Why was Sister Cathy Cesnik murdered in 1969 — and who did it?
Who killed Sister Cathy? The Keepers, from director Ryan White, dives into the life and untimely death of a Baltimore nun, whose unsolved murder still lingers nearly five decades after the fact. As you dive into Netflix’s chilling new true-crime series, follow along as we recap each of the seven episodes here, one revelation at a time. Be aware before reading (and viewing): Some subject matter may be disturbing.
EPISODE 1: “The Murder”
In 1969, Cathy Cesnik, 26-year-old nun and beloved high school teacher, was murdered in Baltimore — and the crime was never solved. This first episode lays out the facts of the case, as well as the tireless crusaders — plucky former students of Sister Cathy’s, now well into their 60s — who have been fighting to piece together the facts of this murky nightmare. A warning: The content of this series can be difficult at times, so read (and watch) at your own discretion.
There’s journalist Tom Nugent, who wrote a detailed story on the murder years ago and has been haunted by it ever since. Then there are Cesnik’s former students Gemma Hoskins, a “bulldog” unafraid to ask anyone any question, and Abbie Shaub, a soft-spoken research whiz, who run a Facebook page where people similarly obsessed with the case can post any information they find out — or remember — about Sister Cathy’s disappearance and death. “Our concern is that she fell into something evil and got caught up with it,” they say. “We’re told the story is not the nun’s killing. The story is the cover-up of the nun’s story.” They’re onto something.
The details of the case, told through a chorus of voices, are these: Sister Cathy was beloved at Archbishop Keough High School, the Catholic all-girls school where she taught English. (Now, the school is called Seton Keough High School.) Students connected with her in part because she wasn’t much older than they were, but also because she was bright and passionate, and made texts like Romeo and Juliet and The Scarlet Letter come alive for her students.
On Friday, November 7, 1969, Cathy left work around 3:00 p.m. and returned to the apartment she shared with another nun, Sister Russell. She’d told multiple people she was going to buy an engagement gift for her sister that night, and seemed excited about it. Sister Cathy supposedly left her apartment parking lot around 7:00 p.m., cashed her paycheck at the local bank, went to the bakery for dinner roles, then went to the local shopping center, Edmondson Village, to buy the engagement gift. (The Keepers depicts Sister Cathy’s journey with a map of the area and a clock measuring out the hours of the evening.) Eyewitnesses saw her grocery shopping, and one believes she saw her sitting in the car in the parking lot as if she was waiting for something. Accounts vary as to whether Sister Cathy ever made it back to her apartment complex after the shopping trip.
Another former student, Mary Kreig, recalls being in the area where Sisters Cathy and Russell lived that night to peek into the apartment of Mr. Noone, a teacher she and her friend had a crush on. They heard yelling from the direction of Sister Cathy’s apartment. “It was a man’s voice. Loud, booming. Garbled with emotion, anger. We really thought it was some kind of violence that was going on up there,” she recalls.
At 11:30 p.m., Sister Russell started to get nervous that Sister Cathy hadn’t gotten home yet, so she called a fellow teacher and Sister Cathy’s friend, a priest named Gerry Koob. He and Brother Peter had seen Easy Rider that night in Baltimore, but rushed to Sister Russell’s and spent 45 minutes listening to her tell the story. By that point, Gerry says, it was three hours after she had expected them, so they decided to call the police and report her as a missing person. Gerry said Mass, saving some bread for Cathy if she returned home. In the early, early hours of the morning, the men left the apartment and noticed that Cathy’s car was mysteriously parked on the street, keys in the ignition, with its rear sticking out into the street adjacent to the apartment. The car was muddy, and there was a twig inside near the steering wheel. It was clear to Gerry that the car had been in a swampy area — and that whoever put it back wanted it to be found.
The plot thickens: Three days later, another young woman went missing and was later found dead. Joyce Malecki, 20, had also gone shopping and never returned, and her car was found unlocked with the keys in the ignition. She’d switched cars with one of her brothers earlier that day, leaving her car with him and taking their parents’ car. Joyce’s body was found facedown in a stream, with her throat cut and hands tied behind her back. Gemma and Abbie have been working with Joyce’s brothers to continue making connections between the two cases in the hopes that they can solve both at the same time.
Here, we meet John Barnold, the former chief of homicide of the Baltimore City Police Department. He was continually quoted at the time as saying they didn’t think Sister Cathy’s disappearance was a kidnapping. Now, being interviewed for The Keepers, he explains that he was supervising so many robberies, homicides, sex offenses, assaults — he couldn’t devote his time to one specific case.
It wasn’t until mid-January 1970 that Sister Cathy’s body was finally found by hunters: She was lying on her back near a garbage dump with her skull caved in. The retired policeman on the case, James Scannell, takes Gemma, a helpful man they met through the Facebook group named Alan Horn, and the documentary crew to the spot where he found the body. Scannell is soft spoken, and it’s hard to tell if he’s senile or just old. He remembers the condition of Sister Cathy’s body in great detail and says, “I think she was probably dumped there. She hadn’t deteriorated — no maggots or anything like that.” Gemma is suspicious of him and tries to see if he can help them get the full report from the BCPD, but he brushes it off, saying no one at the office would know him anymore.
In further conversations with journalists and longtime Baltimore residents, people posit that the person who killed Cathy knew her very, very well — and that the police and FBI likely knew more than they let on about both Cathy and Joyce Malecki’s deaths, but Baltimore’s widespread corruption and strict hierarchies are preventing information from getting out.
In the episode’s final moments, we learn that there was one witness, a Jane Doe, who was a student at Keough and claimed to have seen the body. Does Jane Doe hold the secrets to unlocking this mystery?
• Who killed Cathy and Joyce and why — and was it the same person?
• Why would the killer (presumably) return the cars?
• Why did Joyce switch cars with her brother?
• Who is Jane Doe?
• Why are the police and FBI covering this up, if they are?
• Why were the two women murdered in such different ways?
• Is Scannell hiding something?
— Isabella Biedenharn
(Click ahead for episode 2)