Halloween slaying of U St. restaurant owner remains unsolved

Carlos and Nori Amaya were in the restaurant business together. The siblings ran Coppi's Organic on U Street NW in the District.
Carlos and Nori Amaya were in the restaurant business together. The siblings ran Coppi's Organic on U Street NW in the District. (Courtesy Of Darren Santos)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Last Halloween, Nori Amaya ate dinner with her brother at the bar of their Italian restaurant on U Street NW. Then, in a long black dress and a mask decorated with peacock feathers, she stepped out into the Washington night.

Nori visited several clubs that evening, including Rumba Café in Adams Morgan, whose owner she had been dating for months. Over dinner with her brother, Nori had confided that she didn't see a future with her boyfriend, and she bemoaned the difficulty of finding a good man.

When his sister didn't call the next day, Carlos Amaya didn't think much of it. When he learned that a cabbie had found her cellphone, Carlos figured Nori was being Nori, always losing something -- her wallet, keys, license. Such was the life of a free spirit.

But more than 24 hours later, after she hadn't shown up at their restaurant, Coppi's Organic, Carlos felt a creeping sense of dread. Nori always told him, "Go with your gut!" And his gut told him to get to her apartment, where he and another sister, Blanca, pounded on the door. No answer. They peeked into the mail slot. Darkness. A security guard led them inside, where they flipped on a light and found Nori in bed, on her back, wearing only her underwear, strangled to death. All of her fingernails had been cut off.

"They killed her!" Carlos screamed as arriving friends and neighbors found him slumped in the hallway outside. "They killed my sister!"

On bustling U Street, Nori Amaya, 38, presided over a restaurant where three distinct Washingtons intersected: The city of ambitious dreamers drawn to the seat of power; the home town that struggled to blend grand monuments and a hard street life; and Nori's own Salvadoran D.C., a place where immigrants, including her mother, built new lives.

Amaya was a connector, bridging all of those faces of the city -- a whimsical woman who loved dancing, survived brain surgery and won the friendship of devoted patrons who packed her cozy bistro.

Six months after Amaya's death, D.C. police detectives have questioned her family, friends and coworkers. But they have found no motive, no murder weapon, no suspect. What they know is that she arrived alone at her building, the Woodner, at 3636 16th St. NW, at 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, as captured by the security camera at the entrance, and that her body was found nearly 43 hours later in her eleventh-floor apartment.

Investigators have had difficulty identifying those who entered the building after Amaya because many wore Halloween masks.

"We're looking at all avenues -- finances, personal histories, different things like that," said Lt. Paul Wingate. "This was an incident that occurred with just her and the culprit."

Wingate declined to comment about Amaya's fingernails. However, a person with knowledge of the case confirmed that the nails were cut off, a sight that shook even veteran investigators. The missing nails led some to theorize that Nori's killer sought to remove any DNA that could have been left under her nails if she fought her attacker.

Because there was no sign of forced entry or theft, investigators assume that Amaya invited her attacker in, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Nori's brother agrees: "Whomever killed her knew her well. My sister is not going to let some random guy in."

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