D.C.’s last serial killer: The Princeton Place murders, 20 years later

The last known serial killer to prey on women in the nation’s capital started his work 20 years ago on the outfield grass of a middle school baseball field. He continued for the next three and a half years. By then, he had killed at least seven people, police said, and possibly more.

His name was Darryl Donnell Turner, and he targeted women living along a two-block street named Princeton Place NW. He raped and strangled them. He’s serving life without parole at a federal penitentiary in Texas.

Unlike the Beltway snipers — who killed anybody at random, for no particular gratification — Turner was a “classic serial killer,” says Capt. Robert Alder, now head of homicide for D.C. police and a detective on the squad then. “We’ve had people convicted of multiple murders since then, but it’s more your traditional street violence. Your classic serial killers, you see these guys around the country — your Ted Bundys, your Green River Killers. . . . That was more like him.”

D.C. was a different place then, particularly on the rougher edges of town, and the brutality of the Princeton Place murders seemed to catch the zeitgeist. D.C. was Murder Capital, U.S.A. Gentrification was a rumor. Drug markets were open-air and in your face. Police were overwhelmed. The coroner’s office was a mess . . . and, lost in the shuffle, black women caught up in drugs, sometimes in prostitution, started to disappear.

Nobody noticed.


Ernestine Young, left, Maria Peterson, middle, and Darlene Young were classmates and friends of murder victim Jessica Cole. The women have all lived in the neighborhood for over forty years and grew up with Cole. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

What a metaphor.

I was the D.C. Superior Court reporter for The Washington Post when Turner was indicted for murders three and four. The hearing was 20 minutes, and he was unremarkable — average height, build, looks. Put a suit and tie on the man and he could have been a bank branch manager. The contrast between the banality of his appearance and the brutality of his crimes stuck in my mind, even as someone who has spent years reporting on war, violent conflict and killings over a large part of the world. I finally wrote a novel based on it, “The Ways of the Dead,” published this month.

But this is what really happened.

* * *

About 9 a.m. on Feb. 14, 1994, the body of a partially clothed young woman was found on the baseball field at Hamilton Junior High School, on Sixth Street NE near Gallaudet University.

Police weren’t sure at first how she died or even who she was. There were no gunshot or knife wounds, no ligature marks of strangulation, although they told reporters there were signs of “foul play.” By the time she was identified as Mary Haskins Ferguson, a 29-year-old known to sell sex for drugs, there were plenty of other dead bodies to worry about.

For the five preceding years, the city had seen more than 400 homicides annually, and there were 399 the year Ferguson was killed. The sheer volume would tax any police department, but for D.C.’s squad at the time — disorganized, inefficient — it was too much. The closure rate on homicides was about 35 percent. You had two-to-one odds of getting away with murder.

This bred a certain perspective. Shortly before Ferguson was killed, three people were shot to death in three incidents in a single day. The Post summed them all up in a 277-word article on the third page of the Metro section.

So it was not unusual that Ferguson’s killing was unsolved nine months later, when detectives were called to an abandoned warehouse and garage on the back end of Capitol Hill. They found the strangled corpse of Gilda Ragland, 38. That case went unsolved, too.

The next spring, on May 4, the body of Toni Ann Burdine, 32, was found sprawled on the same ball field as Ferguson. Her clothes had been partially torn away. Her shoes were knocked off. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

This was three black women, all on the lower frequencies of society, strangled to death, two of them on the same spot, but it raised no inklings that a serial killer was at work.

Turner was completely unknown to city police.

He had moved to the area from North Carolina in 1989, the same year he was arrested for theft in Montgomery County and spent 90 days in jail, police records would later show. Homeless, he often turned up at a soup kitchen in Southeast D.C. Sometimes, he was a clerk at a liquor store not far from the middle-school field.

He eventually married and moved in with his wife, Barbara, a private nurse, in her second-floor apartment in a rowhouse in the 700 block of Princeton Place NW.

Eighteen months after Burdine was killed, the body of Priscilla Mosley, 49, was found strangled and sexually assaulted in her apartment in the 600 block of Newton Place NW, two blocks from where Turner lived.

On May 8, 1997, a body was found beneath the crawl space of an empty rowhouse at 766 Princeton Pl. NW. It was next door to Turner’s apartment. Lateashia Blocker, 28, was a woman from the neighborhood with a history of drug and solicitation arrests.

Her mother, Brenda Blocker, lived nearby. She was certain her daughter had been killed — “Lateashia didn’t crawl under no floorboards by herself” — but a corpse in the 700 block of Princeton Place NW was not unusual.

Lateashia was at least the eighth person killed on the block in the previous dozen years, and several more had been shot or stabbed. It was such a rough place that on Halloween in 1991, three teens donned masks and shot a guy taking his niece trick-or-treating. He was a drug dealer, though, and it took a while before police realized he’d been shot by mistake. The kids had been gunning for someone else. The name of the task force to track down the shooters was “Redrum,” or “murder” spelled backward, taken from the Stephen King horror novel and film “The Shining.”

* * *

Princeton Place runs gently uphill from Georgia Avenue, past a recreation center and dead-ends a block later at the golf course by the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home. It was the heart of Park View. Filled with 1920s rowhouses with front porches, it had begun life as a haven for Jewish and Greek and Italian immigrants before morphing into a pocket of working-class black stability after World War II. Eugene Allen, who eventually gained fame as the White House butler in the Lee Daniels film, lived one block over on Otis Place.

By the mid-1990s, the street and much of the surrounding neighborhood had been torn apart by crack cocaine. Street prostitution was common. The intersection of Otis and Georgia was a “real heroin corner,” says Bill White, who opened his Fish in the Hood market there in the late 1990s.

