On July 24, 2012, an unidentified man wearing an orange and black hat, a white shirt and glasses allegedly abducted Vi Ripken, a beloved figure in the Baltimore community, the matriarch of the most famous baseball family in Charm City.
At some point, police say, he took Ripken at gunpoint into her car outside her home in Aberdeen, Maryland, where he drove around before releasing her nearly 24 hours later. He stopped in at a Walmart where a clear picture was taken of him on the security camera. He bought her cigarettes. According to a rep for the Ripken family, when she asked not to be blindfolded because it frightened her, he put duct tape over her glasses instead. He bought her food. He continued to drive around, aimlessly for hours.
Around 9 p.m. the day Vi Ripken was allegedly abducted, according to reports, the sister of Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Ripken, Elly, called her brothers and relayed what the police had told her: Someone had spotted a woman tied up in the back seat of the car with their mother’s license plate and the cops were wondering if they knew where she was. Cal Ripken Jr. told reporters the next week that he went out to look for her, driving around Aberdeen to see if he could find her.
Thankfully, a few hours later, the abductor dropped off Vi Ripken, unharmed but a bit shaken up, near her home.
A year later, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence, eyewitness accounts and the force of one of the area's most famous families, he has never been caught.
"It's bizarre," said John Maroon, a rep for Cal Ripken Jr., the beloved baseball player whose consecutive game streak is still honored with banners outside of Camden Yards. "There's an eyewitness video, there's photos, there’s a police sketch, but there’s nothing hopeful a year afterwards."
The Ripkens at first offered a modest reward for help in solving the case, one that their rep said was based on advice from authorities working on the case. A rep for the Aberdeen Police Department said that they did not advise the family on the reward.
"The amount of the reward they put up was based on probably thinking it was an unprofessional local who just stumbled onto this so you’re trying to attract the interest of other local burglars or cohorts. So if you put up $2,000, that’s the kind of people you’re going to attract. If you put up (more), you're going to get crazies from all over the country," said Jim Clemente, a retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent/Profiler.
And in the early days of the investigation, which was on the front page of the local papers nearly every day, police were hopeful that with the mountain of evidence the case would be easily shut. Days after the abduction, on August 9, the Baltimore Sun ran an article updating the progress with the headline: “Experts say suspect photo means Vi Ripken case will be solved."
"The fact that it's been two weeks doesn't bother me too much, because we've had a lot of leads come in," Aberdeen police chief Henry Trabert told the newspaper at the time. "We're gathering leads as we speak. We are extremely busy. It is by no means at a standstill."
But as the days after the abduction turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months the investigation continued without any big breaks. From the outside, for the Ripkens, the terrifying incident seemed to fade out of the public eye and life seemed to get back to normal. According to Maroon, Vi Ripken slowly got back to her old routine.
After months of feeling unsafe, she began to feel comfortable staying in her house again. She made her way to the Ironbirds' Games, a Single-A Orioles affiliate team owned by Cal Ripken Jr., where she has been a fixture. She resumed her work with the local Boys and Girls Club. Her sons, who seemed shaken by the incident, also seemed to get back into their routines. Cal Ripken Jr. signed a new deal with an eyewear company and began touring the country through that. In Aberdeen, neighbors began to talk about other things as well.
"Community life moves on so it’s not something that people dwell on,” said Aberdeen Mayor Michael Bennett. "I think everyone recognizes it was one of those freakish things that occasionally happens ... "
"She's an independent woman who just wanted to get on with her life," Maroon added.
Though life may be getting more peaceful, earlier this month the Ripkens decided it was time to put it back into the public eye again. With the help of John Walsh, the host of the (now cancelled) show America's Most Wanted, they upped the reward to $100,000. Cal Ripken Jr. appeared at a a press conference near Camden Yards, hoping to draw more attention. "In the back of your mind it's always there," said the baseball legend. "So we're always thinking about it."
Walsh added information about the abduction to his website and also publicized the reward.
