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In wake of woman's disappearance, her family sees a pattern of clues

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Romance is for younger folks, Thelma Butler said. Until she noticed a cluster of heart-shaped red balloons on sale at a grocery store one morning, it hadn't occurred to her that Valentine's Day was near. To an elderly widow living alone, the occasion meant little.

Never again, though, will Feb. 14 be just another day on her calendar.

She waited that Saturday in her small house in Southwest Washington. And she waited and waited. Her daughter Pam Butler, 47, had called two days earlier, saying that she and her boyfriend, Jose Rodriguez-Cruz, wanted to treat her to a Valentine's dinner. They were supposed to pick her up at 3 p.m. for the early bird. Then 3 p.m. came and went.

Thelma Butler, 77, said she had socialized with Rodriguez-Cruz at holiday gatherings last fall and winter but knew little about him. "I thought he was a regular guy -- you know, nice." In her living room, watching the clock tick toward evening that day, she wondered why her daughter hadn't called to say they'd be late.

"I thought, 'She's never done this before.' "

Feeling her first twinge of worry, Thelma Butler said, she dialed her daughter's home and cell phones, but got no answer. "I thought, well, maybe they just decided to go out by themselves for Valentine's." After church the next day, though, when she called her daughter again, she still couldn't reach her.

Pam Butler, a computer specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency, had a compressed work schedule: 10 hours a day, Tuesdays through Fridays, with three days at EPA headquarters and Fridays at home.

Because Presidents' Day, Monday, Feb. 16, fell on one of her regular days off, she had planned to take Tuesday off for the holiday, giving her a four-day weekend. As Thelma Butler's anxiety worsened Monday, others in the family tried to reassure her, saying that maybe the couple had booked a last-minute Valentine's getaway.

Too scared to go to her daughter's place alone, afraid of what she might find and not having a phone number for Rodriguez-Cruz, Thelma Butler said, she waited until Tuesday. Then she and a posse of relatives descended on Pam Butler's two-story brick home on a corner lot at Fourth and Oglethorpe streets in the Brightwood neighborhood in Northwest Washington.

Walking around inside a house that her daughter normally kept impeccably neat, Thelma Butler said, she thought: Something's definitely wrong.

The relatives found no vivid evidence that Pam Butler had come to harm. They saw no blood, no signs of a struggle or forced entry. What they saw in the house amounted only to puzzle pieces.

But soon the pieces would fit together in their minds.

'That wasn't right'

Pam Butler's nephew Brandon Butler, 19, the first of five relatives to arrive at the house, said the doors were locked. He said he got in using keys that his aunt had given him when he lived there.

She had also given him the four-digit code to shut off the alarm, he said. Looking at the keypad near the kitchen, though, he saw that the alarm had not been activated. He said his aunt was a stickler about setting it before leaving the house.

In Butler's home office, stacks of her real estate records were out of her filing cabinets and piled on the floor, the relatives said. Upstairs, her bed was a bare mattress, her pillows and beige comforter heaped on a settee. They said they searched the house for her used sheets but couldn't find them.

The purse that Butler usually carried, containing her credit cards and driver's license, was nowhere in the house, the relatives said. Her keys were gone, too. Yet her Mercedes and Jaguar were in the driveway and garage.

Just as troubling, they said, was what they saw in the dining room.

Butler's outdoor surveillance cameras did not cover three of the windows below the second floor that are big enough for an adult to easily fit through. The windows are on the first floor -- one at the front of the residence, clearly visible to tenants in a crowded boarding house across Fourth Street, and two in the dining room, facing quieter Oglethorpe Street.

Like Butler's other windows, the two in the dining room were fitted with specially made blinds that opened not only from the bottom up, but also from the top down. Butler's brother, Derrick Butler, said that his sister would lower the blinds a little from the top, to let in sunlight, but that she was adamant about keeping them drawn at the bottom, to ward off prying eyes.

When the relatives checked the dining room, however, they saw that one of the blinds had been left nearly halfway open from the bottom. It was the only window in the house with an open blind -- and the only window that had been left unlocked.

"No, sir, that wasn't right," Thelma Butler said.

