Nun's 1969 cold case murder is kept alive by retired 'grandma Nancy Drews' and docu-series 'The Keepers'

By Amy Kaufman, May 24, 2017, LA Times

They call themselves retired grandma Nancy Drews. One is a former emergency room nurse, the other a longtime elementary school teacher.

They make notes on coffee filters instead of index cards and wear clam diggers and sensible sneakers.

But thanks in part to the amateur sleuth work of Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, the 47-year-old unsolved murder of a young Catholic nun is gaining national attention. Earlier this year the Baltimore County Police Department conducted DNA tests on the exhumed body of a priest in relation to the case. And now, with the debut last Friday of Netflix’s “The Keepers,” the seven-part docu-series in which the two are central figures, Hoskins and Schaub are being treated like Cagney and Lacey.

The two were classmates at Archbishop Keough High School in the 1960s, where Sister Cathy Cesnik served as their teacher. But the nun disappeared suddenly on Nov. 7, 1969, after driving to a local shopping center to buy some Muhly’s dinner rolls, cash a paycheck and purchase an engagement gift for her sister. She never returned home, and her car was found directly across the street from where she lived, parked haphazardly, the rear jutting out into the road. The tires were caked with mud, and a twig hung from the steering wheel. The Muhly’s bag was still inside the vehicle.

Cesnik’s body wasn’t discovered until Jan. 3, 1970, abandoned in a snowy, wooded area just a few miles from where she lived.

Her death remained a sad, murky mystery until Hoskins got a call from a former Baltimore Sun reporter searching for anyone who had been a student of Cesnik’s.

Hoskins, wanting to help reporter Tom Nugent figure out who had hurt Cesnik, posted a message to a Facebook page for Keough High alumni, but was berated for muddying up a space usually filled with birth and anniversary announcements with such an unpleasant topic. One person, however, came to Hoskins’ defense: Schaub.

It wasn’t long before the two started a new Facebook group, this one seeking justice for Cesnik.

Amateur sleuths

Hoskins has always liked true-crime stories; she’s watched “Dateline” and “20/20” every Friday night for years. But it wasn’t until this mystery turned up in her own backyard that she realized just how adept she was at detective work.

Following tips often submitted through the Facebook page, Hoskins and Schaub began seriously investigating Cesnik’s death, which led to the theory explored in “The Keepers” that the teacher was killed after students confided in her about sexual abuse taking place at Keough. Numerous subjects interviewed by Hoskins and Schaub say they were molested by Father Joseph Maskell, who served as the school’s chaplain, counselor and religion teacher.

The two made a good team: Schaub, the retired nurse, had a knack for research. Through Google, she learned how to access public records, digging up old court documents, sifting through microfilm and even filing Freedom of Information Act requests. She kept all of her findings in organized spreadsheets and file folders, some days working for up to 10 hours on the investigation.

Hoskins, meanwhile, preferred to do the face-to-face work. If a new Maskell survivor popped up, she’d be the one to go and conduct the interview. She wasn’t afraid of knocking on doors or flirting to get information.

“Gemma and I are opposite souls,” explains Schaub, 65, who was on a vacation in West Virginia the week before the release of “The Keepers.” “She is outgoing, confident and knows everybody in the community. I am far more of an introvert. I am keen to find substantive, hard facts. I want to see a paper trail. I don’t really like cold-calling people. So her strengths are my weaknesses.”

Director Ryan White, who began work on the series after the release of his and Ben Cotner’s 2014 documentary, “The Case Against 8,” immediately saw cinematic potential in the pair. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Often he and Hoskins would butt heads. She jokes that she told White she was quitting the project about a dozen times.

“We always knew Gemma would come back, so I never took her seriously,” he says with a laugh as he rides inside a car making its way through Baltimore’s suburbs. He’s showing a reporter key spots from “The Keepers”: Keough’s soon-to-be-shuttered campus (now plastered with “no trespassing” signs and patrolled by security guards), the haunted house-esque rectory where the priest Maskell once lived, Cesnik’s apartment and the shopping village where she was last seen, which is now home to both a Family Dollar and a Dollar General store.

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