CADAVER IN THE FOREST
by Robert Faszczewski
Author’s Note: The following story is purely fictional. Any resemblance to real people or incidents is strictly coincidental.
The badly decomposed body lay deep in a long-unused well in one of the far reaches of Pocomoke State Forest. It seemed like little remained of the cadaver— so little, in fact, that it looked like this mysterious discovery would go down again as another one of the bizarre findings reported throughout the history of these vast Worcester County parklands.
This latest journey into this land of strange occurrences happened in late October 2019, when a group of students from nearby Salisbury University began a weekend excursion into the forest.
Urban legends springing up from Pokomoke over the years included the decapitated body of a young boy supposedly found swinging from a tree, a male Cambridge State Hospital escapee with a hook instead of a hand chasing visitors around the forest and the mysterious disappearance of a school bus driver in the forest after his vehicle stalled for no reason along a roadway.
“What really shook us up though was prying loose the cover of this abandoned well and finding actual skeletal remains,” Salisbury student John Blanchard said. “We had heard all the rumors, but never expected to find what we discovered at the bottom of that pit.”
Up to now, stories about the forest’s eerie past apparently had resulted from overactive imaginations steeped in folklore.
However, this body in the well actually brought the college hikers face-to-face with the possibility of a real crime—either committed elsewhere with the body dumped into the well or the killing actually taking place within the forest.
After making the bizarre discovery, Blanchard and his fellow hikers immediately called in the local authorities, who took the skeletal remains to the office of Maryland’s chief medical examiner.
It took chief ME Delia McMillan nearly three weeks to come to something she felt “approximated a firm conclusion.”
“Fortunately,” said Dr. McMillan, “our state-of-the-art DNA research system enabled us to estimate the age of the cadaver at about 20 years. The remains found by the students appeared to have come from an African-American female. The breaks we found in what appeared to be neck bones, seemed to indicate strangulation, and what appeared as a deep wound in what remained of the skull seemed to point to a fatal gunshot wound.”
“Tracing this evidence back to the source of this murder will take every bit of detective skill my squad can muster,” Worcester Detective Bureau Chief Sam Speakman declared at the Thanksgiving Eve press briefing following discovery of the remains.
Combing through a few months or even a few weeks of unsolved murder cases would present a Herculean task, Speakman noted, but a 20-year puzzle presented almost an impossible proposition.
However, Worcester County’s relatively small rate of murders appeared to give Speakman and his crew a small leg up.
They carefully went through every murder report in the previous two decades and then delved further into those cases for which police never had found a cause or suspect.
Narrowing the search further, the detectives only looked at murders in the immediate area of Pokemoke State Forest and those allegedly involving a combination of stabbings and shootings.
“We figured that, even with the state of deterioration found in these remains, the fact that the hikers discovered them so near the probable surface of the abandoned well and the discovery of any identifiable remains at all means the murder probably did not take place more than a mile or two from the discovery site,” Speakman pointed out.
The narrowing-down process still continued for another month, and it looked like the Christmas holidays would approach before the announcement of any further definite conclusions.
Even if detectives found the date and location of the murder and the identity of the victims, the entire story of the motives for the killing and those who committed the heinous crime still had not opened up for them.
They scoured the area for additional clues, interviewed colleagues and former colleagues who had worked for local and county law enforcement agencies around the probable time of the murder and reviewed the entire history of the Pokomoke State Forest for the previous two decades.
“It turns out,” Speakman reported, “that the area now included within the boundaries of the state forest had, at one time, encompased a residential zone that became deserted over the years after severe flooding following torrential downpours during a number of storms in late summer and early fall. Those who had lived there abandoned their homes and the forest overtook the previous home sites.”
In addition, the previous residential area had, for many years been the “stomping grounds” of one of the county’s most notorious crime families, which engaged heavily in the prostitution and illegal drug trades.
“At the same time,” the Worcester County detective chief added, “a number of very religious Baptist congregants lived in the area. They fought valiantly for many years in an attempt to rid their neighborhood of the blight of the gang lords and return it to a safe place in which they could raise their children and live out the remainder of their lives.”
The local and county law enforcement officials discovered that, beginning in 1999, the skirmishes between the criminal element and and the religious community had come to a head.
Resident Bernardine Warrington led the charge on many fronts against the gangs. She conducted Bible studies four nights a week at the Pokomoke Forest Baptist Congregational Church, deliberately scheduling them on Saturdays, long seen as the prime times for the crime families to recruit their newest “interns.”
