is a long time to hear no one has been arrested for your daughter’s murder. “A lot of times you talk to them and nothing would have been done in a year or two years, and all of the sudden they send something to the lab,” he says. “… Nothing has been done but lab stuff.”
Alcorn “absolutely” believes that there is hope for an arrest in the case. “I think if there was no hope at all we probably would just close the case and release it, but we still feel this case is solvable and that the person that is responsible for her death—we can bring them to justice one day and give the family some closure,” he says. “That is our biggest hope.”
“I didn’t think I was going to be planning 30”
Every year on June 9, Tracey’s birthday, the family brings either yellow roses or carnations to a cherry tree planted in her honor at Brunswick High School. Last year, the tree died and was dug up. “It was a cherry tree and it blossomed every March, every spring. That’s what [Tracey] liked. She liked the cherry blossoms in D.C.” The tree has since been replaced.
On March 15, the Kirkpatricks will be at the shopping center from 8:45 to 9:45 p.m. for a candlelight vigil. Alcorn is planning to host a press conference. “Hopefully it will be able to spark the public’s interest again and maybe we can get some people talking about it,” he says.
Deonda notes the family goes to the shopping center every single year during the timeframe when Tracey was murdered. “I didn’t think I was going to be planning 30,” she says of the anniversary year. “Didn’t think I was going to be planning 25. I don’t know if I want to do 40.”