By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009; A01
A chill went down Courtney Hicks's back when she arrived at her family's Largo home after 10 p.m. The lights were on, her sister's jacket was by the door and her mother's car was in the driveway. Everything seemed in place that March 15 night -- except that when she called out, no one answered.
Hicks, 17, said the hair on her neck stood up, the same way it had in the fall when she found the small two-story house burglarized. She turned on every light. She checked her mother's and sister's rooms, then left and began frantically calling their cellphones. About 2 a.m., she returned to find the lights still on and the house still empty.
Two hours later, as Hicks worried, police found two bodies in a burning car nearby, one in the back seat and the other in the trunk. Authorities identified them later as Hicks's sister Ebony Dewitt, 20, and mother, Delores Dewitt, 42.
"I thought for sure something had gone wrong," said Hicks, a student at Prince George's County Community College. "But I never thought in a million years that it would be the outcome that it was."
The possibility that the killings of the Dewitts are linked to the slayings of another mother and daughter -- Karen and Karissa Lofton, found shot in their Largo home in January -- has prompted Prince George's County police to assign more than two dozen investigators to those cases.
Connected or not, detectives say each set of killings is baffling in its own right. The absence of an obvious suspect or motive -- an angry ex-boyfriend, a drug deal gone bad -- has made the slayings more unsettling for residents than any in years in Prince George's.
"This is so bizarre," Police Chief Roberto Hylton said of the two sets of killings. "Everybody's a person of interest."
In the past week, police have reexamined the Jan. 26 killings of the Loftons. Speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, police sources described some of what has been learned about the four killings.
Karen Lofton, a school nurse, and her 16-year-old daughter had gone to church at Hosanna Ministries in the District on Sunday, Jan. 25. That night, Karissa was working at the Golden Corral restaurant at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre. She was last seen leaving the restaurant about 9 p.m., family members said.
Shortly after 2:30 a.m., Karissa dialed 911 from her family home in the 10800 block of Southhall Drive.
Karissa told the operator she and her mother had been shot. She whispered into the phone, as if the gunman were still in the home, two sources said.
When police arrived less than five minutes later, the front door was locked. A side window was closed but unlocked. An officer crawled in; police searched the home, guns drawn.
They found Karissa's body in her bed, under the covers, and the body of her 45-year-old mother in another room, according to sources.
The next day, Hylton characterized the killings as an isolated incident. The absence of forced entry suggested that the killer knew or might have been related to the victims, police said. Hopes for a quick arrest faded after police interviewed Karen Lofton's ex-husband and adult sons, all of whom were cooperative, sources said.
Investigators continue to pursue those theories, but the discovery a half-mile away last week of the bodies of the Dewitts, along with similarities between the cases, have caused police to wonder whether they might be linked.
On Saturday, March 14, Delores Dewitt, a nurse, attended a cabaret organized by relatives. Ebony Dewitt's boyfriend told investigators that he dropped her at home, in the 9700 block of Cedarhollow Lane, about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, police said.
Courtney said she first suspected something was wrong about 10 p.m. Sunday. Returning from a weekend away with friends, she sent her mother a text message from the Largo Metro station, asking for a ride. There was no response.
After she made her way home and found it empty, Courtney headed for her grandmother's house in Hyattsville. She called relatives but found no sign of her sister or mother.
As Courtney lay awake early Monday, another Largo resident called 911 to tell police about an incident that turned out to be related to the Dewitts' disappearance. Sybil Felton of the 10800 block of Woodlawn Boulevard called from her driveway at 3:39 a.m. Felton lives with her daughter and was flying to Europe later in the day, sources said. She and her boyfriend had left her home about 2 a.m. to run an errand. When they returned, her 2005 Nissan Maxima was missing from the driveway.
Investigators think Felton's car was stolen using a key taken when her house was burglarized Feb. 28. Nothing else was reported missing from her home at the time.
As Felton spoke to a 911 operator, she shrieked and hung up at 3:49 a.m., sources said. The dispatcher called back, and Felton said she had seen someone speed by -- in her car. According to sources, Felton could not say how many people were in the car.
Six minutes later, less than three blocks away, a resident's report of a burning car in the driveway of a vacant home led police to Felton's Maxima and the Dewitts' bodies inside.
Among the questions confounding some of the county's most experienced homicide detectives: How did the driver manage to set the car ablaze within minutes and disappear from the dead-end street without being noticed? And where were the Dewitts between 10 p.m., when Courtney found their home empty, and 2 a.m., the earliest Felton said her car could have been stolen?
Unaware of the events overnight in the neighborhood, Courtney, her grandmother and others drove to the family's Largo home Monday morning. When they got there, Courtney realized that in her haste the night before, she had left without house keys, she said. She went to the side of the house and broke out the wood covering the window where the burglar had entered in November.
The commotion activated an alarm, and within 10 minutes county police -- still in the neighborhood after the discovery of the bodies in the car -- arrived to hear Courtney's story tumble out.
Confirming that the bodies in the car were the Dewitts, that another mother and daughter in Largo were dead, proved difficult. The fire had been intense. Police obtained dental records.
While they waited for formal identifications, police showed Courtney pictures of a melted ring taken from one of the bodies. Courtney told detectives the ring could belong to anybody.
"Denial wouldn't let me come to reality," she said. "I prayed and asked God to let it be anything else."
Staff writers Nelson Hernandez and William Wan and staff researcher Robert E. Thomasson contributed to this report.