By Paul Duggan and Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 10, 2011; 9:45 PM
A lobbyist married to a key White House aide was found dead early Monday in her sport-utility vehicle, which was heavily damaged by fire in the garage of the couple's Capitol Hill home, authorities said. The cause of her death was unknown.
Ashley W. Turton, 37, an energy company lobbyist and former chief of staff to Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), was found dead shortly before 5 a.m. in the SUV. The front end of the vehicle was charred and facing into the burning garage. The back end, less damaged than the front, was protruding slightly from the garage.
Turton, a mother of three small children, was the wife of Daniel A. Turton, 43, the White House's deputy director of legislative affairs for the House of Representatives. He is President Obama's point man on legislation moving through that body.
Investigators on Monday were trying to determine what happened a few hours before dawn at the couple's two-story brick home in the 800 block of A Street SE.
Police said in a statement that the 2008 BMW X5 "crashed into the interior of the garage," which faces Eighth Street. "After the impact, a fire started and quickly engulfed the entire garage as well as the automobile," the statement said.
One source familiar with the incident said "there didn't appear to be any major trauma" to Turton's body. Another official, Capt. Michael Farish of the D.C. police homicide unit, said, "We have no evidence of any obvious malfeasance in her death at this time."
Authorities said Turton's death might have resulted from the low-speed crash, an unknown medical situation preceding it, the fire, or some combination of the three. Her body was taken to the D.C. medical examiner's office for an autopsy.
The incident apparently occurred as Turton was leaving home earlier than usual for work, anticipating a busy day in her downtown office. Her employer, Progress Energy, and another North Carolina utilities giant, Duke Energy, announced Monday that Duke is buying Progress for $13 billion in stock.
"We were getting ready to deal with a lot of merger communications issues," said fellow Progress lobbyist Michael Sewell, with whom Turton shared a three-person office at 801 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. "I was in the office very early, too."
Ashley Turton was an aide to former congressman Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) before serving as DeLauro's top staffer and joining Progress. Daniel Turton worked for Gephardt and the House Rules Committee before moving to the White House. The Turtons were a Washington power couple well known in Democratic circles.
"Many of you have worked with both of them during their careers on Capitol Hill," Pete Rouse, the interim White House chief of staff, said in an e-mail notifying staff members of Turton's death. "They exemplify the definition of public servants. We are making every resource available to Dan and his family in his moment of need."
"She was special," DeLauro said in a statement. "She was a leader and comrade in arms to so many staff. She was a member of our family, and we mourn her."
Bill Johnson, Progress's president and chief executive, said Turton was "a valued employee whose insight and hard work had been critical on so many of our legislative and regulatory issues. She was also a dear friend to many of us."
Pete Piringer, a D.C. fire department spokesman, said neighbors called for help about 4:50 a.m. after they saw smoke and flames. The SUV was pointing into the garage at a crooked angle with its back end slightly outside.
Authorities said an autopsy might determine whether the incident occurred after Turton suffered "a medical event," one official said.
Emphasizing that investigators had not determined the facts, the official said Turton might have lost control of the SUV, resulting in a low-speed crash that could have ignited flammable substances stored in the garage.
Neighbors described hearing a crash followed by several popping sounds. They said the fire burned quickly. Julie Domenick, who lives two doors away from the Turton home, said she called 911 after her barking dog alerted her to the fire.
Several parents in the neighborhood said their children sometimes play with the three Turton children, a 21-month-old girl and twin 4-year-old boys.
Harry Lowe, 88, who lives next door to the family, said Ashley Turton was a good neighbor, always concerned about how Lowe was getting along and making sure that the sidewalk in front of his house was cleared after snowfalls.
"It really is such a tragedy for such a wonderful family," Lowe said.
Staff writer Anne Kornblut contributed to this report.