WASHINGTON - A year ago Thursday, for no apparent reason, a high-school senior named Tracey Lynn Kirkpatrick was stabbed to death by an unknown killer in the stockroom of a clothing store in Frederick, Md. Kirkpatrick had worked by herself that night. She was 17, a part-time clerk and an honors student headed for business college in the fall. The police were stumped.
Now, after months of intensive but mostly fruitless work by detectives, an unlikely new lead has suddenly recharged an investigation that appeared stalled. ``To be honest with you, no, I couldn't have imagined it,'' Frederick Police Chief Richard Ashton said Friday.
Someone used a pay phone in a supermarket near Frederick to dial a nationwide ``confession hot line'' in Las Vegas, a service that charges callers by the minute to tape-record their secrets for strangers who call and pay to listen.
``Hello,'' began the caller that night last June. ``My name is Don, and I'm calling from Frederick, Maryland. I know this is going to sound surprising, but three months ago I stabbed a girl to death.''
He went on to give a few details. He said he had thought about surrendering to police, but decided against it. ``Thanks for listening,'' he concluded. ``I'm sorry for what I did, but nothing can change it. Bye.''
An attorney for the hot line turned over a copy of the tape to Las Vegas police, Ashton said, and it was forwarded to police in Frederick, a city of 40,000, 45 miles northwest of Washington. This past week, Ashton gave copies to four radio stations, which broadcast the confession simultaneously at 9:15 a.m. Thursday, the first anniversary of Tracey Kirkpatrick's death.
Two hours later, someone called police and ``positively identified'' the voice, Ashton said.
Ashton said the name the caller gave was that of a man already considered a suspect, though not a strong one. Investigators approached him for the first time Thursday night. He declined to answer questions.
Police went back with a search warrant shortly after 1 a.m. Friday and took items from his body - including a hair sample - and from his home. He has not been charged in the case.
The Maryland State Police crime laboratory will compare the items seized with evidence from the crime scene. Results may take several weeks.
The chief waits anxiously. ``Realistically,'' he said, ``even if he did make that call, it doesn't mean he killed Tracey Kirkpatrick. It's important to keep that in perspective.'' Yet: ``We hope everything we seized tightens a knot around his neck.''