Route 40 Killer Remains an Enigma After Being Convicted 30 Years Ago
Are we any closer to understanding the heinous crimes and confounding courtroom behavior of Delaware's only known serial killer, Steven Brian Pennell?
Steven Pennell's New Castle County mugshot./Photos provided by the Delaware Department of Justice
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Delaware Today.
Shirley Anne Ellis was the first.
It was a chilly, rainy night on Nov. 29, 1987. Though the holiday had passed three days earlier, Ellis was carrying a Thanksgiving platter for an AIDS patient undergoing treatment at Wilmington Hospital. Shortly before 6 p.m., she left the warmth of her family's home in Newark's Brookmont Farms development and began the 14-mile trek.
An ex-prostitute, Ellis knew Route 40 well. The 23-year-old had distanced herself from the life of a streetwalker, even purchasing books for nursing school. Even so, she was well aware that the best way to catch a ride into the city was to hitchhike along Route 40, the area just south of Wilmington where she'd plied her trade. As she walked along the corridor, a car pulled up and offered her a ride.
Two teenagers looking to close the holiday weekend in the ideal make-out spot discovered Ellis' body around 9:25 p.m. that evening. She was partially clothed, her legs spread apart. The autopsy told a macabre story of torture and mutilation. Ellis had been bound at the feet and the ankles. Black duct tape, likely used to prevent her from screaming, was still attached to strands of her hair.
No evidence of sexual assault was uncovered, but the autopsy did reveal that Ellis was tortured with work tools before she died. The killer then wrapped a ligature around her neck and repeatedly struck her over the head with a hammer.
Investigators were stumped. "There was no reason for Shirley Ellis to be killed," recalls Kathleen Jennings, the state prosecutor who eventually stared the accused down in a tough cross-examination. "No angry boyfriend or anything that would connect a murderer to her death. For a time, people believed it was an interstate trucker."
Roughly a quarter century later, the questions persist. Why did a 31-year-old married father of two embark on a killing spree? Why did he refuse to admit guilt but demand to be executed for the crimes?
Steven Brian Pennell, Delaware's only documented serial killer, did all of these things. Yet, even now, those close to the case are at a loss to explain what happened. "To this day, I want to know why," says Jennings. "All of us involved want to understand it better. Typically, there’s some horrifying event in the life of a serial killer that explains how they became sociopaths. But in the Pennell case, we couldn't get at it. That’s the lingering mystery: Why?"
A 1991 psychiatric evaluation submitted to the Delaware Supreme Court cleared Pennell of depression, paranoia and psychosis. It also described him as "a pleasant, attractive, friendly 33-year-old man who related well to the examiner."
"His acts were unspeakable," says Pennell’s attorney, Eugene Maurer. "But it's hard to [connect] the Steven Pennell I got to know with the person who committed these horrific crimes. The psychiatric evaluations never diagnosed him with any mental-health issues."
State prosecutor Kathleen Jennings.
Defense attorney Eugene Maurer.
It happened again seven months later. According to court documents, Catherine DiMauro was walking along Route 40 around 11:30 p.m. on June 28, 1988. The 31-year-old divorcee had a history of prostitution arrests, but it's unclear if she was working that night when she accepted a ride from a stranger in a blue van.
Workers building the Fox Run apartment complex found her body at 6:25 the next morning. DiMauro was found completely naked—that was the only difference. Everything else was the same. Her wrists and ankles were bound, and she was silenced with duct tape.
Again, there were no signs of sexual activity, but the victim was tortured and mutilated with work tools. She was also strangled with a ligature and bludgeoned with a hammer. "Everything was consistent with the Ellis case," recalls James Hedrick, a former New Castle County Police captain and a member of the task force that captured Pennell. "We felt that the same person was responsible for both murders."
This time, however, the killer left a clue: DiMauro was covered head to toe in blue carpet fiber.
