Saturday, May 14, 2005

A small-business owner in Largo. An expectant mother in Springfield. A federal prosecutor in Baltimore. A sheriff’s wife in Alexandria.

Their paths may not have crossed in life, but their violent deaths share a common element: Their homicides remain unsolved.

Police departments in cities as large as the District see about 35 percent of their homicide cases go unsolved, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Police in metropolitan counties have about 40 percent of their homicides go unsolved.

That means that more than 1,000 slayings in the District and its surrounding counties have gone unsolved in the past 10 years.

Recent scientific advances in analyzing and cataloguing forensic evidence have given investigators hope of solving some cold cases.

But each year in the metropolitan area alone, more than 100 homicides are classified as cold cases, frustrating detectives and disheartening victims’ families.

Families such as David Butler’s.

On July 15, 2000, Mr. Butler, 42, was walking from the Court House Metro station in Arlington to the apartment where he lived alone in Colonial Village.

He had finished work at the military newspaper Stars & Stripes, where he was an assistant managing editor, and was returning home at about 1:30 a.m.

Mr. Butler lived a few blocks from the Metro station, but a shortcut through a used-car lot trimmed time off the walk. Relatives said he would have been oblivious to the potential dangers of a shortcut through a darkened lot.

His bloodied and beaten body was found in the used-car lot by about 2 a.m.

Police followed dozens of leads and tips over the next few months. They considered that he might have been robbed, that he might have witnessed a confrontation in the train station or at a nearby 7-Eleven.

Nothing panned out.

In April 2001, a clue emerged. Mr. Butler’s wallet, containing credit cards and identification, was found by a Veterans of Foreign Wars group cleaning up litter along Lee Highway.

The case drew renewed attention, but again months passed with no arrests.

Mr. Butler’s mother, Jodie Gunckel, doesn’t understand why someone killed her son.

“They wanted his money,” she said. “Why did they have to take his life?”

Mrs. Gunckel, who lives near San Antonio, wondered how much satisfaction she would get even if her son’s killer were caught.

“If they find him, fine. They can’t bring back my son,” she said. “But it would be nice to find out who did it.”

She said she hasn’t heard from police lately about the case and has not wanted to “bother” the authorities.

Forensic evidence

Police collected blood and other forensic evidence at the scene. It remains in storage for the possibility that one day investigators will link it to a suspect.

It may seem like a long shot, but some forensic experts say the odds of making a case are increasing.

“We know that DNA is a very hardy molecule. Even in cases that are 30 years old, we know we can retrieve DNA and get good results,” said Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor of forensic science at John Jay University in New York.

“As long as there is biological evidence, there are going to be hits on that stuff.”

Mr. Kobilinsky said testing equipment is becoming more sensitive so that samples can be retrieved from evidence that just a few years ago was considered to have degraded too much to yield any clues.

Sgt. Mike Farish, a detective with the Metropolitan Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit, agreed about the improving science.

He also noted that state and federal laws requiring violent offenders to provide DNA samples are allowing criminal databases to grow as well.

“The science is evolving,” he said. “The database is evolving. I think you are going to see, over time, an exponential increase in cases closed.”

Still, he said there are cases in which weapons are not recovered, witnesses refuse to talk and forensic evidence does not emerge.

Such is the case of Sherry Ann Culp, an accountant for an electronics company in Fullerton Industrial Park in Springfield.

Mrs. Culp, 36, was sitting in her car in a parking lot at the industrial park about 6 p.m. on Jan. 16, 1998, when a masked gunman approached her and fired twice through her car window, according to witness accounts.

Both shots hit her in the head. She died instantly.

Mrs. Culp was recently divorced and was 8 months pregnant with a boyfriend’s baby. Doctors delivered a girl, who died two days later.

There was no robbery. No exchange of words was overheard. The gunman remains at large.

“You always think, when there is a clue, when someone calls, that they are going to crack the case,” said Jane Young, Mrs. Culp’s mother. “It never seems to happen.”

