D.C. police try to unravel mystery of man found dead in car trunk

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 8:30 PM

The "unidentified decedent," reposing in the D.C. morgue since mid-summer, is stored one floor down from street level. The remains, a skeleton and not much else, are zipped in a body bag on a sliding metal shelf in a room chilled to 36 degrees, behind a door like the kind on a meat locker.

"Well, it's a pretty strange one," police Cmdr. Daniel Hickson said.

He meant the curious case of that corpse, a case as perplexing as it is peculiar, a mystery with a back story of familial heartache and regret. Detectives, awaiting DNA confirmation, are almost certain of the dead man's identity. And relatives, lamenting the marginal life and aberrant sexual past of a black-sheep loved one they presume is deceased, sadly wonder what befell him and why.

It's "the trunk case," as a woman at the medical examiner's office calls it.

As in the oven-warm trunk of a 1993 Pontiac Sunbird, where the body turned up on the sweltering morning of July 22, decomposed beyond recognition. The red convertible, towed from a no-parking zone downtown July 12, had been hauled to one municipal lot and later to another, gathering dust for 10 days (average daily high: 92 degrees) until a city worker caught a foul whiff from the car and dialed the police.

They pried open the trunk . . . and groaned.

The case landed in Hickson's homicide unit, although how the fellow died - by accident, illness, suicide or criminal intent - hasn't been determined. Will it ever be? "I doubt it," said Hickson, who has spent a career standing over the tragically horizontal.

There's little question as to who the "unidentified decedent" was: William G. Silbaugh, 61, the Pontiac's owner, an itinerant construction worker from east of the Chesapeake Bay with a record of sex offenses in 1997, to wit: felonious indecent contact with four teenage boys. For that, he served two years in a Delaware penitentiary, another low ebb in an adult life filled with them, his relatives said.

But how did the body come to be locked in the trunk? How did the car come to be parked in Washington, in the busy 1000 block of 18th Street NW, a steel-and-glass canyon just north of the White House crowded by day with lawyers and lobbyists, bankers and consultants? Silbaugh wasn't known to visit the city. Did the man whose corpse wound up baked in the trunk travel here alone, or did someone drive him? Did he arrive dead or alive?

"TOW AWAY," the sign reads: No parking during rush hours. The Pontiac was slapped with a $100 ticket at 8:50 a.m. and towed forthwith.If the car had been parked in the block between 4 and 6:30 the previous evening, the city said, it would have been ticketed and hauled away then - so it must not have been there.

Surveillance video? "None that I'm aware of," Hickson said.

Police found pillows, blankets, personal papers, canned foods and a suitcase stuffed with clothes in the old Sunbird, apparently the bulk of Silbaugh's worldly possessions; they figure he had been living in the car.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company