Seen for the last time

After finding Rodriguez-Cruz's Alexandria apartment address in his sister's home office, Derrick Butler, 46, drove there that night, hoping to get some answers. As far as Pam Butler's family knew, she and Rodriguez-Cruz were still a couple.

Meanwhile, Brandon Butler said, he logged onto his aunt's computer and began fast-forwarding through six days' worth of stored security video, starting at the previous Thursday, when she had made the Valentine's date with her mother.

The time-stamped video, later confiscated by homicide detectives, shows only his aunt and Rodriguez-Cruz at the house, Brandon Butler said.

He said the couple left together early Thursday, apparently headed to work. That night, he said, Rodriguez-Cruz arrived back at the house first and waited outside until Butler got home a little while later. Then she opened a rear door and they went inside.

At 9:48 p.m. Thursday, he said, his aunt again stepped into camera view, leaning out the front door to get her mail from the box.

Rodriguez-Cruz, 44, said he stayed overnight Thursday. The next day, Butler's work-at-home Friday, he left the house by himself in the morning.

Although Butler, working inside, is not seen on Friday's video, nothing indicates that she was in peril during the day. Besides text-messaging her friend Rita Moss, she sent e-mails to EPA colleagues in the morning and to a cousin late in the afternoon. Then Rodriguez-Cruz returned to the house just after 8 p.m., Brandon Butler said.

That was the Friday night when Pam Butler suddenly broke up with him, telling him to gather his stuff and get out, Rodriguez-Cruz later said. Brandon Butler said the video shows Rodriguez-Cruz leaving shortly before 11:30 p.m., about 3 1/2 hours after he had arrived.

Trying to catch sight of his aunt again, Brandon Butler said, he continued scanning the video, fast-forwarding through four more days, right up to his and the other relatives' arrival at her home that Tuesday afternoon.

But there is no sign of Butler, he said. He said the video shows only Rodriguez-Cruz repeatedly going in and out of the house after Friday.

Rodriguez-Cruz stayed for almost two hours Saturday, a half-hour Sunday and about 90 minutes Monday, Brandon Butler said. After two of the visits, he left the house carrying a shoulder-slung duffle bag, plus a plastic trash bag on one occasion, Brandon Butler said. He said none of the bags appeared to be heavy.

As for Pam Butler, there was that glimpse of her getting her mail Thursday night, then going back in the house. "And that's the last time you ever see her," her nephew said.

Going in -- and never walking out.

'I'm done cooperating'

"I know what they think," Rodriguez-Cruz said in an interview.

He meant what police and Butler's family think: Removing her body from the house without being recorded by the video system or seen from Fourth Street would have been tricky. Someone familiar with the cameras and the neighborhood probably would have chosen a dining room window. Maybe Butler was working with her real estate files when trouble began. Maybe her body went out a window wrapped in those sheets.

"I don't know what happened, okay?" Rodriguez-Cruz said.

He said he didn't realize she was missing until the Tuesday night when Derrick Butler went to his apartment, wondering where his sister was. Rodriguez-Cruz told him that he and Pam Butler had broken up days earlier and that he hadn't seen her since.

That Tuesday, Feb. 17, Thelma Butler reported her daughter missing to D.C. police, and the case was soon assigned to the homicide unit. Evidence technicians kept control of the house for three months, examining virtually every square inch of it, while detectives focused hard on the most recent man in the victim's life.

"I know without a doubt that they're looking at everything in my background," Rodriguez-Cruz said. He said he cooperated in the case for a while until "overzealous" detectives began badgering him with "draconian tactics."

"They've already looked like bozos because they messed up the Chandra thing," he said, referring to the sensational case of slain D.C. intern Chandra Levy. "They want to make themselves look good again. All that pressure is on them to solve this case, come hell or high water."

He said he knows he is the only person seen on video with Butler just before she vanished. But he didn't kill her, he said. He said he didn't spirit her body out a dining room window Friday, then exit the house normally so the video would show him leaving. He said he didn't drive somewhere and dispose of a dead woman from his car trunk.

And he said he returned to her house that weekend for an innocent reason -- not to straighten up a crime scene and remove evidence.

"I told the detectives that," he said. But "when they're telling me, on the second interview, 'We're going to charge you with homicide,' what am I supposed to do? I mean, you're a fool if you're not going to sit there and get upset."

