Mystery of missing man solved after 13 years

July 9, 2011


Henry Ackerman had plans — big, cross country, into-the-wild plans.

It was 1998, and he was 48 years old, alone, sad and somewhat peculiar. He lived with threecats and a big, sandy-colored dog in an unkempt Baltimore County apartment and worked as a child psychologist in the city school system.

His beloved wife had died of leukemia four years earlier in Memphis after a long illness, and he had moved immediately afterward, first to Oregon and then to Maryland to be closer to his sister's family, acquaintances said.

But he yearned for Alaska. He reached out to a tiny school system there in the eastern part of the state, in a town called Circle, and was in the process of quietly securing a new job. He planned to live in a camper out there, in the Last Frontier, a former neighbor told police.

He made all the arrangements, and on June 18, 1998, he set out to purchase a used GMC. He never came back.

He just went missing.

Thirteen years would pass before his family found out what happened, through a stunning murder confession disclosed last week in aMemphis courtroom.

A Tennessee man admitted bludgeoning Ackerman to death over a debt. The revelation solved a long-cold missing-person case, even though his body has not been found, and likely never will.

"It's just too painful," his 73-year-old sister said over the phone from her home in New Jersey, declining to discuss details of her brother's life or his death. "He was a wonderful human being, and nobody deserves to die like this, certainly not him."

Baltimore County missing-person's records, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request, and conversations with some of those who knew Ackerman show him to be a largely likable, if odd, scholar who mostly kept to himself.

He received degrees from schools in three states over a 25-year period. He had no criminal record. And the worst anybody said about him was that he was prone to exaggeration and half-truths. He told several people — including a former professor and a medical doctor — that his sister had cancer, but her family later denied that to police and others.

He was devastated by his wife's death, and spoke of her lovingly and often, according to Reva Chopra, who lived in an apartment above Ackerman in 1998 when she was a young law student. She took extra care to engage him when they ran into one another in the halls.

"He always seemed to me to be really kind of depressed a little bit, like sad," said Chopra, who's now a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County.

She twice cared for Ackerman's pets. The first time was when he went away for a few days, and the second was when he went away forever.

His apartment was filthy, Chopra remembers. He stored vast quantities of canned food in huge coolers, as if preparing for natural disaster or war, she said. And he collected Army figures, which may have tied in to another hobby: Ackerman was into guns.

He had earlier befriended a Memphis gun dealer named Dale Mardis, whom he met at a gun show. Ackerman made plans to catch up with the man on the June truck-buying trip, prosecutors said last week.

It would turn out to be a fatal mistake.

The killer

Not much information about Mardis' early years is publicly available.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a young man, serving honorably until being discharged at age 20 in 1973, and then worked full time for the Army Corps of Engineers at its Ensley Engineering Yard, eight miles southwest of downtown Memphis.

Mardis married a woman named Patsy and helped care for his dying mother-in-law. A 1991 car crash ended his shipyard work and changed his life mentally, emotionally and physically, court documents show. It left him with "nerve issues" and Meniere's disease, which is typically marked by ringing in the ears and vertigo.

He has "a long history of drug use and abuse," drinking and smoking marijuana to excess, court documents state. He also has an assault conviction on his criminal record, from an incident that his attorneys claim "arose out of fear for his safety as well as the safety of his friend."

Prosecutors would later describe him as a cold racist without a shred of humanity.

In the mid 1990s, however, that side hadn't yet been revealed.

He ran a gun business then, first out of his home and then out of property he owned nearby on Lamar Avenue.

He was at constant war with code enforcement officers over various violations, and he ultimately shuttered the business several years later. But not before he met Civil War buff Henry Ackerman.

Where and how and when they met isn't clear. It was at a series of gun shows, prosecutors said, but they offered little more.

A private man

Ackerman's personal life is also largely private. Few people seemed to know him well, and most of those who did were mum.

He lived in New Jersey during his youth and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., according to a 1996 resume provided to The Sun.

He studied childhood development in college and worked in mental health and welfare centers after graduation, before moving to Kentucky in the fall of 1973, where he earned degrees from Western Kentucky University, a master's in public service and an education specialty.

He went to Arkansas for a few years after that and to Tennessee in 1979, where he began working as a psychological examiner in a youth development center.

Over the next decade, he would switch jobs half a dozen times, working mostly with children, except for a 17-month break from 1984 to 1985, when he was on disability for an unexplained injury acquired on the job.

There was a scar on his left knee, police records show, and he walked with a limp, acquaintances said, sometimes using a cane.

It was during that break that he enrolled at the University of Memphis, when he was 34, according to school records. His wife, Velma, enrolled at the same school a year later, when she was 30.

It's unclear when they married or where they met, but they made homes out of the university. Ackerman was studying for his doctorate and working toward psychology credentials, while Velma studied for an undergraduate degree in business management.

