Unidentified corpse found in car towed last week to D.C. impound lot

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

"So what's the story with the body in the trunk?" a TV reporter asked D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

Standing outside police headquarters Thursday, baking in the midday sun, Lanier said: "I'll give you as much information as we have so far. It's my understanding that the car was initially impounded by the Department of Public Works."

It's an old Pontiac, a red convertible. On the morning of July 12, it was parked in the 1000 block of 18th Street NW in violation of rush-hour rules. So a DPW tow truck hauled it to a lot in the 1700 block of 15th Street NW.

It was all routine. If the Pontiac had been involved in a crime, authorities might have searched it. But in this case, with no reason to suspect anything more nefarious than a parking infraction, "I'm confident that we typically would not damage locks or pop open the trunk or force open a car that's been impounded for a rush-hour violation," Lanier said.

The Pontiac sat in the 15th Street lot for three days, then it was towed by the DPW to the city's Blue Plains Impound Lot in the 5000 block of Shepherd Parkway SW. A week went by -- quite a hot and humid week.

Shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday, "a worker at the impound lot noticed a strange odor from the car," Lanier said -- "strange" being a polite way of describing the smell. Police were summoned, the trunk was opened and "a body was discovered," Lanier said.

She said detectives were trying to determine the identity of the deceased.

It was unclear how the person died or whether the body was that of a man or woman, Lanier said. The remains were taken to the D.C. medical examiner's office for an autopsy.

"Obviously we don't know much right now," she said. "We're investigating this as an undetermined death at this point. It's going to be difficult to provide any more information at least for the next day or so."

Lanier declined say where the car is registered or who owns it. "That's all part of the investigation," she said. As for how many hours or days the Pontiac had been parked on 18th Street before being towed July 12, the chief said: "Typically rush-hour enforcement is pretty good in this city, so it's possible that it probably wasn't there for very long."

Facing a knot of reporters, Lanier shrugged, seeming eager to get out of the broiling heat. "Okay? All set?"

"How often do you guys find dead bodies at the impound lot?" someone asked.

"I don't believe it's ever happened before in my 20 years here," she said.

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