The man was slain in what appeared to be an execution-style shooting, left for dead in the pre-dawn darkness of a park in Northeast Washington.
With no eyewitnesses, D.C. police Detective Scott Gutherie figured that he would solve the case by working backward, questioning the victim's friends and enemies.
One of D.C. detectives' unidentified slaying victims had a half-finished tattoo of a demon on his back.
(D.C. Police Photo)
The investigator never imagined that he would spend the next five years simply trying to learn the victim's name. He has visited tattoo parlors, reviewed missing person reports and submitted photographs to a Web site specializing in missing people. Yet the man's identity remains a mystery, known in police files as "John Doe."
"This guy's family, someone out there, loved this guy," Gutherie said. "They deserve to know what happened to him. He deserves a name."
Gutherie and other detectives are taking a new look at that case and 21 others involving unidentified homicide victims, dating to 1976. Half of them were killed during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a surge in violence afflicted the District and so many other cities.
Police culled thousands of files to locate the 22 cases and are hoping that DNA and other newer technology yield clues that finally identify the victims. Because of forensic advances and other factors, police get far fewer cases today of unidentified victims. But the anonymous dead of years ago haunt many detectives.
Authorities said their effort has two benefits: It can bring comfort to families who never learned what happened to their loved ones and helps detectives solve the killings.
"It is definitely disheartening to know that there is a family out there that doesn't know what happened to their loved one," said Cmdr. Michael Anzallo, who has been supervising the project. "If we can find the identity of the person who is dead, it's easier to go to the family, find associates. We are able to trace back their history and maybe, possibly, get a break."
While Gutherie has continued to investigate the killing in the park, most of the other files sat untouched for years, set aside amid a crush of more recent homicides. Many of the files were recently gathered and placed in a cardboard box that sits on a table in a cluttered office at police headquarters.
The files range in size and scope. Some are stuffed with updated reports. Others contain papers describing tips from witnesses, photographs of the victims and composite sketches. Several hold nothing but a single scrap of yellow paper with the barest details of a person's death.
In 1976, for example, detectives determined that two men found dead in an abandoned house in Southeast Washington were homicide victims. Because the files have long vanished from the archives, police have nothing more than two case numbers, 76-233 and 76-234.
In a 1988 case, police have only a one-sentence synopsis stating that "an unidentified woman was found shot to death" at Holbrook and Levis streets NE. The rest of the paperwork has disappeared.
Of the 22 unidentified victims, 15 were men. They died like their named counterparts: shot, stabbed, beaten. In several additional cases that police uncovered during their review, detectives strongly believe that the victims were slain but couldn't determine a cause of death.
The dead were old and young, white, black and Hispanic. Eleven were killed between 1988 and 1994, an era when street feuds left more than 3,000 dead in the city.