BALTIMORE — Years went by, and the argument swung back and forth in Bonnie Armentrout’s mind.

John Norton couldn’t have murdered her baby sister. He seemed to worship Karen from their senior prom to their wedding day. But what about the $100,000 life insurance policy he cashed in after she was killed? What about the rumor that he’d asked Karen for a divorce?

Back and forth. The murder of Karen Ann Norton haunted her older sister for 35 years.

That Armentrout now has the answer is small comfort: A Baltimore County prosecutor offered a lenient plea deal to the killer, John Joseph Norton, for second-degree murder.

“Four years? Come on, it’s ridiculous. I’m very bitter,” Armentrout said. “He didn’t care about Karen’s rights. He didn’t care about the family.”

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“It’s disgusting,” added Vicki Niedergesahs, the daughter of Karen’s late brother. “For this type of crime, the punishment is unbelievable. I can’t even wrap my head around it. ... He got four years?”

Karen’s murder in 1985 reveals some of the pitfalls of prosecuting decades-old crimes. Evidence grows old, too, and witnesses die or move away, prosecutors say. The coronavirus pandemic has brought new difficulties; witnesses are reluctant to travel to court.

Kurt Wolfgang, a former Prince George’s County prosecutor who founded the nonprofit Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center Inc. to advocate for victims, said prosecutors consult families before offering deals, but relatives’ wishes aren’t at the center of their decision-making.

Wolfgang has lobbied for tougher sentences for second-degree murder. Under Maryland law, the crime brings a prison term of up to 30 years.

Of Norton’s punishment, he said: “That is a horrifying sentence, and it’s part of a trend. There are people in our society who push the concept of a less punitive model, and it really comes out with some shocking results.”

John and Karen Norton had been high school sweethearts: she a bubbly cheerleader at Catonsville High; he a handsome introvert and the youngest of a big family.

“Karen fell head over heels for John,” remembers Jane Harding, her best friend.

They married after her sophomore year of college in 1982. Karen worked at JCPenney at Security Square Mall and wanted to become a nutritionist to help others. John worked at a hardware store. They bought a house in Catonsville, across the street from her mother.

“They were like the prince and princess of our lives,” Armentrout remembers.

Around 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 17, 1985, Norton called 911 and said he came home to find his wife bloody at the foot of the stairs. The dispatcher coached him in CPR, but paramedics found Karen had died. At 23, she had been stabbed to death, and there seemed to be no witnesses.

Police found her keys in the front door. The place was ransacked, silverware strewn about the dining room. Detectives developed a theory that Karen had surprised a burglar.

None of it made sense to her friend.

“Of any of the houses on that street, that was the tiniest and the ugliest. Why would a robber ever choose that one?” Harding wondered.

Karen’s three older sisters were divided about suspecting John. Armentrout trusted him.

“He always seemed to look at Karen as if he worshipped the ground she walked on. I never saw any anger or aggression,” she said.

Another sister, Janet King, remembers Karen confiding in her about marriage troubles. King heard rumors of his drinking and partying.

“When they came and got me from the bowling alley and told me my sister was killed, I said, ‘Where’s John?’” she said.

Authorities offered $10,000 in reward money. Baltimore County detectives considered John a suspect, but the investigation went cold.

Norton moved in with Karen’s mother across the street for the next year. He told them he couldn’t bear to stay in the home he’d shared with Karen, the sisters said. Norton cashed in Karen’s life insurance policy for $100,000. JCPenney paid him an additional $17,000, Harding said.

Then he drifted away.

The sisters learned to let go. They called the detectives less and less. Without answers, sisters King and Frances Frey sought comfort in their faith. They suspected Norton, but trusted justice would come, even if they didn’t live to see it.

Armentrout wrestled with her feelings.

“John took his $100,000 and (proceeded) to pretty much disappear,” she said. “I began to think, who else was there? ... My brain eventually started taking over my heart.”

The sisters heard Norton bounced around construction jobs, remarried twice and had a daughter. In May 2017, he was hospitalized and, according to prosecutors, dropped hints about his wife’s killing. At the chance he might make a deathbed confession, his family called police.

A new homicide detective, Dominic Bridges, had been reviewing cold cases to study how veteran detectives worked. He took an interest in Karen’s murder and showed up to Norton’s hospital room.

“I explained that we were investigating the case again and asked if he was able to tell me anything about what happened. He declined and said nothing had changed and he wasn’t ‘going to go through the whole thing again,’” Bridges said.

Norton recovered, but what happened at the hospital renewed detectives’ attention. They spoke to Norton’s siblings and learned his truck was spotted at the house long before he called 911. One sibling remembered scratches on one of Norton’s arms the day of his wife’s funeral.

The detectives reexamined the crime scene photos. They saw no signs of a break-in, and the only thing missing was an Army knife kept under a workbench in the basement. Bridges saw cables were unscrewed from electronics, not torn out — unusual for a burglar ransacking a house. Norton had hung his coat on the back of a chair, and the drawers of a piece of furniture had been pulled out, supposedly by the burglar, within inches of the coat. To detectives, that signaled someone had pulled out the drawers after hanging the coat. They believed the scene was staged.

A grand jury indicted Norton on murder charges in 2019. But when the coronavirus shut down the courts, he waited two years for a trial.

Armentrout spoke to the prosecutors last spring and learned they wanted to offer Norton a deal: Plead guilty to second-degree murder for five years in prison. The assistant state’s attorneys told her witnesses had moved away or died. The case was falling apart.

“‘I understand what you’re doing. But if you’re asking for my blessing, you do not have it,’” she remembers saying.

State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said the memories of witnesses fade over time and the prosecutors worried their testimony would be inconsistent. They couldn’t guarantee witnesses would even come to the courthouse during the pandemic. With the “double jeopardy” principle, prosecutors don’t get second chances.

“With the risk of potentially being unsuccessful at trial, we decided the plea agreement reached was the best solution to achieve some semblance of justice,” Shellenberger said.

Norton’s attorney, George Psoras Jr., negotiated the offer down to four years. He was prepared to show evidence that insurance investigators found no reason to suspect Norton. His client maintains his innocence, Psoras said.

“This case was 100% defensible,” he said. “However, this was an offer that no defendant in their right mind would ever decline.”

The attorneys returned to court three weeks ago for the sentencing. Assistant State’s Attorney Garret Glennon, in one of his last cases as a prosecutor before becoming a circuit court judge, said he shared the family’s frustration.

“It is, just to speak frankly, a horrible situation that no one’s happy with,” Glennon said. “I spent a great deal of time deciding, ruminating, digesting this case. Is there enough to charge? Is there not? What should we do with this very old case that I was certain Mr. Norton was guilty of and committed this very, very heinous murder?”

Karen’s sisters were left to share their grief.

“I’ve had to deal with depression, anxiety and anger knowing that John was free and enjoying his life with the blood money,” King told the judge.

Given a chance to address the court, Norton, 60, did not speak.

Circuit Judge Michael Finifter accepted the deal and credited Norton for his two years behind bars while awaiting trial. With good behavior, he should be released next year.

The back-and-forth argument in Armentrout’s mind is settled, but she feels little closure. Instead, there’s a bitterness about the justice system. Retired and 71 years old, she wants to volunteer with victims at her local prosecutor’s office in Virginia so no other family feels cheated.

After all, Karen had wanted her life to help others.

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(Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.)

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