Bernardine also acted as a guest preacher at as many church services as possible every week. Her sermons centered around the evils of the criminal life, the dangers it posed to the futures of young people and the erosion of family life by the mob lifestyle.
She bailed out many young people after their first infractions for mob-related activities and fought hard to make sure they had sports and vocational programs to enrich their lives and steer them away from the gangs.
Ms. Warrington’s activities had gone on for about five years, and they began taking a toll. Gangland recruit numbers took a nosedive and the gangs began to experience huge losses in their profits from criminal enterprises throughout the area bordering Pokomoke Forest State Park.
“We would be willing to allow this little preacher to have her fun as long as she peacefully coexisted with us and did not damage our bottom line,” top gang boss Hugo Longo said. “She has put too big a dent into our profitability and something has to give.”
Longo let it be known through his undercover gangland channels that he would “pay big bucks to the person willing to make this threat disappear.”
Of course, although local law enforcment officials had a very effective pipeline into the underworld, the mob remained one step ahead of them.
Then, at the beginning of a winter evening in 1999, Ms. Warrington’s nephew Harry went to her Pokomoke home, then on the edge of Pokomoke State Forest, to discuss her sermon for the upcoming Sunday.
When Harry arrived at her house he found the front door unlocked, something his aunt warned against in her sermons and something she never would allow in her own home.
Rushing up to Bernardine’s bedroom, he found her body hanging in a closet with a bullet wound in her head.
That night, even before local and county officials even had time to remove the body, a fire destroyed her home and those of many of her neighbors. Law enforcement authorities could not gather the evidence they needed to find either the killers or the arsonist who set the neighborhood blazes.
Longo and his “associates” left the area and never surfaced again in the vicinity of Pokomoke State Forest.
Torrential rains the next week further buried what little evidence the fire had not destroyed.
For 20 years the murder of Bernardine Warrington and the neighborhood fires that followed remained some of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the history of the Delmarva Peninsula.
In 2019, however, the discovery of the cadaver buried in the abandoned well seemed to provide a roadmap to the solution of the mysteries. Not only did 21st century DNA provide clues to the identity of the murder victim and how she died. Other tests gave law enforcement officials some weapons they felt would lead them to the arrests and convictions of those responsible.
Local, Worcester County, Maryland and federal officials put out an international communications dragnet, including notices on law enforcement sites in every form of social media available.
“We finally are on our way to bringing justice to the late Bernardine Warrington and peace-of-mind to her family,” Speakman said. “It may take some time, but if we find that Longo and any of his cohorts and successors destroyed one of the greatest leaders our area has ever known and one of our great neighborhoods, we will bring them in and give them a good taste of Delmarva justice.”
Finally, after hooking up with police agencies at every level in the United States and abroad, even employing the vast resources of Interpol, in 194 countries across the globe, Speakman and his colleagues struck pay dirt. The national police agency in Curacao located Longo. Now 94 years old, he lived on a lavish estate in one of the backwoods villages on the island.
Worcester authorities, with the total cooperation of Curacao, Interpol and FBI investigators, arrested Hugo Longo and five of his colleagues on murder and conspiracy charges in connection with the death of Bernardine Warrington and the massive arsons in her former neighborhood.
The Curacao authorities knew the former American gangster very well. For a number of years they had kept tabs on his undercover operations, but the mobster and his crew had been so good at bribing lower level officials and making death threats against those who dealt with them and for them that it had been impossible to “nail” them on any concrete charges.
The Curacao authorities welcomed the American arrest warrant as the pathway they hoped would rid their previously-peaceful island of this gangland scourge.
It took another eight months, and the prosecuting attorneys had to fight off a number of slippery legal manuevers by the stable of well-connected defense lawyers hired by the mob.
However, Maryland courts eventually convicted Longo and his “business partners” on all charges and sentenced them to life in prison. Curacao followed up with its own indictments and added five more life sentences for bribery, criminal conspiracy and murder.
After decades of rumor and speculation about Pokomoke State Forest at long last it looked like residents of the area could put the one true mystery of the forest and the many rumors surrounding it to rest and bring peace to one of the most beautiful natural sites on the Delmarva Peninsula.
About the Author:
Robert Faszczewski is a fiction writer based in Berlin, MD. He retired in 2018 after 30 years as an editor and reporter on some of the most well-liked community publications in suburban Northern New Jersey, USA. He is a member of the Maryland Writers Association and a former member of the board of the Editorial Freelancers Association.