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Neighbor Held in Retiree's Death

Southeast Woman Was Strangled and Stabbed, Police Say

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page B02

An 18-year-old Southeast Washington man was arrested yesterday and charged in the death of the 77-year-old woman who lived next door to him, D.C. police said.

Robert Pettus was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Martha Byrd, who was found Saturday by her son in an upstairs bedroom of her house in the 500 block of Hilltop Terrace. Authorities said she had been strangled and stabbed.

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Byrd, who was retired from a long career as a federal employee, had lived in the house since 1961.

According to documents filed in court, Pettus had lived next door his entire life.

Pettus was arrested on Indiana Avenue NW near D.C. police headquarters and the Superior Court building. Police declined to say what led them to Pettus or to give other details of the arrest.

They said they knew of no motive in the killing.

Officers who went to Byrd's house after her body was found determined that someone had broken in and that her Cadillac was missing, police said.

The car was found later in Southeast Washington, about two miles from Byrd's house.

Byrd's son Maurice, 55, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he didn't know Pettus well.

However, he said he had a poor impression of Pettus from the few times they had encountered each other. He described the young man as seeming disrespectful.

"I'm glad they caught somebody," Byrd said. But "I can't think about that now. The funeral is tomorrow."

Pettus had been arrested Tuesday for unauthorized use of a stolen green Lincoln when an officer saw him walk away from the car with its motor running in the 100 block of Fifth Street SE, according to a criminal complaint filed by police in Superior Court.

The car had been stolen in a carjacking in Prince George's County, a police officer said.

The officer said in the sworn statement that Pettus told police he found the vehicle at a gas station on Minnesota Avenue NE.

Maurice Byrd said his mother mainly kept to herself after a career of more than 30 years as a statistics clerk with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

However, once a week, she went to a local seniors club to play pinochle or to the beauty salon to get her hair done.

She didn't bother anyone, Byrd said. "Wherever she wanted to go she'd go."

When she was younger, Byrd, who had four sons, also had been a member of a travel club that flew to the Caribbean and to destinations in the West, including Las Vegas and Washington state.

As Byrd's family and neighbors prepared for her funeral today, they expressed relief at the arrest and shock that the suspect lived next door.

"Oh, my god," said John Safrit, a Hilltop Terrace resident. "It's so terrible."

Staff writers Henri E. Cauvin and Martin Weil contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company