After 10 years, grisly murder still resonates

Four Frederick teenagers brutally murdered a young Knoxville man in June 1996. Today, only one perpetrator remains in prison, and those who worked on the case say they’ll never forget it.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

For more, see Tragic case changes detective’s life, job and The perpetrators.

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
On June 18, 1996, Adrian Pilkington, 20, of Knoxville was thrown over the rails of the Md. Route 17 bridge in Brunswick and fell more than 60 feet into the Potomac River to his death. Ten years later, only one of his killers remains in prison and his family has left the region.

Sunday will mark 10 years since four Frederick teenagers —Jason A. Jensen, 18, Jean L.A. Nance, 18, Rachel I. Whitman, 16, and Brian Wooldridge, 17, — murdered Pilkington on a warm, rainy night.

Prosecutors termed the murder a ‘‘thrill kill,” and said the teens had no apparent reason for murdering Pilkington, who lived with his family in Knoxville at the time of his death.

‘‘When I tell teenagers about this case and that 16- and 17-year-olds did this, you can hear a pin drop,” said Dino Flores, former assistant state’s attorney and co-prosecutor on the Pilkington case. ‘‘This was something you never wish on your worst enemy. I’ll never forget Adrian Pilkington and what he must have gone through. I say a prayer for Adrian every time I go over the Route 17 bridge. I’ll never forget those people and what they did to this kid.”

The grisly murder and the lengthy court trials that followed shocked Frederick County. The premeditated and willful killing by four relatively ordinary teenagers was something unfamiliar to the county, which until then seemed sheltered and immune from big city crime.

Coverage of the trials, which dragged on for nearly two years, saturated the news and packed the courtroom on a daily basis.

‘‘I still think it would be a huge deal if it happened today,” Flores said. ‘‘I still think it would make people sit up and spit out their coffee in morning ... I think what is so horrendous is that these were 16- and 17-year-old kids doing this. None of these kids were drug abusers or horrible monsters. They were all average kids ... People who have lived in this county for 10 years have not forgotten.”

Eric Schaffer, who prosecuted the case with Flores, said the case was a wake-up call for the county.

‘‘One of the things that was so shocking was that this was big city stuff and now a crime like this could come here,” Schaffer said.

The murder

In June 1996, Adrian Pilkington was preparing to enter the Army as a personnel management specialist. In the meantime, he was working at a McDonald’s restaurant in Frederick.

The night of his murder started simply — he played pool and ate food with ‘‘friends” — Jensen, Nance, Whitman and Wooldridge. He was unaware that Jensen was planning his murder.

‘‘I truly believe to this day, that if one of those kids would have stood up to Jensen and said ‘this has got to stop’ Jensen would have backed down,” Flores said. ‘‘The weasel would have backed down.”

Attempts by The Gazette to contact Jensen at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown went unanswered.

As the rainy night wore on, Pilkington drove the four to Whitman’s home. As the unsuspecting Pilkington smoked a cigarette at the house, Whitman grabbed a hunting knife from her kitchen and rubber gloves from the laundry room.

‘‘Whitman and her attorneys desperately wanted a plea [bargain],” Flores said. ‘‘We declined to do that. There are situations that you do not cut pleas.”

Pilkington drove the group all night in his own car as they played pool, stopped for gas, and headed for Virginia. They drove to a deserted road just over the border from Brunswick, where Jensen used the hunting knife to stab Pilkington twice in the liver and the lungs.

According to Wooldridge, who accepted a plea agreement for a lesser sentence in exchange for his testimony against the other three, Nance and Jensen then dumped Pilkington into the trunk of the car. As Jensen drove to the Route 17 bridge in Brunswick, Wooldridge said he could hear Pilkington, still alive, wheezing and gurgling.

Jensen stopped the car on the bridge and he and Nance pulled Pilkington, bleeding heavily, from the trunk, dragging him to the railing. Whitman and Wooldridge remained inside.

Nance and Jensen threw Pilkington over the bridge into the Potomac River.

‘‘It’s 60 plus feet from the bridge into 4 feet of water,” Flores said.

Pilkington’s badly decomposed body was found several days later floating in the Potomac River, face down and caught in a tree.

The state Medical Examiner’s Office found that Pilkington’s cause of death was drowning.

Family forever changed

In the 10 years since Pilkington was murdered, his parents, Jerry and Yong Cha Kim, and brother, Trinity, who lived not far from the Route 17 bridge in Knoxville, moved out of the county. No one involved with the case has heard from the family.

In 1997, the Pilkingtons told The Gazette they were especially distraught after Whitman was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison with all but 13 years suspended. They expressed shock and disbelief that Whitman did not receive a stiffer sentence since she supplied the knife that killed their son.

‘‘I heard that this [murder] tore that family apart,” Flores said. ‘‘Mr. Pilkington was absolutely filled with rage for what those kids did to his son.”

The Pilkingtons formed a support group for victims of violent crimes following the trials. The group is no longer active.

Jensen will spend his life behind bars for first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Whitman, Nance and Wooldridge all served various time in prison and have all been released. Nance was deported after completing his sentence.

Time has also passed for Flores and Schaffer, who were two young prosecutors at the time, in their 30s, handling what was considered the biggest case in Frederick County.

For both men, traveling over the Route 17 bridge from Brunswick to Virginia conjures up memories that will never fade. Now with streaks of gray in his hair, Flores was 32 years old at time of the crime. He was an assistant state’s attorney and chief of the Homicide Violent Crimes Unit. Today, he has a private law practice and is running for state’s attorney in this fall’s election. Single at time, Flores is now married with three children. ‘‘You wake up one day and it’s a beautiful morning and then you realize how could this horrendous crime happen in my county,” Flores said.

Schaffer will also never forget the day Pilkington’s body was recovered from the Potomac River.

‘‘It struck me from the beginning just how senseless this was,” he said. ‘‘It’s something that will always be a part of my life.”

Thirty years old at time, Schaffer has since left the state’s attorneys office and has a private law practice. ‘‘I live near the bridge and I think about it every time I go over,” Schaffer said.