When police searched his apartment, hauling away bundles of clothes and shoes, his desktop computer and personal records, even his iPod, Rodriguez-Cruz said, they "trashed the place."

And months after seizing his belongings, including his 1997 Dodge Neon, he said, detectives haven't given them back. "Believe me, if they found any evidence that I put her dead body in my car, I wouldn't be sitting here today."

Court papers related to the searches, including affidavits laying out evidence to justify the warrants, were ordered sealed by an Alexandria judge at the request of D.C. police.

Rodriguez-Cruz said he last spoke with detectives on the night of a scheduled polygraph exam at the homicide unit's offices. As the questioning was about to start, he said, his anger at being accused boiled over, and he demanded to leave. Derrick Butler, who was waiting outside the polygraph room, said Rodriguez-Cruz "stood up and just snapped, starting pulling the wires off him, screaming obscenities."

That night, Rodriguez-Cruz said, he decided, "I'm done cooperating."

Except for a news briefing in February at which D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier appealed to the public for tips without disclosing many details of the case, authorities have said little if anything on the record about Butler's disappearance.

As for the house, Derrick Butler said, a detective told him that crime-scene technicians found no blood in any of the rooms -- and he remembered that Rodriguez-Cruz, in denying any wrongdoing, had told him from the beginning that the techs would find no blood.

Inquiries, and answers

"They did everything," Rodriguez-Cruz said. He said detectives at one point tried coaxing a confession from him with an empathy ruse, saying they understood how angry he must have been, getting dumped by his girlfriend on the eve of Valentine's Day. What an emotional blow that must have been, they said. Maybe he wasn't guilty of murder; maybe it was manslaughter; maybe he'd be out in five years.

"I told them, 'Look, it makes a nice story, it really does. But it didn't happen that way.' "

After Butler kicked him out Friday night, Rodriguez-Cruz said, he tried to reach her by phone the next day. He said he wanted to ask whether he could stop at the house to pick up his clothes and other possessions.

When he got no answer, he said, he figured that she had kept their Valentine's date with her mother and that the two were at dinner. He said he left a voice mail, telling her what he planned to do, then drove to her house and let himself in.

All he did there, he said, was gather his belongings, on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, carrying them out in a trash bag and duffle. He said he left phone messages for Butler before the Sunday and Monday visits, too. When he arrived and she wasn't home, he said, he assumed she had gone out because she didn't want to see him.

How did he get in?

Rodriguez-Cruz said Butler, in happier times, had given him a set of keys. But her relatives said they doubt she would have done that. They said it would have been unlike Butler to show that much trust in a fairly new boyfriend, no matter how often he stayed overnight. They said they suspect Rodriguez-Cruz used Butler's keys to keep the house secured over the weekend until he was finished doing what he had to do there.

Rodriguez-Cruz said investigators pressed him on that point. When a detective asked him to produce the keys, he said he replied truthfully:

"I don't know exactly where they are."

After he was done at the house, he said, he lost them.

What about the alarm?

If Butler entrusted him with keys, it stands to reason that she would also have told him how the turn off the alarm. He said a detective asked him about that: What's the code? He said Butler never gave it to him. Why would she give him keys but not the code? He acknowledged that it seems strange but chalked it up to her "siege mentality."

After Butler's family figured out she was missing, it became clear that the alarm had been off since the previous Thursday, when she last got home. Rodriguez-Cruz said he didn't know that when he visited her house over the weekend. So when he walked in to get his stuff, wasn't he worried the alarm would sound?

"No, because sometimes she would leave the house, knowing I was coming, and she would leave the alarm off," he said. But how could he have been sure she would leave it off for him that weekend? "I never thought about it," he said. "It never occurred to me."

So where could she be?

"It's a complete mystery to me," he said.

And until it's solved, he said, "I'm on hold for any type of relationship." Like Thelma Butler, who said she searches her dreams in vain for her missing daughter's face, Rodriguez-Cruz said he is trapped in a nightmare.

"They're thinking, 'How did this Houdini do it?' Well, I'm telling you, I'm not Houdini. I can't make people disappear."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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