For nearly half a century, two questions have plagued Baltimore County police: Who murdered Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik and why?
Now, 47 years after the young nun’s killing, investigators might get a break in the case.
Authorities exhumed the body of a priest — one of several suspects in the murder — to determine whether his DNA matches forensic evidence collected at the crime scene.
“There’s a lot of people who have come forward over the years who feel very strongly that he had something to do with it,” police spokeswoman Elise Armacost told Fox News.
“In the interest of leaving no stone unturned, we felt it necessary to exhume the body and compare the DNA to crime scene evidence,” Armacost said.
The remains of Father Joseph Maskell — who died in 2001 — were exhumed by Baltimore County police in February to extract material for a DNA profile. Armacost said investigators will compare the profile to “a very small amount of DNA” obtained at the crime scene and preserved for nearly 50 years. The results will take up to six more weeks, she said.
Cesnik’s badly decomposed body was found on Jan. 3, 1970, in a field in Halethorpe, Md. The 26-year-old nun was reported missing on Nov. 7, 1969, from her residence in Baltimore City, according to police.
At the time of her disappearance, Cesnik was on a sabbatical from the Roman Catholic Church and was teaching at Western High School in Baltimore City. Authorities believe Cesnik was taken in front of her residence as she was returning from a store and forced back into her car. They believe she was driven to the field where she was beaten. It’s not known whether Cesnik, who died of blunt force trauma, was also sexually assaulted, according to law enforcement.
Cesnik’s car was found in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 1969, within walking distance of her residence — leading police to believe the person or persons involved lived in the area.
The case — the subject of the upcoming Netflix documentary, “The Keepers” — was assigned to a new team of cold-case investigators in 2016 that felt exhuming Maskell’s body was a “box that needed to be checked,” said Armacost.
If a match, Armacost said it “would be a significant development” that “would tell us whether he was at the crime scene.”
“We have one living suspect left. All the other suspects connected to this case have died. Absent a confession by the living suspect or a match of this DNA, we’re running out of ways to conclude the case,” she said, stressing, “We’re still optimistic this case can be cleared.”
Investigators never determined a motive in Cesnik’s killing but have proved several theories over the years.
According to a 1994 report by the Baltimore Sun, a woman who claimed to have been sexually abused as a student at Archbishop Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore told police that a priest — later identified as Maskell — had taken her to see the Cesnik’s remains long before the hunters discovered it. Cesnik was a teacher at the school at the time the woman attended and Maskell worked there as a 30-year-old chaplain.
The woman said another man she met in the priest’s office told her that he had killed Cesnik because the woman had told the nun about the abuse.
“The theory that she was killed because she knew something about abuse in the Roman Catholic church is one theory we have pursued and continue to pursue,” said Armacost. “We have never been able to conclusively prove that’s why she was killed.”
Police are also probing whether Cesnik fell victim to a serial killer — one who might have been connected to the murders of other young women from the same area that year.
Joyce Helen Malecki, 20, was reported missing three days after Cesnik disappeared and her body was found days later near the Little Patuxent River in Fort Meade. Pamela Lynn Conyers, 16, also from Maryland, was found raped and murdered in October 1970 in a case that remains unsolved.
Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.