Steven Pennell: A mystery man 25 years later

One of Delaware’s most agonizing murder cases still haunts some of the people involved. 

It has been 25 years since the 1989 conviction of Delaware serial killer Steven Brian Pennell. He preyed on young women who worked a stretch of Route 40 in New Castle County as prostitutes in 1987 and 1988.  Those victims are still remembered by the prosecutor and one of the undercover cops who will never forget what it took to nab the suspect. And they’ll never forget what a mystery Pennell was or why he what he did.

“His eyes were blank, cold and there was no life to them,” Renee Taschner said.

Renee Taschner, an undercover cop at the time said Steven Pennell stopped to pick her up along Route 40 in 1988, an area where prostitutes were known to frequent. Renee’s short encounter helped the case tremendously thanks to quick thinking.

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“I pretended to be interested in his van, so I had him turn the light on and when he turned the light on, my heart stopped because it was covered in blue carpet,” Taschner explained.

The carpet fibers startled Taschner because the unique fibers were found on some of Pennell’s victims. The disappearances of 23 year old Shirley Ellis, 31 year old Catherine DiMauro and 22 year old Michelle Gordon were all linked to Pennell. They were all tortured and parts of their bodies were mutilated.

According to one of the experts in the case who studied behaviors of serial killers at the time, “sex was not an element, sex was not important to the offender” after the investigation revealed that the victims were not sexually assaulted.

However, the mystery didn’t end at the three women. Pennell was also linked to the disappearance of 26 year old Kathleen Meyer whose body has never been found. 27 year old Margaret Finner also disappeared. Her body was found near the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal near the Summit bridge, but Pennell was never charged with her death due to lack of evidence although her relatives were convinced Pennell was involved.

In old WHYY news footage, Finner’s stepfather had a lot to say about Pennell. “I know deep in my heart he murdered her as well as the other four girls,” Robert Barlow said.

Eventually arrested, charged and put on trial, Pennell just didn’t seem to fit the description of a serial killer. He was a local guy, married, had children and worked as an electrician. The seemingly perfect person posed a challenge for Prosecutor Kathleen Jennings.

“He was a smart man, he was well prepared, and had his story down. My goal was to let the jury see who he really was,” Jennings said.

Fortunately the jury was able to see another side of Pennell because she was able to get Pennell out of his comfort zone. Pennell was encouraged to step away from the witness stand from time to time to answer questions about his van. His answers were spontaneous.

“It’s the biggest case I’ve ever tried, I still think about those victims” Jennings said.

On Thanksgiving Day 1989 Pennell was found guilty and convicted of murdering Ellis and DiMauro. In Gordon’s case, there was hung jury still Pennell was sentenced to serve life in prison in 1990.

Months later and after multiple court appeals disputing evidence, Pennell was indicted yet again for the murders of Gordon and Meyer. Pennell pled no contest to the murders never admitting to the crimes. And in a strange twist Pennell asked to be put to death. He was later executed by lethal injection on March 14, 1992.

Today remnants from the case remain in Jennings’ office. One is a sketched picture of Jennings cross-examining Pennell as a well as picture of the van Pennell used to abduct his victims. Jennings said the pictures serve as a constant reminder of the victims taken away too soon.

“It’s important for us all to remember and to realize that in Delaware we value justice,” said Jennings.

Two interesting facts, Pennell chose not to say anything about the case, even on his deathbed. People expected him to confess or at the very least tell authorities where Meyer’s body could be found. Also Jennings said something she’ll never forget is a bouquet of flowers she received after the trial. The card inside said “from the women of Route 13 and 40, you treated us like human beings.”

The Steven Pennell story will be featured on this weekend’s edition of First on WHYY-TV. It is our content partner offering this month in a featured article in Delaware Today Magazine. 

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