"People don't feel comfortable calling a cop hotline,” Maroon said. "But we're hoping they will call America's Most Wanted."
Between experts and people involved in the case, theories of what actually happened on the night Vi Ripken was abducted vary. For some, one common thread remains: Some believe it was an out-of-town criminal who escaped unnoticed shortly after committing the crime. Aberdeen, where Vi Ripken lives, is a small town of about 15,000 residents that is off I-95, one of the busiest interstates in the country. The town, which is about 35 miles from Baltimore City, also has its own Amtrak station and bus stations making it easy for criminals to drop in and out of town without being noticed.
"It's probably someone from out of town so you just haven't reached the neighbors or the people that will rat them out yet," said Clemente.
"Could be just one of those weird dudes driving through on I-95,” Maroon added.
The suspect's motivation is also a hotly debated topic. Clemente thinks that it was most likely someone who "had no idea what he was doing” and either stumbled upon Vi Ripken while doing an ordinary house burglary and panicked or, on the other end of the spectrum, wanted to be associated with a celebrity.
“[There was] no ransom note, no attempt to contact [anyone], the contact between him and her [suggests nothing] that he [might not have] even knew who the hell she was,” he said. “He may have seen it on the news and realize Holy %#&, I did the wrong thing and dumped her back off or ran out of options because he didn't think it out."
Philip Becnel, a managing partner at Dinolt, Becnel and Wells Investigative Group, a private investigator firm in Washington, D.C., thinks it could be someone who is local and a loner.
"I think that one probability is that the guy doesn't have very many friends or many acquaintances and he's mentally ill and lives in his mom's basement or something and because [he may only have a] close circle of friends or relatives, the $2,000 reward [previously offered] is not going to be enough to get someone to come forward," he said. "$100,000 is enough to be life changing for some and causes people to look at the photograph again."
The motivation, Becnel believes, could have been something that only the suspect could understand. "My understanding is that [it's possible] he didn't appear to know who he had, there was no ransom demand. It doesn’t appear he had too much of a plan expect driving her around and I think for that reason, the first thing that comes to mind is some kind of mental illness, that someone had it in their brain to do this for whatever reason.”
It's possible the suspect, Becnel said, snapped out of it and decided to leave drop his captive off.
But Becnel believes if he had been from out of town, his image would have been caught again on video that investigators most likely looked at of surrounding train, gas and bus stations.
The increase in the reward, he believes, may be enough to crack the case. After all, he said, it seemed like cops were at the end of their tips.
“The case is on the verge of going cold," he said.
So will it ever be solved? Aberdeen police spokesman Fred Budnick said that the reward has already started bringing in new tips and he's hoping those tips can help solve the bizarre case that he admits he believed would have been solved a long time ago.
"I think it is frustrating and it is somewhat surprising [it's still open],” he said. “We've certainly seen the surveillance pictures, the still, the video, the sketch and those are all quality pictures. I’ve seen a lot of [crimes] on the news where they show a picture and I wouldn’t be able to tell if it's my brother. And these we thought were a quality that we thought would generate some leads significantly.
"We were a little disappointed but we thought that pictures themselves were going to be enough that someone knows this guy and I think we were counting on someone doing the right thing and picking up the phone ..."
As for all of the theories floating around, he said his investigators were kicking around a few of their own.
But until they caught the suspect, he said he would have no idea on the specifics of who/what/or why the suspect abducted Vi Ripken. The Aberdeen police department has a clearance rate of 38 percent, nearly twice that of Baltimore, the Baltimore Sun reported last year. Which means that 62 percent of cases have gone unsolved.
"This case is bizarre whether it's Aberdeen or Washington, D.C. or Baltimore or wherever,” he added. "It's not like TV crime shows. There’s a lot of things involved in cases like this, it's an active case so there’s not a lot to speak on. We have not determined a motive, we don't know if he's a local or a transient or from outside the area. Those are all things we’re hoping we can learn [thanks to] the enhancement of the reward."