But even for the 700 block of Princeton Place NW, 1997 was surreal.

In August, just three months after Blocker’s body was found, a rotting corpse turned up in the basement of the house at 768 Princeton Pl. NW. It was that of Emile Dennis, 42, another woman known to the drugs and vice trade.

Then, in October, Jessica Cole, 41, who lived on the block, went missing. A woman’s torso stuffed into a plastic bag was found three days later behind a building about a dozen blocks west. (Much later, it would be identified as Cole’s, and Turner confessed to the killing.)

Post reporter Gabriel Escobar, now deputy managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, began to accompany Brenda Blocker on her rounds to the morgue, to police headquarters, as she demanded answers about her daughter’s death. Metro police had just assigned one of its top detectives, Danny Whelan, to the case, but he was faced with a dizzying puzzle with no set pieces and a confounding array of clues.

On Nov. 18, the body of Jacqueline Teresa Birch, 39, was found in the same empty house as Blocker and next door to that of Dennis. She was nude, save for one sock, her clothes laid out neatly beside her. She had been strangled by hand.

“The neighborhood was in an uproar, it was panic,” remembers Sherprene Wallace, Birch’s daughter, who was in her late teens. Her mother, who had struggled with cocaine — but not prostitution, she’s clear to say — was, after years of living on Princeton Place, then living a few blocks over and was cleaning apartments for a job.

“I had seen my mother on Sunday, and we had talked about the other women who were missing. She knew a lot of them. I told her to be careful.”

Two days later, her mother’s body was discovered.

Escobar’s first story about the murders ran on the front page two days later, headlined, “5 Deaths Shock D.C. Neighborhood.” Two more stories ran on successive days, each raising the specter of a serial killer — but police said there was no evidence to link the killings. More than 300 residents turned up at a community meeting that week, lambasting police with charges of racism, incompetence and neglect.

The body of Dana Hill, at 34 a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, was found a few blocks away two weeks later. Now, the known body count was six. Now, real fear took hold.

“It was the perfect place for a serial predator to work,” Escobar said in a recent phone interview. “The nature of the neighborhood, the precarious position of these women, the crack house both as refuge and a place where they could be preyed upon. . . . They were women who were known to disappear for days. People would be alarmed but not think the worst.”

Another part of that problem was the coroner’s office.

From 1984 to 1994, one report showed, at least 1,800 people ages 15 to 44 died in the city under circumstances that “were not established,” meaning they could not be determined to be homicides or natural deaths. The agency had a terrible reputation around the nation, and, as Escobar reported, the “office has no professional oversight and no on-site laboratory, has not applied for board certification and has had only two board-certified pathologists on staff.”

Startled into paying attention to Princeton Place after the killings, the city jumped in with cleanup crews of volunteers, of inmates on work release. They emptied abandoned houses of sodden mattresses, hundreds of liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia.

In late January 1998, police arrested Turner at his house, two floors above where the body of Dennis had been found, and next door to where Birch and Blocker were killed. He was charged with the slayings of Birch and Hill. Witnesses had seen him with the victims shortly before they vanished. His DNA matched semen taken from their bodies. Fibers from an orange blanket linked him to the corpses.

Neighbors said they thought the world of Barbara, his wife. About her husband, they said what people usually do about serial killers: Nice fella. Never caused any trouble. Kind of quiet.

Darlene Blaine, who lived across the hall from the couple, was quoted by the Washington City Paper as saying: “I naively at 2 or 3 a.m. would open the door for Darryl. He was never disrespectful or anything.”

* * *

The trial took place three years later. It would have been big news, save for one bizarre coincidence — it began the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It was this gorgeous day and on the plaza outside the courthouse, people were holding hands in prayer circles,” remembers James E. Boasberg, then one of the assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case, now a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

So with the city and the nation looking elsewhere, 25 witnesses took the stand, more than 75 exhibits were entered and Turner was convicted of both killings. He was sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

He later signed an agreement with prosecutors that said if they would not proceed with other charges against him (he had been indicted for the slayings of Burdine and Ferguson), he would drop his rights to appeal. It meant he would never leave prison, but there would be no further trials.

Police closed the slayings of Ragland, Dennis and Cole, attributing them to him, bringing the official body count to seven.

Turner did not testify during the trial. He did not reply to a letter mailed to him several weeks ago requesting an interview. One prostitute testified during the trial that Turner told her he liked rough sex, including choking, but there has never been any other explanation for why he did what he did.

* * *

The case seemed to disappear from the city’s memory.

Park View soon began a gentrifying transformation. New residents poured into the area, sending housing prices rocketing up five- or ten- or fifteenfold.

Walk down Georgia Avenue today and you’ll still see the House strip club and some well-worn mom-and-pops, but these are tucked between trendy bars and yoga studios. A new grocery store and a Starbucks is under construction. You see moms pushing strollers. The neighborhood is now about 50 percent white.

Things aren’t perfect, but homicides have all but vanished. There are a lot of smash-and-grab robberies from cars. Someone fired eight rounds through the glass windows of White’s fish market two years ago. Kent Boese, an ANC commissioner, says that the top two constituent problems are development . . . and rats.

Dan Silverman moved into nearby Petworth in 2003 and soon started a popular blog about the area. He says that, even when he moved in, no one talked much about Turner and that the flood of new residents doesn’t know it ever happened. It was lost in the tide of who we used to be.

“It was a crime that was overlooked,” he says, “but it was also a neighborhood that got overlooked.”

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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