Baltimore police charge 62-year-old man with long history of violence with murdering Evelyn Player, 69, in her church

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A 62-year-old man with a long history of violence has been charged in the killing of Evelyn Player, the 69-year-old woman whose stabbing death inside her East Baltimore church last month shocked the city, brought criticism from the governor and had city leaders vowing to find her killer.

Officials said Manzie Smith Jr. was taken into custody Wednesday night for the Nov. 16 slaying, which occurred at the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. Few details were provided, but Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said investigators linked Smith through forensic evidence. He said there was no indication that the suspect and victim knew each other.

Smith has a long history of attacking women. Court records and news accounts show Smith was convicted in 1979, at age 19, of raping a woman who asked him for directions, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 1992, he was again convicted of rape and assault with intent to rob, and sentenced to 30 years in prison, prison officials confirmed.

More recently, in 2014, Smith was sentenced to eight years in prison after he knocked down and robbed a 64-year-old woman. He received treatment for mental health issues at Spring Grove Hospital Center before pleading guilty, records show. After serving his prison sentence Smith was placed on supervised release, which ended in October, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

“I am grateful for the exhaustive investigative work of the members of the Police Department in collaboration with the State’s Attorney’s Office in identifying the perpetrator of this crime,” Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said in a statement. “Hopefully, justice can be served and we bring closure to the family.”

An autopsy found that Player had defensive wounds from the attack, according to police charging documents. Police also recovered DNA evidence from the scene, and from Player’s body. The DNA matched Smith’s profile in the state’s DNA database, the charging documents said. No other evidence or witness corroboration was detailed in the document.

Police said two weeks ago that they had identified a person of interest, but a spokeswoman disclosed Thursday that person was not Smith. The most recent charges against Smith were not listed in online court records as of Thursday afternoon and it was unclear whether he had an attorney.

Player’s death last month rocked East Baltimore after police say they found the 69-year-old stabbed to death inside a bathroom at the 4,000-member Southern Baptist Church. Police said she’d let construction workers into the building the day she was killed.

The pastor of the church, Donte Hickman, said Player was the fourth or fifth generation of her family to attend the church. He said news of the arrest brought relief to the church community.

“We are grateful for local law enforcement, and our governor, state’s attorney and all of their due diligence in this case,” Hickman said, a day after giving the eulogy at Player’s funeral. “We know there are hundreds of unsolved murders, but to prioritize this case does not go unnoticed. We are extremely grateful.”

Before his arrest, Smith was also known at another city church — for helping. On Thursday, Doni B. Taylor, a senior pastor at Church of Jesus the Christ in Cherry Hill, confirmed that Smith is a member of that congregation and works in the church’s maintenance ministry.

Taylor said that Smith has been a member of the church for “two or three years,” and described Smith as “a hardworking gentleman” who has “done a lot of labor around the church.”

He said Smith has been working for a contracting company.

Smith’s criminal history dates to at least 1979, when The Evening Sun reported that Smith was convicted of assaulting a woman on Aisquith Street in East Baltimore who had asked him for directions. The newspaper reported that he received 15 years in prison for the crime. The case does not display in public electronic court records.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, confirmed that Smith was convicted of rape and assault with intent to rob in 1992 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Details of that case were unavailable. Violent offenders typically serve about two-thirds of their sentence before good behavior credits trigger their release.

Harrison said there was no indication that Player was sexually assaulted.

In the 2012 incident, police wrote in charging documents that Smith knocked down a 64-year-old woman early in the morning on Feb. 24, 2012, again on Aisquith Street, and about a mile from the Southern Baptist Church where Player was killed. Police said Smith took the victim’s purse and fled.

Police wrote in that Smith was later identified after locating the victim’s stolen phone at a Northeast Baltimore apartment. Investigators used “several resources which located the device” at the Crenshaw Avenue apartment where Smith was also found during the raid. During a raid of the apartment, police recovered the victim’s missing items, including her phone, according to charging documents.

In September 2012, Smith was found incompetent to stand trial after he was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Type, and other conditions, court records show. Smith received treatment at Spring Grove Hospital Center, and in March of 2014, he pleaded guilty to robbery. He was then sentenced to eight years, with the sentence beginning two years earlier when he was first taken into custody.

In announcing the arrest, Harrison, Mayor Brandon Scott and State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby praised the work of police and prosecutors and said they hoped it would send a message that the city will apprehend killers.

Scott called the case “a complete tragedy,” and said Player was a “foot soldier” who loved her community. He said that while he has touted a more holistic approach to solving the city’s violence, killers would be pursued “aggressively.”

“This cannot and will not go on in Baltimore,” he said.

Mosby said she felt “gratitude” that police and prosecutors worked around the clock investigate the case and identify a suspect. “Our seniors and babies should be off limits,” she said.

Player’s death came during the week when Baltimore surpassed 300 homicides in a single year for the seventh consecutive year. She was one of three female homicide victims that week alone, as police said a 5-year-old girl found unresponsive in Northeast Baltimore was killed and a 13-year-old girl was shot to death in West Baltimore before week’s end.

Baltimore Sun reporter Phil Davis contributed to this article.

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