Forestville woman, 92, found slain in ransacked home

August 16, 2011

A 92-year-old woman was found slain in her Forestville home Monday night after worried family members asked police to check on her, according to authorities and the woman’s granddaughter.

Thelma Steele, who lived alone in the brick, single-family house in the 2900 block of East Avenue, was found dead on a sofa, police said. Her granddaughter, 42-year-old Wendy Tucker, said police told her that the home, usually neatly kept, had been ransacked — with mattresses flipped, drawers rifled through and Steele’s purse possibly missing.

“We’re devastated, and we have no idea who would have went there and did this to her,” Tucker said.

Tucker said she first grew worried about 1 p.m. Monday, when she tried to call her grandmother and got no answer. Later, Tucker said, she asked her mother, “Have you heard from Mimi?” Her mother had not. Tucker said the last time any family member can recall talking to Steele was several days ago.

“I was calling her pretty much every day,” Tucker said. “My mother said she felt horrible because she didn’t talk to her over the weekend.”

Unable to reach Steele, family members got in touch with police and a neighbor, who told them Steele’s mail had been piling up since Thursday, Tucker said. Maj. George Nader, who commands the Prince George’s County police’s District III station, said officers arrived at the house about 8:30 p.m. Monday and found Steele dead on the couch.

Nader said that the body had obvious trauma and that the medical examiner’s office would determine a precise cause of death. Nader declined to offer additional details about the case, including whether police think someone broke into the house or stole anything.

Tucker said police officers told her that her grandmother’s home had been ransacked, and they asked whether her grandmother carried a purse.

Tucker said it would not be the first time Steele’s home was burglarized. About two months ago, she said, her grandmother was in bed when someone with a flashlight crept into the bedroom. Her grandmother pretended she was asleep, Tucker said, and the thief took some jewelry.

Tucker said family members tried to convince Steele to move out after that, but she refused. “She wouldn’t leave that house for nothing,” Tucker said.

Tucker said her grandmother worked for many years as a secretary at a bank in the District but was long retired. She enjoyed talking to friends on the phone and sewing, although in recent years she had become too frail to lift the sewing machine onto her dining room table, Tucker said.

Tucker said her grandmother’s husband died of a heart attack more than three decades ago and she never remarried. Her life after that was somewhat beset by loss. One of her grandsons died in a fire, and another died in a car crash.

Steele, though, was resilient. Tucker said family members would accompany her to doctor’s visits, but she lived mostly independently, using cabs or a bus service to take trips to the grocery store. Her daughter, granddaughter and four great-grandchildren live in Nanjemoy, Tucker said.

Even those who barely knew Steele said they were touched by her.

Peggy Warrick, the secretary at Freedom Church at the end of East Avenue, said Steele called the church in June, hoping to donate a few items for a free swap meet. Warrick said she visited Steele to pick up five pairs of earrings, a necklace, a yellow sweater and a pair of brand new, size 10 shoes that Steele wanted to give away.

Warrick said she did not talk to Steele for long but said she was warm and open. On Tuesday, after she saw the crime-scene tape around Steele’s house, Warrick said she sat in her car and cried.

“It was devastating,” Warrick said. “Who would hurt that woman? Why?”

zapotoskym@washpost.com

Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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