Park Police Question Why Body Was Overlooked

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008

U.S. Park Police said yesterday that they are conducting an internal investigation of a bizarre traffic case in which an officer found a wrecked car along a wooded stretch of Suitland Parkway but failed to notice the driver lying in nearby underbrush. Her body went undetected for 10 days.

Jean Kearney, 50, of Forestville was found Thursday by a U.S. Park Service employee doing maintenance work in woods off the parkway just west of Suitland Road, in the Morningside area of Prince George's County. Police said Kearney's body was 30 to 40 feet from where her 2006 Mazda 6 crashed into a tree Oct. 7.

The officer who saw the car at the bottom of an embankment that day "feels like he did an adequate search for the driver," Sgt. Robert Lachance, a Park Police spokesman, said yesterday. Lachance said it appears that Kearney had been thrown from the car by the force of the collision and "was not immediately visible" in the bushes.

"What kind of follow-up was done, what the officer did to try to locate the registered owner, is part of the current investigation," Lachance said. "Obviously, if we find that something wasn't done correctly, that's going to be addressed internally. Also, we'll review our policies to make sure they are sound and adequate."

Kearney was last seen alive sometime after midnight Oct. 7 at her boyfriend's home in Southeast Washington, according to her daughter, Sharron Williams.

The Park Police officer found the Mazda about 8 a.m. that day, Lachance said. But Williams said no one in her family was told of the discovery. Unable to locate her mother, Williams said she contacted D.C. and Prince George's police to file missing-person reports. Both departments "gave me the runaround," she said.

"I went to P.G. because she's a P.G. resident," said Williams, 24. "They told me to go to the District and do the report there because that's where she was missing. I went to D.C. They told me to go to P.G. and do the report because that's where she lives."

Both departments said they eventually took reports from Williams on Oct. 8.

It was unclear yesterday how much investigating D.C. police did. In Prince George's, Maj. Andy Ellis, a police spokesman, said the department treated the report seriously even without strong evidence that Kearney was in trouble or had fallen victim to foul play.

He said that a detective, unaware that the woman's car had been found, interviewed her relatives and her boyfriend and got a subpoena for her phone records. At the detective's request, Kearney's cellphone provider used a triangulation technique to determine her location at the time of her last call.

Lachance said that a Park Police officer who finds an unattended, wrecked vehicle is supposed to determine the registered owner's name and check the license plate number in the National Crime Information Center computerized database to see whether the vehicle was reported stolen. When such a check is made, Lachance said, a record of it is kept in the NCIC database.

Ellis said Maryland State Police, aiding in the search, checked the NCIC database to see whether any law enforcement agency had recently made any inquiry connected with Kearney. He said no record of any police officer checking the Mazda's plates was found.

"There was a lot of investigative work that we did, and we didn't find anything until the mowing crew, the maintenance crew" discovered the body, Ellis said.

As the search went on, Williams said, she and relatives printed hundreds of fliers with photos of Kearney and her car and distributed them across the Washington-Baltimore area. On Monday, a week after Kearney was last seen, about 50 people attended a prayer vigil for her in Forestville, Williams said.

"A lot of dots just never got connected," she said.

Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

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