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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD FRIEND

LAUREL NOIR

The Murder of Audrey Blaisdell

A Laurel family's bowling night turns tragic in 1973 

Laurel Noir is a series focused on historic crimes and the darker underside of our hometown.

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By Richard Friend  |  March 20, 2018

1973 had already been a traumatic year in Laurel—a year that began with the shocking murder of Safeway cashier Edie Miles in January.

Eight months later, and literally within a stone’s throw of the Safeway on Bowie Road where Mrs. Miles had been shot to death, an equally horrific story unfolded.

The evening of September 24th should have been a routine, fun Monday night for the Blaisdell family, who’d lived in Laurel for 10 years. Kenneth and Betty Blaisdell were avid bowlers at Fair Lanes Laurel, which was less than a mile from their home at 1027 Harrison Drive. They were part of a Monday night bowling league, and their daughters, 12-year-old Audrey and 11-year-old Debbie, would eagerly accompany them each week.

Audrey Susan Blaisdell was a ninth grader at Laurel Junior High School, and a member of the First Baptist church, where she sang in the choir. She would have turned 13 on October 9th of that year. But Audrey didn’t come home from the bowling alley that night. Her grandmother, Bernice Bedell, would later tearfully tell police that she “already had her present wrapped.”

Fair Lanes was a lively spot on any given night, and Mondays were no exception. The bowling alley was still in its heyday and thriving, full of Laurelites young and old—bowlers of varying skill levels, as well as billiards and pinball players, and even casual observers. Amidst the nonstop din of rolling balls and crashing pins, it was a social center where adults could routinely run into their neighbors and colleagues, and their kids would meet friends and classmates. The unmistakable smells of lane wax, aerosol shoe deodorant, cigarette smoke, and French fries intermingled for a not-entirely-unpleasant aroma that was unique to bowling alleys throughout the country.

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Audrey Blaisdell. 

LAUREL NEWS LEADER

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Fair Lanes Laurel, 1970s. LAUREL VOLUNTEER RESCUE SQUAD COLLECTION

For as much activity as there was inside Fair Lanes, the surrounding parking lot was quite the hot spot in its own right. Shane’s Sandwich Shop, which remains open to this day in the northwest corner near Rt. 1 and Bowie Road, was still doing business as Harley’sin 1973. (It wouldn’t become Shane’s until 1979). And the tiny, late-night sandwich shop was a popular hangout for older teenagers and twenty-somethings.

Mary Penkala bowled with the Blaisdells routinely and was with them on the night of September 24th, along with her 11-year-old daughter, Theresa—who was a friend of Audrey’s. Theresa saw Audrey socializing with classmates who’d been congregating at the bowling alley. “She liked to talk to boys a lot,” she said. At approximately 9:15, Theresa saw Audrey walk alone to Harley’s to buy a Coke. “I didn’t see her after that.”

But Audrey had returned to the bowling alley. She came back and reported to her parents that she’d been harassed by a group of older boys, apparently loitering in the Harley’s parking lot and taunting the girl. Disturbed by the incident, Audrey’s father left the building to confront the youths himself, but had no luck finding them. Mr. and Mrs. Blaisdell returned to their game, thinking the worst was over. It wasn’t until close to 10:00 p.m., when they were getting ready to leave the bowling alley, that things got much worse. They realized that Audrey had disappeared. In fact, Mr. Blaisdell had not seen her since he returned from Harley’s around 9:30. Having found no sign of his daughter by 10:30, Mr. Blaisdell called the police.

According to the Laurel Leader and other local newspapers, Prince George’s County Police searched the area surrounding the bowling alley with canine units, working all through the night and expending some 400 man hours. But Audrey’s sister, Debbie Blaisdell-Myers, has since told me that the majority of the search party actually included friends and family from the bowling alley, who began searching immediately—and that the police initially viewed Audrey’s disappearance as a “runaway,” and would let 8 hours pass before starting to look for her in earnest.