For years, Mrs. Culp’s parents worked to keep police involved with the case. They called so often, Mrs. Culp joked, the she had an “e-mail romance” with Fairfax police officers.

The couple sent out press packets, gave interviews and persuaded John Walsh to profile the case on TV’s “America’s Most Wanted.”

“In the beginning, I tried everything I could to speak to whoever I could,” Mrs. Young said, adding that she often appeared at forums for families of crime victims.

“As time went on, I stopped going because all the families had their cases solved. I came out of those [meetings] feeling very angry because our case was the only one that hadn’t been solved.”

She said she still calls police about once a month for updates, but acknowledges that she has faced the prospect that her daughter’s slaying will go unpunished.

“Every day I think, ‘What is this going to do for the family if we do solve this case? It won’t bring her back,’” Mrs. Young said.

Unlike Mr. Butler’s case, police don’t have DNA samples that could be linked to the culprit.

Shell casings were the only evidence recovered. The casings were entered into a ballistics database, so if the same gun is used in another crime, there could be a match.

Mrs. Culp’s slaying made headlines briefly and faded from them quickly, but notoriety does not guarantee that a homicide case will be solved.

enerating headlines

Chandra Levy’s disappearance generated headlines worldwide throughout the spring and summer of 2001.

Miss Levy, 24, vanished from her third-floor apartment on 21st Street NW on April 30 after canceling her membership at the Washington Sport and Health Club.

Internet records indicate she used her computer May 1, visiting travel Web sites and looking up the address to the Klingle Mansion in Rock Creek Park.

Her remains and some articles of clothing were found May 22, 2002, by a man walking his dog in the Rock Creek Park woods, not far from the mansion. Advanced decomposition of the remains made it impossible for investigators to determine how she had been killed.

The case drew worldwide attention after reports surfaced that Miss Levy was having an affair with then-Rep. Gary A. Condit, California Democrat.

Fox News reported last August that FBI agents were revisiting several old leads in the case based on tips given to law enforcement. The report said several individuals who previously had been questioned were visited by FBI agents and shown two photographs of a man who lives in Maryland and has done work for the Defense Department.

Theories about who killed Miss Levy continue to draw speculation in the media and on Web sites. D.C. residents have relentlessly criticized police for the resources they poured into solving the case.

Coldest cases

The Levy case languishes among the dozens of others that go cold each year in the city. April 30 marked four years since Miss Levy’s disappearance.

Reached by phone at her home in California, Miss Levy’s mother, Susan, declined to be interviewed for this report, saying this was a “difficult time” for her family.

Sgt. Farish said he understands the pain that an unsolved killing can bring to a family coping with the loss of a loved one. He said he tries to be honest with families about whether a fresh look at a case can lead to its closure.

“It’s bad in the sense that it’s always like picking at a scab,” he said, adding that all too often, detectives re-examine cases only to notify families that nothing more has been learned.

“Sometimes, there is really just nothing that can be done.”

One unsolved slaying in Prince George’s County remains as infamous for missteps in the investigation as it does for the crime.

At about 6 p.m. on June 28, 2002, Denise Mansfield’s brother and her nephew went to her home, where she lived alone in the 10400 block of Forest Lake Terrace in Largo, to check on her after they hadn’t heard from her for several days.

Her house keys were in the lock, and Miss Mansfield, 45, had been bound and strangled inside. There were no signs of forced entry.

Miss Mansfield was an accountant who ran a computer business from her home. Investigators pursued robbery as a motive because her bank card had been used in an automated teller machine near her house.

Over the next year, police detained five suspects. All were exonerated.

Most notable were the arrests of a woman and two girls who were seen on the ATM’s surveillance recording at the same time bank computers registered the withdrawal.

A nationwide search resulted in the arrests of Virginia Shelton, 46; her daughter, Shirley, 16; and one of Shirley’s friends, Jennifer Starkey, 17. The women, all from Sierra Vista, Ariz., were charged with first-degree murder.

