Woman Found Dead in Fire Was Slain, Officials Say

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

Authorities said yesterday that a woman whose body was found in a fire that destroyed an upscale Bowie house this week was killed before the blaze, an assertion that stunned friends and neighbors who said homicide seemed nearly unimaginable in one of Prince George's County's most insulated and sleepiest suburbs.

"What? What? No!" said Vanessa Lee, Vilma Butler's former partner, when told that an autopsy confirmed investigators' suspicions that Butler was killed before neighbors reported the blaze at 4:45 a.m. Tuesday. Neighbors have said they heard two loud popping noises about an hour earlier.

"I'm just at a loss," said Lee, who owned the house with Butler. "I don't know who would want to hurt her."

Butler's body was found in what appeared to be the master bedroom of the two-story house in the Collington Station subdivision, a neighborhood of $400,000 to $700,000 houses flanked by greenways and tennis courts.

One official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing said the woman appeared to have died from gunshot wounds. Police have not identified the victim; Butler's family and co-workers have said detectives told them she was the victim.

Mark Brady, a county Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department spokesman, said that despite severe burns to the body, medical examiners were able to "conclusively confirm that it was a homicide."

Butler, 46, was a mother of three and a sales manager at an office supply company in Upper Marlboro. She lived with her 17-year-old son, Nick; sang in the church choir at Metropolitan Community Church in the District; and appeared to have maintained cordial relationships with both her ex-partner of five years, Lee, and her ex-husband, Timothy Butler, from whom she was separated 10 years ago.

Timothy Butler said he and the couple's three children -- ages 17, 19 and 21 -- had no reason to believe Butler was a target. "All of my kids, everybody, they have no idea," he said. "My son lived there and he said he had seen nothing different . . . no problems."

Rita Sullivan, who visited with Butler regularly on Sundays and after choir practice, said that Butler was not in a relationship and that she believes the crime was committed by a stranger.

Neighbors said they are stunned by that possibility.

"You have to drive out miles just to go to the grocery store," said Uche Honnah, referring to the secluded subdivision. "By 9 p.m. everywhere it is quiet, everyone is asleep. It is a regular, Maryland, outside-the-Beltway suburb."

Lee said she and Butler separated in November 2006, and they had been trying to sell the house. "It was pretty much the last tie" between them, Lee said.

She said the home had alarm and sprinkler systems.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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