Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Eyewitness to Murder, Part 5

Mark Felsher

On April 13, 1975, an unemployed Silver Spring carpenter named Michael Edward Pearch dressed in his Army fatigues, strapped a machete to his chest, shrugged on a knapsack with 250 rounds of ammunition, and loaded his .45 automatic pistol. He drove to the nearby Wheaton Plaza shopping mall and began killing. Within the next half hour, he shot seven people, all African-American. Two of them died. I don’t want to mention Pearch’s name without also listing his victims, so here they are.
  • John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland: died.
  • Laureen D. Sligh, 40, his wife: wounded.
  • Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville: minor injuries when his car crashed.
  • Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17: wounded.
  • Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC: killed.
  • Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, Maryland: wounded.
  • Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville: wounded.
Pearch died at the hands of the police: “suicide by cop.”

Two years ago, I told that story on my blog, and last month I summarized some of my encounters with others touched by the same experience. The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School led to my revisiting the story, and in particular telling about my encounter with Mark Felsher, one of the last people to talk to the killer. Yesterday, I told the story about how Felsher first met Pearch. Today I'll share the final chapter of that part of the story.

Mowing the Lawn

As Mark entered his teenage years, he spent less time camping in the Greenbelt woods and more time working for spending money. Each Saturday he mowed lawns for a landscape service run by a family friend, going as far afield as Silver Spring, a few towns west of Greenbelt in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland. The owner, Howie, would pick Mark up (he was still too young to drive), and the two would work together. Mark was fifteen years old.

This particular day, Howie told Mark he had a new customer on Dennis Avenue in Silver Spring. As the two got to work, Howie began working around the right side of the house while Mark started in the front, near the sidewalk. The owner, a woman, arrived at the same time and took in some brown paper bags of groceries. Howie and she exchanged a few words.

The house was old and somewhat neglected. The windows were unpainted and dark, with blinds pulled down. Shortly after the owner went inside, the door opened again and a man walked out.
Mark initially didn’t recognize the man, and assumed he was going to talk to Howie about the work, but instead the man walked confidently and deliberately up to Mark. “You’re Mark Felsher,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

It had been two years since the incident in the woods, and it took Mark a few seconds to place the man. “Mike Phipps?” he asked tentatively.

Mike shook his head. “Sorry, that’s not really my name. It’s Pearch. Mike Pearch. I was just toying with you guys. I said my name was ‘Mike Phipps’ after the quarterback, but my real name is Mike Pearch.” Mike Phipps was an NFL quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, though Mark didn’t know that at the time.

The whole conversation, Felsher said, was uncomfortable. Pearch was intense and focused, not at relaxed as he’d been during their time camping. “I just could not catch up to where he was,” Mark said of the conversation. “It was as though he had seen me yesterday and I had not seen him for two years.”
Pearch had recently come back from Germany, but according to Mark sounded like he was visiting relatives there rather than having been deployed. He told Mark he’d been engaged to be married, but Mark got the sense that the engagement was over.

The real focus of the conversation, however, was about falconry. Pearch had gotten into the sport, and was very passionate about it. But Mark had grass to cut and his boss was watching, so he ended the conversation, fully expecting to see Mike again when they came back to cut the grass.

Mark didn’t think much of the conversation at the time. It was odd, he thought, that Mike had recognized him so readily after two years, but that was all. People change a lot between the ages of 13 and 15, and if you don’t know somebody well, it’s altogether possible that you wouldn’t recognize them after two years of adolescent growth. But Mike Pearch had recognized him with only a glimpse through a window.

It was Saturday, April 12, 1975, in the late afternoon.

Those Who Watch

As an ostensible witness to the situation, as I’ve mentioned previously, I failed to grasp what was going on around me, and I still feel bad about my failure. Mark Felsher told me that one of the reasons he’d gotten in touch is that he also felt bad about his failure to read Pearch’s character correctly, and wonders if there is anything he could have said or done that would have changed the events of April 13, 1975.

In both our cases, I suspect the answer is that even armed with 20-20 hindsight, there was little if anything either of us could have done. But that doesn’t change the feeling of responsibility. I imagine that even the heroes of Sandy Hook Elementary will carry the same feeling — although they did more than either Mark or me, they will always wonder if there was more they could have done, if there were additional steps they could have taken.

The feeling of helplessness and stupidity in the face of terrible events stays with you, and perhaps it’s right that it should. Regardless of what might or might not have been possible, the human need to try should always be paramount in our minds.

More of the Story

Thanks to Mark, I've been able to learn something of the story of two more of the victims: Rosalyn Stanley and Harold Navy. (Navy was the victim I saw.) In addition, I've just received another comment from someone who also knew Navy.

It's usually the killer who gets most of the focus in stories like this, not merely because of the sensationalism but also because of our human need to make sense from horror. But without the stories of the victims, it doesn't mean a thing. Stay tuned.

More to come…

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