The search ended at 9:50 Tuesday morning, when (according to official reports) a pair of uniformed officers found Audrey’s partially-clothed body. Debbie informed me that it was actually a jogger who made the discovery. Audrey was found face-down in the wooded section near the B&O Railroad tracks behind the Roadway Express terminal—not far from the area beside the 7-Eleven where Belmont TV would eventually be located. Today, Public Storage occupies the site. In 1973, it was a popular place for older youths to hang out, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana away from watchful eyes at the bowling alley parking lot.

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1974 - TRUCK FIRE _ 2ND ST & BOWIE ROAD,

A vehicle fire beside Fair Lanes Laurel and Harley’s Sandwich Shop, 1974. 

PHOTO: JOHN FLOYD, LAUREL HISTORY BOYS COLLECTION

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Laurel News Leader ad, 1969. 

LAUREL NEWS LEADER

Police interviewed dozens of youths who’d been in the area that Monday night, acting on the disturbing information they’d gleaned from the Blaisdell family about what had happened literally moments before Audrey went missing. All of the boys they spoke to were ruled out as suspects; and as of Tuesday night, the case threatened to go cold.

Because of the sheer number of potential witnesses, police set up a tip hotline at a special command center in Laurel and the media urged anyone with information to call.

And many did. Calls flooded the center that Tuesday night.

Laurel being much smaller in 1973—and the bowling alley being such a popular hangout—people tended to know one another to a degree that doesn’t exist anymore in most suburban towns. They tended to notice things. And several of the callers had noticed Audrey in the bowling alley parking lot with a young man about twice her age.

They recognized the man as 26-year-old Edward Maxwell Walters, unemployed and living with his parents at 316 Thomas Drive—just on the other side of Route 1, next to Apple’s Pie, and across Gorman Avenue from Tippy’s Tacos. Shortly after midnight, as that Tuesday turned into Wednesday, police arrested Walters without incident at his apartment and charged him with murder in the strangulation killing of Audrey Blaisdell. Investigators with a search warrant found “physical evidence” in the apartment of Walters’ involvement in the crime. Witnesses had also reported seeing Walters in the city of Laurel at 10:30 p.m. on the night of the murder “with scratches on his face.” Two of those interviewed said they had talked to Walters that night, and recalled him saying, “I think I killed a girl.”

More details began to emerge Thursday, as police confirmed that Audrey’s body had been found clad in only a skirt, and she’d been strangled with a piece of her own clothing. While they had not determined whether she had been raped, county police spokesman John Hoxie said that the girl “was certainly sexually assaulted.”

 

Police were careful to discount any connection between the boys who had allegedly chased Audrey mere moments before her abduction. Police Lt. Col. John Rhoads said that she was seen outside the bowling alley with Walters by several witnesses. How she came to be abducted by that particular man just moments after fleeing what she had sensed was a dangerous situation is tragically ironic.

I’ve since learned a very telling piece of information from Debbie, which evidently had also not been published in the newspapers of the day. The person who actually turned Walters in was his own mother. She vividly recalls an officer telling her parents that a man was arrested and charged “because his mother had turned him in.”

The case went to trial on February 23, 1974, with Walters pleading insanity. In his testimony, he claimed to have blacked out while under the influence of LSD. According to Walters, he and a friend accompanied Audrey to the wooded area where her body would be discovered the next morning, but that he “didn’t know” whether he had killed the girl or not. “I don’t remember… I blacked out. I got up and ran.”

It was the first time “the friend” had been mentioned publicly since Walters’ arrest on September 26th, and efforts to subpoena this supposed second man had been unsuccessful. Police said they weren’t seeking anyone else in connection with the killing.

Walters didn’t accuse the other man of the crime, however. In his version of events, he encountered the friend “on the way into the woods” on the night of Audrey’s murder. “He asked me when I’d gotten back from Georgia,” he said, “then we both went over into the woods.” According to Walters, the pair followed Audrey into the woods.