A week later, officers from the Delaware State Police and the New Castle County Police Department sprang into action. A task force was formed, complete with its own headquarters near the New Castle County airport. With roughly 60 members, it was the state's third-largest police department for a time. "We had access to an airplane, helicopters and rental vehicles," Hedrick says. "Money wasn't an issue. I don't know anyone who has ever worked for a government agency where money wasn't an issue. We had an unlimited budget."
Task-force members met with the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia. The bureau concluded the unthinkable: A serial killer had come to Delaware. Route 40 was the only connection between the two victims. Soon, undercover female officers dressed as prostitutes walked the stretch of highway looking for clues. They would engage in flirty banter with the men who stopped, but they never got into a vehicle. Meanwhile, other task-force members were trying to identify the strange fibers found on DiMauro.
On Aug. 22, a prostitute named Margaret Lynn Finner went missing. She was working the streets along U.S. 13. Witnesses last saw her leave in a blue Ford panel van with round headlights driven by a white male.
Roughly three months later, Finner was found dead near the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, her body in such an advanced state of decay that a cause of death couldn't be determined. No one was ever charged.
Renee Taschner was a 23-year-old New Castle County police officer when she came face to face with evil on Sept. 14, 1988. She had been walking Route 40 disguised as a prostitute in an effort to turn up anything that could solve the murders.
Just as on previous stakeouts, men routinely approached Taschner. "We had a gamut of people stop for her," says Hedrick."Doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers. At one point, there was a line of five or six vehicles with men waiting to talk to her."
A blue Ford panel van with round headlights drove past. It stopped a little farther down the road, stopped again and turned around. Taschner estimates the van drove past her seven times in 20 minutes.
She walked to a more secluded area. The van stopped. A white male opened the side panel. Taschner immediately saw the blue carpet covering the van's interior. She also noticed the driver's coldness. "He was different than any other person who stopped for me," she recalls. "It was hard to get into a conversation. He wasn't in the moment. He was looking right through me."
The young officer was prescient enough to playfully rub her hand against the carpeting on the van's floor, pulling out blue fibers for testing. The driver demanded that Taschner get in the van. She refused. He asked again. She made up a story about being tired from partying all day and needing to sleep. The driver became suspicious and drove off.
While Taschner was engaged in small talk, Hedrick ran the van's plates. It was registered to Steven Brian Pennell, a Delaware electrician with no criminal record.
In the weeks that followed, both the killer and the task force accelerated their activities. The blue fibers were sent to a lab for testing, and a search warrant was secured to follow Pennell.
Kathleen Meyer's body was never found.
He struck again. Michelle Gordon, a 22-year-old New Castle resident, disappeared on Sept. 16, 1988. Known as a prostitute to local authorities, Gordon was last seen on Route 40, hopping into the passenger side of a blue Ford panel van.
This time, however, police caught a break. The lone witness to the abduction knew both Gordon and Pennell. She immediately identified the vehicle.
Gordon's body washed up on the rocky banks of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal on Sept. 20. A cocaine addict, she was the only victim who died while being tortured. The medical examiner testified that the drugs in her system made her heart incapable of withstanding the shock of her beating.
Three days later, Kathleen Meyer, another Brookmont Farms resident, was last seen alive hitchhiking along Route 40 around 9:30 p.m. An off-duty police officer spotted the 26-year-old accepting a ride from a stranger in a blue Ford van. Aware of its connections to the murders, he jotted down the plate number. It was registered to Pennell. Meyer's body was never found.
By this point, the task force was monitoring Pennell's every move. Taschner even sat next to Pennell at a Moody Blues concert. She also recalls a heartbreaking encounter with his daughter, who approached the officer during a stakeout and asked for a donation to a school fundraiser. "She was a kid, and you never want any child to experience what was happening," says Taschner.
Delaware Attorney General Charles Oberly approved a search warrant for Pennell's van. The suspect had been pulled over for a routine traffic violation and was immediately hauled into court to pay his ticket—an infrequent but legal method for the police to detain a suspect.
