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Saturday, October 8, 2016

The John Raymond Sterner Suicide-Murder Case

     Ocean City is a resort town on the southern tip of Fenwick Island off the coast of Maryland. In the summer the population swells to 300,000. In 2003, Reverend David Dingwell, his wife Brenda, and their three sons moved to Ocean City from the Canadian Province of British Columbia where he grew up. Father Dingwell came to Maryland to become the priest and rector of St. Paul's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church. He soon became known to his parishioners as Father David.

     Just before ten in the morning of Tuesday, November 26, 2013, a man engulfed in flames stormed into St Paul's Shepherd's Crook Building where volunteers were in the pantry preparing to open that day's food distribution service. The man on fire, John Raymond Sterner, a 56-year-old resident of Ocean City who had been a regular beneficiary of the food service and the church's used clothing outlet, bear-hugged church volunteer Jessica Waters.

     From the pantry Sterner ran into one of the ground floor church offices where the flaming man encountered parishioner Bruce Young who tried in vain to knock him to the floor where he could smother the fire. As John Sterner lay dead in the Church's ground floor office, his burning body started a fire that produced a lot of smoke in the building.

     Ocean City firefighters doused the church fire before it destroyed much of the structure. In the second-floor rectory office, they found the 51-year-old priest. Paramedics rushed Reverend Dingwell to Atlantic General Hospital where he died from smoke inhalation.

     Jessica Waters, the pantry volunteer who had been embraced by the flaming Sterner, received treatment at John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. Bruce Young, the parishioner who tried to help the human torch, received minor burns.

     Twenty-five minutes before he ran into the church in flames, Sterner, at a Shell station a quarter mile from the church, was recorded on a surveillance camera pouring gasoline into a red container. Detectives presumed that just before running into the church building, Sterner doused himself with the accelerant and lit himself up.

     The autopsies of Father Dingwell and John Raymond Sterner were performed by the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland.

     The man who started the fire that killed Reverend Dingwell had a history of crime dating back to June 1994. Over the years, Sterner had been convicted of breaking and entering, malicious destruction of property, disturbing the peace, and numerous offenses related to alcohol intoxication. The police had arrested Sterner in July 2013 on the charge of second-degree assault. Police officers had taken Sterner to the Peninsula Regional Medical Center for psychiatric evaluation after two of his arrests. According to police reports, the suspect showed signs of "emotional and mental crisis."

     Sterner was just the kind of person Reverend Dingwell and his parishioner volunteers helped every day.

     The fact Sterner bear-hugged the pantry volunteer suggested this was a case of suicide by fire followed by the intent to kill others. Unlike most murder-suicide cases, this killer died before his murder victim.

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