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For Victim's Family, Little Peace

Jessica Cole
Jessica Cole vanished Oct. 10.
(Family photo)
  • Map of Petworth area
  • The District has a new medical examiner.
  • Six deaths alarmed neighbors.

  • By Gabriel Escobar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, June 26, 1998; Page C01

    "Have y'all found Bird?"

    The old man stood on the stoop and asked politely, back in October, when the news at the tidy row house on Quincy Street NW was fresh and frightening. Jessica Cole was missing and her people, the ones often strung out on the street, were coming forth, anxious to know and anxious to help. "Everybody started looking for Bird," said her sister, Arlene Ford. "People would come up to the door: 'Has she come in?'"

    The answer came in stages, torturously slow, and only after the FBI lab conducted two DNA tests. In the end, it was as horrible as everyone on the street and in the row house had feared. The 40-year-old mother of two and the mutilated remains found three days after she vanished last year are, with "tremendous statistical likelihood," one in the same. One of the most vexing and agonizing questions posed by the deaths of five other women in the neighborhood off Georgia Avenue NW seems to have been answered, to the satisfaction of investigators who now are searching for the killer or killers.

    But for the victim's family, the resolution of this aspect of the case does not mean closure. What remains of Jessica Cole was transferred from the trash bag in which she was found to the morgue eight months ago, and today, even with the crucial identity question answered, there is still no prospect of a final chapter any time soon.

    There is no official cause of death. The torso was sent not to an undertaker, but to an anthropologist. The family still has no death certificate, which means that something as simple as canceling her credit cards is not possible. Her husband, James Cole, 42, wanted to cremate his wife's remains and spread the ashes in Virginia Beach, where the couple spent their honeymoon. But police told him his wife's torso is evidence.

    Mutilation crimes are rare and, by definition, unspeakably gruesome. Police officials who have seen hundreds of homicides do not recall another in the District. Cole's case stands out not only because of the degree of the mutilation but also because the family has learned details that loved ones are normally spared.

    Their search has exposed them to shocking revelations, often provided by investigators who were pressed for information. The passage of time has brought some news: A neighborhood man was arrested, charged in two of the deaths and is being investigated in connection with others. But for the most part, Cole's family has lived daily with a brutally unexplained death. Her husband has kept a journal, noting his thoughts and every mundane development and occasionally addressing his wife.

    Jessica Cole was his high school sweetheart, the mother of his two sons and his partner in a cleaning business. Since she disappeared, the occasional pointed questions of detectives have convinced him that he has been on their list of possible suspects, and he understands that this is a natural part of the investigative process. He has gotten angry only once, when a detective asked whether his older son, now 23, had "ever done things to his mother."

    "I did not do it, and they have not asked me" outright, James Cole, 42, said quietly. "I ain't got nothing to hide. If that's going to help keep them on the case, then that's good."

    On the day he was told of the DNA tests, May 27, there is one short entry in his notebook: "The word has come down. I've been loving you for always, and for all time. I will be strong for us."

    Cole and other relatives have suspected the worst since October, but the details that have gathered have made matters better and worse. Cole's dismemberment is extreme – authorities say she was cut from about an inch below the navel and from slightly above the sternum. Metal filings have been recovered, evidence a saw was used. Time has added other wounds. James Cole knows that there is now little flesh on the remains, a fact shared by someone who wanted to ease his anxiety over the delay in getting to bury his wife. "From the way they're talking, it's nothing but bones," Cole said.

    Ford said she pressed for answers from the moment the torso was found on Oct. 13, three days after Jessica Cole vanished and a month before police and FBI agents began looking at the set of deaths in the area. Initial police reports noted that the torso had a surgical scar – similar to one Jessica had as a result of gallbladder surgery – and Ford called the medical examiner's office minutes after she heard the news on television.

    She talked to Detective Jim Trainum, who was assigned to the case initially. He asked her about her sister's height and weight, the size of her breasts, the tone of her skin color. Ford mentioned that her sister had a mole on her arm, and Trainum said they did not have that part of the body. For the first time, the scope of what may have happened became clear. "I just couldn't get it out of my mind," Ford said.