Police searched the vehicle, which spoke to them in ways the victims could not. They discovered carpet fibers matching those on the victims, along with hair, blood and the same brand of duct tape used on DiMauro. There was the so-called "torture kit"—pliers, a whip, handcuffs, needles, knives and restraints.
An arrest warrant was issued, and on Nov. 29, 1988, a year after he'd claimed his first victim, Pennell was in handcuffs. Charged with the murder of DiMauro, Gordon and Ellis, he exercised his right to remain silent.
"He was your typical, all-American person," the task force’s Hedrick says of his interview with Pennell. "He came across as a totally normal married father with no criminal record. No one would ever look at his background and see signs that this could happen. No one would ever suspect him of anything."
Prior to Pennell's trial, his defense attorney vigorously attacked the fiber evidence, arguing that Taschner didn't have the authority to seize the strands. Superior Court Judge Richard Gebelein denied Maurer's claims, concluding that the carpet was in plain view once Pennell opened the door to invite Taschner inside the van.
"The fibers led to everything else," says Oberly. "If that was ruled inadmissible, everything else would've been kept out under the 'fruit of the poisonous tree' legal doctrine. That could've been devastating."
But Jennings planned to introduce more than blue fibers at Pennell's September 1989 criminal trial. She had DNA evidence.
Carpet fiber evidence found in Pennell's van.
Tire tracks from Pennell's van.
At the time, only two other criminal cases in the country had permitted its introduction. The Pennell case would, in fact, be the first time DNA evidence was used in a criminal trial.
"There was a learning curve," admits Gebelein. "There weren't a lot of experts in that field, and there was no case law to ensure the evidence was introduced correctly. I had to let the scientists testify and then make a decision whether their actions were legally sound."
Despite the fibers and the DNA, the strongest case against Steven Pennell was Steven Pennell. Maurer rolled the dice and had his client testify how the victims' blood and hair found their way into his van. He claimed he picked up DiMauro, paid her $25 for oral sex and then dropped her off, joking that she "gave me $10 back" afterward. The jury was horrified.
"It was as fine a piece of testifying as I've ever seen," Maurer contends. "He explained everything. Where he got slaughtered was his demeanor. He had these cold, dark eyes that didn't move around a lot. I tried to work with him, but people are who they are."
The state prosecutor agrees. "The way he described DiMauro was so cold," says Jennings. "He talked about her like she was some piece of garbage he could just throw away. I think that hurt him in front of the jury."
Pennell may have come across as unlikable, but the jury still struggled with the three murder charges. Jurors spent eight days reviewing the evidence, which is still the longest deliberation in Delaware legal history. "I was going through anguish each day," Maurer says. "I thought it was going to be a quick verdict and he'd be convicted in two days. As each day passed, I thought maybe we got something going."
On Nov. 23, 1989, Thanksgiving Day, the jury reached a verdict. As a terrible snowstorm settled over the region, Jennings, Maurer and Peter Letang of the Attorney General's office abandoned their holiday plans to learn Pennell's fate.
"It was a little surreal being in the courtroom," Gebelein says. "The thought was that the jury should've been done before Thanksgiving. If they were sequestered any longer, they wouldn't have been able to go home to their families."
In the end, Pennell was convicted of murdering Ellis and DiMauro. But the jury deadlocked on the Gordon case. "In retrospect, it was probably the correct verdict," Maurer concedes. "There was just too much evidence that he had to explain."
Shortly after the verdict, a bouquet of flowers arrived on Jennings' desk. The card read, "From the women of Route 40. You made us feel like human beings."
The jury also deadlocked on the death penalty. Pennell was sentenced to two life terms in 1990. Maurer initiated the lengthy appeals process, alleging that the fiber seizure was unconstitutional, among other things. The state responded by indicting Pennell for the murders of Meyer and Gordon, based on new evidence. Pennell asked if he could proceed without an attorney. The motion was granted.
Pennell's next move shocked the world. He pled no contest to the two murders and asked the Superior Court to sentence him to death. He did not, however, confess. "I've never seen so many twists and turns in one case," says Gebelein.
