Unless you are from Baltimore, or a recent viewer of the Netflix series The Watchers the name Cathy Cesnik is not likely to be familiar. However, her murder almost 50 years ago is once again bringing attention to the cold case as two of her students are on a continuous search for justice to bring to light who the perpetrators are – whether they are dead or alive. A couple of things before continuing. First, if you like to follow cold case murders or murder-mysteries, you will want to read until the end. Second, there are some graphic descriptions included that may upset some of the more sensitive readers. Those parts will be sectioned off, and you will be warned so you can continue reading without getting squeamish.
Now for the story. Catherine Anne Cesnik was a 26 year old nun who taught English at a Pittsburgh area high school about 50 years ago. An academic scholar and valedictorian of her 1960 Catholic high school class, she would move on to teach at Western High School in Baltimore. In order to take the job she would have to relocate from her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and take up residence in an apartment. She would work there for eight years before taking the fatal journey that would result in her murder.
It was only 10 days before her 27th birthday, on November 7, 1969, that Sister Catherine would leave her apartment to do some shopping after school. It was a Friday, the end of the workweek, and she had planned to go to Hecht’s Department Store to purchase a gift for her sister, who had just been engaged. The available evidence shows that she had likely first stopped at the First National Bank in Catonsville to cash her paycheck since it was Friday and she needed the money to buy her sister’s gift. It is presumed she bought some bakery items from a local baker, Muhly’s, because a box with buns was found in the front seat of her car.
Sister Catherine’s car was spotted illegally parked across from her apartment at approximately 8:30 p.m. and again two hours later based on eyewitness records. At 4:40 a.m. on Saturday, the car that remained illegally parked for at least 8 hours was discovered by two of her friends – priests Peter McKeon and Gerard J. Koob. The exterior of the car was muddy, but there was no sign of Sister Cathy.
After the police were contacted about Cesnik missing, an investigation and immediate search of the area was conducted. No evidence and no body was found. It would take more than a month for her body to be discovered by a hunter and his son on January 3rd. The coroner’s report stated that the cause of death was a brain hemorrhage caused by a blunt instrument striking her in the left temple.
What garnered the attention and devotion to solving the cold case by two of her students – Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub – was that there was something creepy going on at the school that was an open secret. Several of the priests, including Father Joseph Maskell, were sexually abusing many of the girls at the school. Sister Cathy asked one of the girls if there was anything going on, offering to help. There is an unsubstantiated rumor that Sister Cathy was preparing to report the abuse to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but was murdered just a few days before she planned to file the complaint.
In 1995, one of two complainants, Jean Wehner, related a story that would bring another level of concern to the investigation. The person of interest was Father Maskell, who she claims drove her to a wooded area in the same location as Sister Cathy’s body was found.
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Maskell showed her the body of Sister Cathy. It was covered with maggots crawling on her face, while she was saying, “Help me.” Though Wehner’s account was discredited by scientists who said that the season and temperature were not suitable for maggots to form, the coroner’s report stated that maggots were found in the throat of Sister Cathy’s body.
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Father Maskell was said to have told Wehner, “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?” As much as Maskell was a continual person of interest in the murder, his death in 2001 prompted a DNA test to be conducted to check for a matching DNA sample. None was found, and Maskell’s name was removed from the list of possible murder suspects.
However, while Father Maskell was exonerated from the murder of Sister Cathy, a number of former students gave individual testimony about the sexual abuse suffered at the hands of Maskell. In 2016 it was revealed that the Archdiocese had been paying restitution to a number of students for many years based on what apparently were the verifiable allegations of students. Also, the lead investigator into Sister Cathy’s murder said that despite the negative DNA results, Haskell remained a suspect in the case.
If you haven’t seen the Netflix series on this (The Keepers) we won’t spoil it for you. It is clear that there were more than a few incidents of abuse at various levels going on, and with a number of girls. The murder of Sister Cathy may or may not be a link to the years of abuse at the school, but the testimony of Jean Wehner is plenty of evidence that Father Maskell and others wanted to keep the shroud of secrecy over everything.
The muddy car with no sign of Sister Cesnik to be found seems to indicate that the car was either driven to the fatal location and driven back by the murderer, or that she had driven to a muddy area, returned to her apartment, was abducted in the area, and then driven in a different vehicle to the crime scene. One of the most puzzling facts is that the bakery buns remained in the front seat of the car.