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U.S. Joins in Probe Of Alexandria Killing

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page B01

Federal prosecutors have joined the investigation into the death of Nancy Dunning, wife of Alexandria Sheriff James H. Dunning, who was found shot to death in her home last year.

Law enforcement sources said a federal grand jury in Alexandria will investigate the slaying. Nancy Dunning was a popular real estate agent who was a fixture in the city's Del Ray neighborhood. She was found by her husband and son lying near the front door of the family's home.

Family of Nancy Dunning, from left: husband James; sister Patty Moran and her daughter Kate; children Liz and Chris. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

Law enforcement sources said one reason for the federal involvement is that investigators are pursuing a theory, among others, that someone was paid or recruited to kill Dunning. If such a murder-for-hire plot included a wiring of money between states or crossed state lines in other ways, it could lead to federal charges, sources said.

But the sources cautioned that, at this point, the federal role in the case is mainly to assist the Alexandria police detectives, who are still leading the investigation. It remains unclear whether federal charges -- or any charges -- will be filed. Grand juries are often used to compel people to testify in a criminal investigation.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity about the federal role, which was first reported Tuesday night by WRC-TV (Channel 4), because federal rules prohibit public discussion of grand jury matters. Spokesmen for the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, the Alexandria police and the Alexandria commonwealth's attorney declined to comment.

The federal involvement comes as the anniversary of Nancy Dunning's Dec. 5 slaying approaches. Alexandria police have said that the investigation remains a top priority. James Dunning, who has said his wife's death left "a huge void in our family and in our community," was recently hospitalized, suffering from severe dehydration and vertigo, according to a source close to the Dunning family.

Dunning's attorney, Plato Cacheris, said yesterday that he has "no idea why a federal grand jury would be looking into this, and I question the legitimacy of it. It's a local murder case, period. If there is federal jurisdiction here, then they have jurisdiction in every murder case in the country."

Cacheris added that Dunning "wants this case solved, and if a federal grand jury will do that, he welcomes it."

Federal law does not include a general murder statute, and murder cases are usually prosecuted by local authorities. But killings can result in federal charges if they violate other federal laws, such as those involving civil rights violations or kidnappings. In one prominent local example, former naval intelligence officer Jay E. Lentz was prosecuted on charges of kidnapping resulting in the death of his former wife.

In the Dunning case, experts said federal charges could be filed if the killer crossed state lines or wired money or made phone calls connected to the plot from outside Virginia. The federal murder-for-hire statute, which makes it a crime to use interstate facilities for a murder in exchange for anything of pecuniary value, could be especially attractive to prosecutors, said Richard Friedman, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

"There would have to be an interstate hook, but that's certainly a plausible possibility," Friedman said.

Nancy Dunning, 56, was found shot several times in her home on West Mount Ida Avenue. Law enforcement sources have said there was no sign of forced entry. That morning, Dunning had been Christmas shopping at a Target store near her home. Using her cell phone, she made plans to meet her husband and son for lunch at a restaurant but never showed up.

Police have said that Dunning -- nicknamed "the queen of Del Ray" for her devotion to the neighborhood -- was not killed randomly but was targeted, motivated by an event or relationship in her past.

In January, police sought the public's help in identifying a potential witness. Photographs of the man were taken by a surveillance camera at the Target store, where he and Dunning had been in the same area. They exited simultaneously at 10:30 a.m. the day she was killed.

James Dunning, who was elected sheriff in 1986, oversees the Alexandria jail, which has housed some of the country's highest-profile inmates, including convicted spy Robert P. Hanssen and terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company