They were jailed for more than three weeks before Miss Starkey’s father obtained copies of the bank records and proved to prosecutors that the clocks on the bank computer and the ATM’s surveillance camera were not synchronized.

The women, who had been sightseeing during a visit to Miss Shelton’s mother, were arrested on warrants police obtained by falsely stating in an affidavit that the women confessed to using Miss Mansfield’s debit card.

The case is frequently cited by civil libertarians who complain about overzealous police investigators.

Miss Mansfield’s slaying remains one of 497 unsolved homicides in the county in the past decade.

“We were very, very disheartened and saddened when Miss Mansfield was killed,” said Sharmarre Morton, head of the homeowners association in Miss Mansfield’s upscale neighborhood.

Mrs. Morton said the association’s public safety committee continued to post signs asking residents for information about the case long after the investigation went cold.


She also said residents have been haunted by feelings of insecurity and fear in the wake of the unsolved crime.

Residents of the Del Ray community in Alexandria have expressed similar sentiments over the unsolved slaying of Nancy Dunning, a prominent real estate agent and wife of the city’s sheriff, James Dunning.

Mrs. Dunning, 56, was found fatally shot Dec. 5, 2003, in her Alexandria home in the 200 block of W. Mount Ida Avenue. She was discovered by her husband and son after she failed to meet them for lunch.

Police have not identified a suspect in more than a year of investigation. But they continue to express interest in speaking with a man seen in a surveillance videotape at a Target store where Mrs. Dunning had been shopping the morning of her death.

The unidentified man was seen in the same section of the store where Mrs. Dunning was shopping and left at about the same time.

The FBI and federal prosecutors in Virginia have participated in the investigation. Police have said Mrs. Dunning’s killing was motivated by an “event or relationship” in her recent past.

The community capped a reward fund for Mrs. Dunning at $100,000 and organized several vigils and fundraisers to create a memorial.

Amy Bertsch, spokeswoman for the Alexandria Police Department, was quick to point out that police do not classify the case as “cold.”

“It’s still an active investigation,” she said. “We have not identified any suspects.”

Police have a couple of advantages in their investigation: Mrs. Dunning was a popular figure, and the case has drawn significant attention.

Miss Bertsch said police are fortunate to have assistance from the community, which does not put added pressure on investigators.

“We put more pressure on ourselves, and what we see in the community is support,” she said.

Alexandria detectives have closed 48 of the city’s 57 homicide cases since 1993.

On Dec. 4, 2003, the body of Jonathan Luna, a federal prosecutor in Baltimore, was found in a ditch in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Luna, 38, drowned after being stabbed 36 times and left face-down in a creek near Brecknock Township, Pa. He left behind a wife and two children.

Nearly a year and a half of investigation has raised more questions than answers about his death.

Authorities said the stab wounds, which appeared to have been made with a pen knife, were on Mr. Luna’s neck and chest — inconsistent with defensive wounds usually found on the hands and arms.

Investigators tracked Mr. Luna’s last moments, including an unexplained late-night journey from his office in Baltimore to the creek in Pennsylvania where he was found. Authorities said his car, a silver 2003 Honda Accord, passed through at least three EZ Pass toll booths.

Investigators also documented a $200 cash withdrawal from his account and the purchase of gas at a Mobil station on Interstate 95 in Newark, Del., with a credit card in his name.

DNA testing indicated that another person’s blood was in his car, but investigators said last year that they still are not certain that Mr. Luna’s death was a homicide.

Special Agent Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI field office in Baltimore, said authorities are trying to determine whether Mr. Luna’s death was a deliberate homicide, a random act of violence or a suicide.

“The same three theories are still being investigated,” he said. “The overall case is still pending, and we are still seeking the public’s help.”

Mr. Luna’s mother, Rozella Luna, said she has stopped calling authorities regularly for updates on the case.

“We don’t know anything,” she said. “If they know anything, they’ll call us.”

Sgt. Farish said that cold-case detectives never stop waiting for a witness to come forward or a random hit from a DNA database.

“We always hold out hope that we’ll be the one that gets lucky,” he said.

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