A hearing was held to determine if the convicted murderer should be spared. Pennell delivered a terse argument for his own death, filled with biblical quotes. "The law was developed from one book, and it's that book I quote from," he said. "In Numbers, chapter 35, verse 30, 'Whoever kills a person, the person shall be put to death.' Also, in Genesis, chapter 9, verse 6, 'Whoever sheds man’s blood by man, his blood shall be shed.'
"This court has found me guilty on the testimony of witnesses. So I ask that the sentence be death as said by the state’s laws and God’s laws. That’s all I have to say."
Officers escort Pennell from court.
On Halloween 1991, Pennell was sentenced to death. Under Delaware law, all such cases are automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court. Pennell appeared before the five-judge court on Feb. 11, 1992, to ask for his own execution. He remains the only person to represent himself before the state Supreme Court, and the only one to ask for death. He still refused to admit guilt. "The most amazing thing was that he spoke about the crimes in the third person," says former Supreme Court Justice Andrew Moore, who heard Pennell's argument. "He never once used the first person. It was a strange, strange thing."
Pennell argued as if he were a prosecutor demanding death for a vicious criminal. "The perpetrator must have sensed a pleasure in the killings," he told the court. "Since he did not commit just one, but continued in the same depraved manner on the others, this pleasure is evident."
Deputy Attorney General Richard E. Fairbanks Jr. represented the state. He was personally opposed to the death penalty, yet he still gave a fiery plea for Pennell's execution. "Fairbanks became so impassioned that we thought he would burst into tears," Moore recalls. "All five of us were taken aback by his impassioned statements."
Not a single justice asked a question. Moore can't recall any other oral argument in the Supreme Court without at least one question.
The court unanimously agreed that execution was an appropriate punishment for Pennell's crimes. A date was set for March 14, 1992. Pennell appeared content, but others rushed to prevent his death. Two men whom he never met filed appeals on his behalf, but they were quickly dismissed for lack of standing.
The condemned murderer’s wife, Vera Katherine Pennell, did have standing, however. She petitioned the American Civil Liberties Union's Delaware chapter to argue for a stay of execution. And, in another strange twist, Widener University law professor Lawrence Hamermesh, a member of the ACLU's board, agreed to represent the killer’s wife. An expert in the corporate arena, Hamermesh had never handled a criminal case. "I think I did the best I could," he says now. "I had no death-penalty experience, and the state had pulled out all the stops because of the severity of the crimes."
Hamermesh challenged a Superior Court psychiatric evaluation that declared Pennell competent to understand the charges and to challenge them himself. The attorney alleged the review was neither thorough nor comprehensive, and that time was needed for a more complete evaluation.
The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the argument, and Pennell was scheduled for execution.
A task force of almost 60 members was formed.
Pennell's blue Ford panel van.
Shortly before Pennell's death, he called his attorney from prison. Maurer hadn't heard from his client in over a year, and he was as surprised as anyone when Pennell agreed to speak to the media before the execution. He asked his attorney to sit next to him, "afraid of saying something stupid," Maurer recalls. "In some ways, he was very much a conformist. He cared very much what people thought of him."
The interviews revealed little beyond Pennell's plans for a last meal.
On March 14, 1992, Steven Brian Pennell was the first man executed in Delaware in 46 years. He had no final words and left no answers for the chaos he induced. "I hoped and prayed that, before Pennell died, he'd tell us where we could find Kathleen Meyer, or at least give us a place to look," says Hedrick. "That didn't happen."
It was one of many secrets Pennell took to the grave. One can't help but wonder why he demanded the ultimate punishment, even while maintaining his innocence.
"Asking for death was his way of admitting it," the task force's Taschner suggests. "I was as surprised as anyone else, but I'm glad he spared the victims' families and his own family years of appeals."
Others simply want to know why any of it happened in the first place. "He never permitted the interviews that got us answers," says Jennings. "Even the FBI tried to talk to him and get at the heart of what caused him to do this. But he just wouldn't talk."