They were "meant to be together," Ackerman's sister said.

The marriage

In 1987, the couple had a moment of happiness that quickly turned to tragedy, according to those who knew them at the school. The couple thought Velma was pregnant but learned instead that she was sick.

A doctor diagnosed leukemia and said she had "two to three years to live," Ackerman told Dr. Thomas Fagan, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis who had been helping Ackerman with an internship.

"It was kind of a pitiful situation," said Fagan, who never met Velma.

Ackerman "was sort of an odd duck," Fagan said — a good student and a friendly fellow, but a "troubled" man.

"You could tell he had difficulties in his life," Fagan said. "My impression is that he had sort of a storied life, but you didn't really know the story."

Ackerman gave up his internship and cared for his wife, who outlived her doctor's prediction.

In December 1991, husband and wife had received degrees from the University: Velma got her Bachelor of Business Administration degree in management, while Henry earned a Doctorate of Education.

A photo from the graduation ceremony shows Ackerman in a black graduation cap and gown, with his arm around a similarly dressed woman. He stares unsmiling into the camera lens, a stripe of reddish mustache below his nose, and big, squared-off eyeglasses perched above it. They look more '70s in style than '90s, as does his long straight hair, which hangs to his collar.

His wife died three years later, according to a death notice in The Commercial Appeal newspaper. And by 1998, he had lost the mustache and traded his glasses for contact lenses, according to a letter his sister wrote police. He wore his hair in a graying pony tail.

He had moved to Maryland sometime in the previous two years, and met Chopra in 1998. He "talked about Alaska a lot," she said, and he showed her an urn that contained his wife's ashes, which he kept in a closet.

"I think her death was incredibly hard for him," Chopra said.

She felt sorry for Ackerman, and agreed to care for his pets once when he went away for a few days, and again in mid-June 1998.

And so, on June 18, 1998 — a Thursday — Ackerman caught a flight out of BWI to Memphis, where he and his wife had lived, intending to purchase a used truck and drive it back to Maryland over the next couple of days. He was then going to pick up a camper he'd bought from Charlie's Camping Center in Randallstown and catch a Civil War re-enactment over the weekend.

A Memphis car salesman later told investigators that Ackerman took possession of a 1995 GMC truck with red-and-white striping that Thursday. He was supposed to come back to the dealership Friday to finish the paperwork, but he never showed.

He never retrieved the trailer, either. And he didn't come home. Chopra thought she had confused his return date and just kept caring for the animals. And then, roughly a week after he left, the police came. His New Jersey family had reported him missing.

The family eventually came to Maryland and divided the animals, taking the dog, and finding homes for the two male cats, Chopra said. They were going to send the female, a gray tabby called Lady Bright Eyes, to a shelter, but the law student decided to take her in, instead. She renamed the feline Jewels, and still has her today.

"A part of me thought [Ackerman] moved to Alaska" when he went missing, Chopra said.

The confession

The truth came out this year, a couple of weeks after the 13th anniversary of Ackerman's disappearance.

A witness came forward to prosecutors claiming to have information about Ackerman and Dale Mardis, who is now 57.

He was recently convicted in federal court for the racially motivated murder of an African-American Memphis code enforcement officer named Mickey Wright. He shot the man, dismembered the body and set fire to it to hide the crime, according to court records — something, it turns out, he had done at least once before, in 1998.

Prosecutors called Mardis' lawyer, Howard Manis, late last month and told him to ask his client about Ackerman. That conversation, on July 1, led to a confession from Mardis. It was announced during his federal sentencing hearing Tuesday.

Mardis said that Ackerman visited him and that the two men got into an argument over a debt. He admitted to bludgeoning Ackerman with a hammer, stuffing the lonely man's body into a 55-gallon drum and driving it over the state line into Mississippi, where he set it on fire, prosecutors said.

It was the first explanation ever offered for Ackerman's disappearance.

During his sentencing, Mardis agreed to plead guilty in Tennessee state court to Ackerman's murder, and he is expected to receive a life sentence in that case, to be served in federal prison. He was also sentenced to life for killing Wright.

"It's so sad that that's what happened to him," said Chopra, who learned of the confession Friday. "It's kind of amazing that its come full circle now, after all these years."

Baltimore County police kept the case open after Ackerman disappeared, checking in with relatives and comparing his dental records to skeletal remains that turned up from time to time. His missing person's file is about an inch thick, with a stack of notes inside it repeating the same bad news:

10/29/01 "Person is still missing."

10/28/03: "Henry Ackerman is still missing."

11/01/06: "Henry Ackerman was never found."

This month's confession means police can finally end their search. The missing-person case of Henry Peter Ackerman — No. 981771333 — is officially closed.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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