Police pulled up to the Bynum family’s adjacent Capitol Hill rowhouses on a recent weekday morning and discreetly led a cadaver dog through the small dwellings and outdoor garden spaces, their search barely noticed by neighbors rushing to work.
Officers left 15th Street NE reporting no trace of Leslie Bynum, 64, or her daughter, Kimberly, 38, who vanished June 19 while handing out religious pamphlets.
The missing-person investigation that has followed is already unusual because adult female relatives rarely disappear in pairs, but it has become more so as it drags into fall, leaving loved ones angry over bizarre twists and saddened by leads that went nowhere.
There was the phone call, purportedly made by Leslie Bynum a day after she disappeared, to her brother in Upstate New York, that led detectives fruitlessly to a train station outside Albany. Later, D.C. police raised and then dashed the family’s hopes when they mistakenly told relatives that the women had been found safe.
“I have a bunch of questions in my head,” said Leslie Bynum’s brother, Raphael Bynum, a D.C. correctional officer. “I can’t answer any of them.”
The houses police searched belong to William Bynum, 78 — Leslie’s husband and Kimberly’s father — and his son, William Jr. The missing women lived with the elder Bynum, who professes his distress while acknowledging that he’s a suspect in the case. The family, united in worry, is urging D.C. police to step up the investigation.
About 3,000 people are reported missing in the District each year, the vast majority runaways or linked to custody disputes. Most cases are quickly resolved. Police have about 200 open missing-person cases, some going back decades.
“This is a case we’re working on daily,” said Capt. Lewis J. Douglas Jr., who directs the police division that handles missing-person cases.
Detectives issued a flier this month seeking the public’s help. So far, he said, it hasn’t produced any useful tips. Last week’s search, meanwhile, was routine, done to rule out a potential suspect as much as to find one.
“We couldn’t find any evidence they were there,” Douglas said. “So that eliminates that angle.”
William and Leslie Bynum met at a city office where she worked and he was seeking building permits. Their union has survived 40 years, although the children said their mother had sometimes hinted at wanting to leave — perhaps, they say, because of their father’s strict rules and religious devotion, which has estranged some of them.
In an interview, William Bynum said he had argued with his wife and daughter about a front door left open days before they disappeared. Family members said they think the two women left, although they are unsure about the circumstances.
Relatives also expressed amazement that the women would go through with it, describing Kimberly as fragile and socially awkward and noting that she is her mother’s chief caregiver.
William Bynum said that June 19 started like any other day. The handyman went to work, knowing that his wife and daughter were to leave later to distribute pamphlets, mixing ads for his business with spiritual pronouncements, as they did nearly every day. He said that they sometimes stopped in copy shops around Capitol Hill and visited homeless shelters but that they rarely strayed far from their neighborhood.
They never came home, and Bynum called police that night.
The next morning, according to Leslie Bynum’s brother, Richard Wood, 67, a call came to his house in Albany, purportedly from his sister but from a telephone with a Las Vegas area code. Leslie Bynum told him that she and his niece were at the train station in Rensselaer, N.Y., and wanted him to pick them up.
Wood said he had to finish work as a part-time bus driver and that when he arrived a few hours later, they weren’t there. At that time, he said, he did not know that they had been reported missing in the District.
“One of the ticket agents said she had seen two women that appeared to be mother and daughter and asked him where they could catch a bus,” Wood said. “He told me the last time he saw them they were headed to a bus stop.” A check with Amtrak turned up no train tickets in the Bynums’s names, Wood said.
Wood called police when he arrived at the station. Rensselaer Deputy Police Chief James Frankoski said officers were unable to locate the women, and they found no evidence that the women had been there.
Wood said he thinks his sister and niece were at the station.
“They would have no reason to mislead me about something like that,” he said. “They’re not devious. They wouldn’t be able to conjure up something like that. . . . I’m pretty convinced that they did come to New York and they did seek me out but before I could get them, something bad happened.”
Frankoski said his detectives have been in touch with District authorities but are not actively investigating the case.
A few weeks after the women disappeared, William Bynum said, a message was left on his answering machine from a woman identifying herself as a D.C. police commander. The message said that his wife and daughter had been found and were safe but that they didn’t want to reunite with him.
Other relatives said the caller referenced a private medical condition of Leslie Bynum’s known only to intimate family members, convincing them of the call’s authenticity. But the detective in charge of the case later told the family that the call was a mistake.
Douglas, the police captain, confirmed that the call came from a department member who he said “had bad information and passed it along.” He declined to elaborate.
Some family members, including William Bynum, have accepted this explanation. Others, such as Wood and Robyn Powell, Leslie Bynum’s sister, say that at the least, it demonstrates a lack of commitment to the case.
“At that point, everybody breathed a deep sigh of relief,” said Powell, a law firm receptionist in Alexandria. “We figured they were adults and had made it clear they were okay but wanted to be left alone. . . . We don’t understand how such a mistake could happen.”
The children say they urged police to issue a flier to force the investigation into public view. Eight days later, after the public plea, William Bynum said he allowed police to search his home without a warrant.
“I don’t like this one bit,” he said moments after shaking hands with the departing detectives. “What did they expect to find? My wife and daughter’s body buried in the back yard?”
In a note Bynum wrote after his wife disappeared and that he shared with The Washington Post, he begs her to call and says that if he did anything to upset her, “I am sorry.”
“Christ forgives us,” the note reads. “Let us forgive each other.”
He said he thinks that Leslie and Kimberly left because he yelled about an unclosed door. Now, he wrote in his letter, “The door is open if you want to return.”