D.C. police renew efforts to find man who killed Christine Mirzayan in 1998


Christine Mirzayan with her husband, David Hackos. (FAMILY PHOTO)
July 25, 2011

Everything in San Francisco was packed and ready to go. The newlyweds had just found a charming Woodley Park apartment where they would start a life together in Washington.

It was the summer of 1998 and Christine Mirzayan, 28, was living in Georgetown until her husband joined her that fall. He called her a few hours before she went to a Saturday dinner with friends. It was the last time they would talk.

That night, Aug. 1, 1998, Mirzayan was walking home when she was dragged into the woods near Canal Road NW. A man heard her scream and called out to her, asking whether she was okay. She did not respond.

Her body was found the next day. Police said she had been sexually assaulted and died from a blow to the head.

Months passed without an arrest, and then years.


Composite sketch of the suspect in Christine Mirzayan’s slaying, as well as eight other sex assaults in Montgomery County dating back to the 1990s. (COURTESY OF DC POLICE)

Now, police are renewing their efforts to find her killer. Authorities recently announced that DNA evidence links Mirzayan’s slaying to eight sexual assaults in Montgomery County from 1991 to 1998. In coming weeks, D.C. police said, they will launch a Web site dedicated to the case in the hope that it will bring in new tips.

“There are only a few options: One, he’s dead. Two, he’s incarcerated on something they don’t take DNA for,” said Capt. Michael Farish of the D.C. police’s homicide unit. “I don’t foresee someone committing a progressively violent string of attacks and saying, ‘I’ll never do this again.’ ”

Mirzayan’s husband at the time, David Hackos, said he and her family never dwelt on the fact that there has not been an arrest.

“To me, Christine was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Hackos said. “I never really felt this need to get revenge. I felt there’s no amount of revenge that could possibly bring back Christine.”

* * *

Mirzayan had just finished her PhD at the University of California at San Francisco when she moved to the District for a fellowship.

Friends recalled Mirzayan’s passion for good wine and food, smooth jazz (especially Charles Mingus) and philosophy. Existentialist thought especially aroused her interest — she had studied Albert Camus during her undergraduate years at Yale — and Hackos said she believed that people are responsible for giving their lives meaning and that they should live life passionately and fully or commit suicide.

So she chose life.

Born in Tehran, Mirzayan and her parents, of Armenian descent, moved to Newport Beach, Calif., when she was 9 years old. Her older sister, Caroline, pursued a career in science, and Mirzayan followed. She graduated from Yale in 1991 with a degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and earned a PhD in biochemistry from UCSF in 1998.

Former UCSF professors described her as an idealistic student with a promising future in shaping national science and technology policy.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, now president of Rockefeller University in New York City, remembered Mirzayan’s fascination with how nerve cells behave at the molecular level.

“She was very, very inquisitive,” said Tessier-Lavigne, her thesis adviser. “She cared about science; she cared about people. I close my eyes, I hear her laugh, I see her smile, I see her interest — she just loved to learn about everything.”

Like most graduate students, Mirzayan spent long hours in the lab. Her late afternoon coffee cravings became a tradition, and the crew would take a break to debate free will vs. determinism or plan a marathon viewing of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Three Colors Trilogy.”

“She would walk around in the lab and say, ‘Coffee? Coffee?’ ” said Michael Galko, who worked alongside Mirzayan. “She never let a day go by where she didn’t corner you and talk to you for a bit.”

Lab mates remember how happy Mirzayan was when she met Hackos, who was the quieter of the pair.

“I think she was drawn to introverts,” said Galko, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “She felt like she had to figure you out.”

* * *

Hackos, also a UCSF graduate student, was working late in the library in spring 1992 when he ran into Mirzayan at the copy machine. Small talk led to an invitation to her lab’s ballroom dance outing, which, in turn, led to a relationship.

They married in spring 1997, having settled into an apartment near campus. Each morning, Mirzayan would take her husband’s hand and recite bits of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky,” she would say before dragging him to the neighborhood coffee shop.

Mirzayan left for the District in the summer of 1998 for a science and technology policy fellowship, now named in her memory, at the National Academy of Sciences. She already had accepted a congressional fellowship for the fall, and Hackos had a postdoctoral position at the National Institutes of Health lined up for September.

The morning after Mirzayan was killed, her mother called Hackos, worried that her daughter hadn’t made her usual Sunday morning phone call.

Calls to her Georgetown apartment went unanswered, and Hackos booked the first flight to Washington the next day. When the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac, he heard his name paged. His heart sank.

D.C. police met Hackos at the gate.

* * *

The sexual assaults started in Montgomery’s North Potomac area in May 1991. By 1998, eight women — ranging in age from 18 to about 50 — had been attacked by the same man, some in their homes, some outside, police said.

Had it not been for genetic evidence, police would not have connected the cases, said Montgomery Detective Joe Mudano, one of the original investigators.

The rapist covered the women’s faces, Mudano said, so they never got a good look at him.

Police say they think the same man killed Mirzayan.

A witness who saw a man leave the woods minutes after someone else heard Mirzayan scream helped a police artist make a composite sketch. An artist will revise it for the Web site, aging the likeness.

* * *

In the first years after his wife’s death, Hackos lived in the District, visiting the restaurants in Dupont Circle that she loved, remembering the week they spent together finding an apartment.

“Somehow, I felt that that was the last place I saw her, that she was still there in some way,” Hackos said. “I wanted to be close to her, I guess.”

Hackos eventually moved back to the Bay area. He remarried in August 2006 and lives in San Francisco with his wife, pianist Lauren Cony, and 3-year-old son, Dylan.

Several months ago, D.C. police contacted Hackos to update him on the search for Mirzayan’s killer.

“There was nothing we could do. She just disappeared one day. That’s it,” Hackos said. “People wrote letters and poems and made a scrapbook with a bunch of photos. We all just felt helpless and were seeking our way of finding closure.”

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