Prosecutor Arthur A. Marshall, Jr. stated in his closing argument that Walters had actually admitted to killing Audrey not once but twice: first in a conversation with two acquaintances on the night of the murder, and again while talking to a police officer on the way to jail.

Psychiatrists were called for both the prosecution and defense, and not surprisingly saw Walters in two different lights. The prosecution’s psychiatrist, however, testified that although Walters “suffers from a mental disorder, he was legally sane—a crucial difference that resonated with the jury.

Walters was found guilty of first degree murder and assault with intent to rape. Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge William B. Bowie sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences. He was eligible for parole 30 years later in 2003, and lived to see the motion denied. That 2003 notation is the last that appears in his online court transcripts, and he is no longer listed in the Maryland inmate directory—suggesting that he died in prison. If so, one can only hope that his was both a miserable life and death.

This was a particularly disturbing case that could have easily gone cold 45 years ago. Police rightly credited Laurel’s alert residents with providing not just the information—but the correct information—that led to a prompt arrest and ultimately kept a disturbed man from ever harming another person again. And evidently, it was the man’s own mother who recognized what her son had done, and reported it.

Incredibly, it all unfolded between a Monday night and Wednesday morning, in an era long before cellphones and social media.

Had she lived, Audrey would be turning 60 next year. Incredibly, both the bowling alley and the sandwich shop where she spent the last few moments of her life are still open today, unlike so many other Laurel businesses we grew up with. They have new names, and the costs have certainly increased, but the aura is still very much as it was when Audrey Blaisdell walked through these same doors for the final time that terrible Monday night in 1973.

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The bowling alley from Shane’s. PHOTO: COTRAVELLER33/TRIPADVISOR.COM

POSTSCRIPT:

In the days after originally posting this story on March 14, 2018, I received a note from a Lost Laurel Facebook follower—a childhood friend of Audrey and Debbie Blaisdell—who informed me that she’s still in touch with Debbie. I was upset to learn that Debbie had been distraught upon reading the initial post, as the last thing I would want to do is open old wounds for anyone who’s had to endure such a traumatic event. Fortunately, we were able to connect; and after explaining the historical context of these stories from Laurel’s dark side that I’ve been researching, she very graciously relayed a number of crucial facts that weren’t published in the newspaper coverage from the time of her sister’s brutal murder.

As you can only imagine, Debbie recalls every detail as if it were yesterday, and was both brave and kind enough to share her memories and allow me to update the story. She explained that her parents understandably tried to shield her from many of the details at the time, but that her father did reveal more in later years, as Debbie had so many unanswered questions.

She pointed out that the majority of what was reported at the time of Audrey’s murder—for whatever reason—was never accurately reported. Details such as the police initially treating Audrey’s disappearance as a runaway, and waiting a full eight hours before searching for her were never in the papers. Nor was the frantic, immediate search by friends and family from the bowling alley itself. Or the fact that it was the suspect’s own mother who called him in. These are major pieces of a story that’s no less disturbing 45 years later … but somehow even more tragic, knowing that Audrey’s family has had to live with it all this time.

Some of the early reports went so far as to say that Audrey “left voluntarily” with her abductor, and Debbie categorically denies the suggestion that her killer made about any aspect of the abduction being consensual. “She was forced to go with him. She was only a child—she liked playing sports with friends… she didn’t even like boys yet.” That is the Audrey that I hope readers take away from this and remember in their prayers. 

Stories like this are incredibly difficult to tell, and admittedly, I’m far from the best person to tell them. I’m just a graphic designer who happens to have a very deep interest in the history of the town where we grew up—the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of Laurel’s history. In most instances, I can only assemble and relay the “facts” that have previously been reported on stories like this from years ago—and it’s disconcerting to learn, as I have in this instance, that many of those initial facts were either wrong or omitted. However, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share the first-hand accounts of those like Debbie, who know for certain what their families have had to endure.