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Cold Cases : James McCallum

Seeking the Name Behind DNA

Killer Left Blood, but More Data Needed to Solve '89 Stabbing

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page DZ03

"Up to $25,000 could be yours!!!

"James McCallum was stabbed to death at 17th and E St NE in 1989.


Interns help Detective Jim Trainum, right, spread fliers soliciting information in the 1989 stabbing death of James McCallum. The longtime homicide investigator established a project that uses unpaid college interns to comb through old homicide cases for DNA evidence. (James M Thresher - The Washington Post)

About This Series

This is the second in an occasional series about the more than 4,100 unsolved killings that have occurred in the District since the late 1960s. Police offer rewards of up to $25,000 for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in homicides. Anyone with information about James McCallum's slaying is urged to call Detective Jim Trainum at 202-727-5037 and 202-727-9099. Trainum also can be reached by e-mail at james.trainum@dc.gov.

"All we need is a name . . . we do the rest."

The words scream from a flier seeking information to help solve a homicide that occurred 15 years ago this month in Northeast Washington. But the flier also reveals a frustrating truth about the District's 4,100 unsolved killings, which date back nearly four decades: Even with the help of modern technology, most cases cannot be solved without hard work on the street.

Despite having the DNA of a suspect in the killing of 36-year-old James McCallum in 1989, police say they still need a tip to point them to a suspect.

"We need a name," said Detective Jim Trainum, who is investigating the killing. "That's all. The guy will have to explain why his DNA was at a murder scene."

The slaying took the life of a construction foreman and father of two children. McCallum grew up in North Carolina and moved to Washington as a teenager and eventually married, said his nephew, Willie McCallum, 38.

At the time of his death, he was working for his brother's construction company, Willie McCallum said.

"He was a very hard worker," Willie McCallum said. "He was my favorite uncle. He was funny."

McCallum was also a drug user, a habit that might have led to his death, police said.

On Dec. 14, 1989, McCallum and a friend were trying to buy cocaine near a liquor store at 15th and Isherwood streets NE, police said.

The friend let McCallum out of the car to buy the drugs and drove around the block. When he returned to the store, he saw McCallum running away from a suspected drug dealer who was carrying a large knife, police said.

McCallum was screaming that the man was trying to rob him, police said.

Two blocks later, McCallum hopped a fence and jumped into a community garden in the 500 block of 17th Street NE. The assailant leapt after him. The man stabbed McCallum once in the chest, police said.

McCallum bled to death in the back seat of his friend's car, police said, as the buddy got lost trying to rush him to a hospital.

Detectives generated no suspects, and the case eventually was lost in a torrent of killings. McCallum was 1989's 415th homicide victim. In the next two weeks, more slayings pushed the total to 434. Over the next decade, more than 4,700 people were killed in the District.

Although police were not able to identify a suspect, they discovered evidence that might eventually lead to an arrest. They found a tiny puddle of blood as they tracked a trail of blood droplets leading from the crime scene to an area near an apartment complex in the 400 block of 18th Street NE, police said.

A small swab of that blood, collected long before technology made DNA evidence gathering common practice, was kept untouched in an evidence box for 14 years.

Upset at the lack of progress in the case, which he felt had been forgotten, McCallum's nephew wrote a letter last year seeking answers from Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), he said.

"It makes you angry," said Willie McCallum, who lives in Lorton and runs his father's construction business. "It makes you think, if you are not well-known, not a diplomat, your case is going to go unsolved."

Soon, the letter found its way to Trainum, a longtime homicide investigator who had set up a project that used unpaid college interns to comb through old homicide cases to find potential DNA evidence. Team members had searched through thousands of cases with mixed results when they decided to give McCallum's a shot.

In April of last year, the detective and interns discovered the bloody swab.

It clearly wasn't the victim's blood -- it was found several feet from where McCallum was stabbed and collapsed, Trainum reasoned. So, he sent the sample to the FBI crime laboratory for testing.

The laboratory, which conducts DNA tests for the D.C. police force, produced the genetic profile of a possible killer three months later, Trainum said.

The DNA profile has not matched any others in national and state databases of known offenders, forcing Trainum and his interns to pass out fliers in the neighborhood where the killing occurred.

Convinced that the killer lived in the area, Trainum said an old-timer might recall neighborhood talk pointing to a suspect.

On a recent Monday, Trainum and three interns -- Danielle Drieling, Stephanie Ellis and B.J. Hermerding -- passed out two fliers in the area. One was designed by Trainum, apparently inspired by a work-at-home advertisement and promising quick cash for simple work -- "CALL US" the flier pleads, after starting out with "Up to $25,000 could be yours."

The other flier had a more traditional flavor -- it displayed McCallum's photograph, a yellowing mug shot taken in the 1980s.

The team taped the fliers to light poles and trees and stuffed others under car windshields.

Team members also questioned a dozen people, but none recalled the killing.

Some said they were glad police were still looking into the case. But some thought it was hopeless, that memories were too faded and the crime too distant. Some did not seem interested in helping the police.

With each person, Trainum and the interns emphasized that they didn't need anyone to be a witness-- they already have at least one solid one.

They just need a name. They said science could do the rest.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company