    Days later, she was working at Providence Hospital, where she is a medical surgical technician, when Trainum showed up. Of all the investigators they have dealt with, including FBI agents, Trainum is the only one who earned the trust and respect of the Cole family, who said that, in general, their dealings with authorities have left them frustrated and angry. Trainum was taken off the case and assigned to investigate the still unsolved triple killing at a Starbucks coffee shop near Georgetown.

    At the hospital that day, Arlene Ford said she pressed Trainum for details. She knew the body of her baby sister. "Give me pictures. Give me something. I need something," she told Trainum.

    The detective went to his car and retrieved three glossy pictures of the torso. Arlene looked at them, closely. "Everything was pointing to her – her nipples, her little navel protruding outward and what was left of the surgical scar.

    "What was left of her," she said, "looked like her. I said, 'Yes, that's my sister.'"

    The family's ordeal also has been complicated by the investigation itself. Although family members said Trainum told them that he suspected a connection with the torso, one police officer from the 4th District visited them at home on those agonizing first few days and told them the department was "97 percent certain" it was not Jessica. Police said in interviews at the time that a report by the medical examiner found that the remains were those of a Hispanic or light-skinned black woman in her twenties. Cole was black, of medium complexion and 40 years old.

    Police and the FBI declined to discuss any aspect of the Cole case, citing an ongoing investigation. Jonathan L. Arden, the District's new chief medical examiner, said Wednesday that the examiner's initial finding was "within the realm of possibility." Arden reviewed the case shortly after his arrival in April, and a month later, the case was listed for the first time as a homicide due to an undetermined cause. Although relatives were told about the DNA link almost a month ago, no official has informed them that the case is now classified as a homicide.

    Arden promised to expedite tests on the remains. "I assure you that we will not be holding this . . . as some kind of piece of macabre evidence, to add to the grief of the family."

    James Cole and the victim's sisters have been integral to the investigation, if for no other reason than that Jessica's friends on the street were initially forthcoming only to them. Ford and another sister, Marcia Jackson, canvassed the neighborhood. James Cole spent hours talking to people, and the family now has a clear chronology of her last hours.

    Jessica used drugs on weekends, when her husband said she would "blow off steam" with her street friends, a large group that had included the five other women who have been killed since November 1996. She kept this up despite the admonitions of her sisters, who also knew several of the other victims and recall that Jessica came home crying when one of them, Emile Dennis, was found dead in August 1997.

    On Oct. 10, Jessica left her family's house on Quincy Street at 11 p.m, riding a mountain bike. "She just turned back, on that bike, and said, 'I'll see y'all later,'" Jackson said. Over the next few hours, friends and neighbors saw her several times. At one point, she went to Hunan's on Georgia Avenue, a popular spot for the night crowd because the fast-food place sells single cigarettes. Sometime afterward, she called friends on Rock Creek Church Road to say she was heading over. She never showed up.

    Jessica Cole had two years of college and was a certified dental assistant, although she never worked in that profession. She was street-smart and, in the words of her husband, could turn into a "junkyard dog" if you messed with her. "She loved mixing with people," James Cole said. "Even when she was doing the drug thing, she would share with everybody."

    The family's pursuit for answers has produced nightmares. In one, Ford saw her sister and her eyes were full of very small yellow beads. "I walked up, and I hugged her. I was fussin' with her, like my mother would, get on her for being out on the street. Jessica asked, 'Why did they do this to me?' And slowly, she walked out the door."

    James Cole has one in his book. The day before they learned the DNA results, he dreamed that he and Jessica were in their old house. She had been bitten by a spider, and he was holding her. "And then she expired, right there in my arms."

    The family has scheduled a memorial service from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at First Baptist Church, 712 Randolph St. NW. There will be prayers but no body. When FBI officials learned of the service, they asked James Cole whether he planned to have a guest book. "I guess they want to check out if there's a possible suspect in the room," he said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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