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5 Deaths Shock D.C. Neighborhood

By Gabriel Escobar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 1997; Page A01

Officer Outside House/Post
D.C. police officer Maureen Walsh leaves 766 Princeton Place NW, where two dead women were found. (By Robert A. Reeder—The Washington Post)

The police tape went up again along Princeton Place NW this week, sealing off one of the two row houses for the second time since May. Again this neighborhood went through a familiar, and frightening, routine. Uniformed officers and detectives poked around, the medical examiner came, the corpse of another black woman was removed.

Tuesday's discovery of the body of Jacqueline Teresa Birch, 39, means that four women have died in the immediate vicinity since November 1996, three of them on Princeton Place and two of those in the same empty row house. Adding to the mystery is the Oct. 10 disappearance of a woman last seen on Princeton Place — near Georgia and New Hampshire avenues — and the discovery, three days later and less than 10 blocks away, of a female torso that is still not identified.

In the case of Birch, a question that has hung over the neighborhood after each grisly discovery — how did she die? — was answered for the first time. The District's acting medical examiner determined that the latest victim died of manual strangulation, and yesterday afternoon he ruled the case a homicide. That was a departure from the other cases, including the torso found behind a building on Meridian Place, all of which are officially labeled deaths due to "undetermined" causes.

Lateashia Blocker/Family Photo
Lateashia Blocker, 28, was found dead on Princeton Place on May 8. (Family photo)
Although yesterday's homicide finding applies only to Birch, a neighborhood that had suspected that a killer was in its midst suddenly confronted the first proof that it might be so.

The city's propensity for labeling hundreds of deaths "undetermined," when no obvious cause of death is found, is well known among medical examiners nationwide.

The practice is most evident in the case of the torso, which several medical examiners from other cities said should be labeled immediately a homicide resulting from "violence by unspecified means," because of such identifiable trauma.

Jessica Cole/Police Photo
Jessica Cole, who vanished Oct. 10, was last seen on Princeton Place in Northwest. (Police photo)
What has proven most alarming about Birch's death is that she was found on Princeton Place and that she was the third death there — the number three having almost mystical significance among forensic pathologists and other investigators in raising suspicions about whether a serial killer is at work. Police shied away from that label yesterday because the cause of death in the other cases has not been determined.

"I don't want to make that giant leap that we have a serial murderer running loose in the neighborhood, but we are going to look at all the cases," said Lt. David Jackson, of the homicide squad.

But others were not so sanguine. "This has all the earmarks to me of a serial killer targeting the community, utilizing the same MO," said D.C. Council member Frank Smith Jr. (D), whose Ward 1 includes the area where the women were found and who was following the deaths even before Tuesday's development.

The deaths in this section of the Petworth neighborhood have drawn no public scrutiny, no mention in the media until now.

But even before police descended on the block after Birch's body was found, an increasingly alarmed community was demanding answers, and detectives were investigating the deaths as possible homicides and producing a list of suspects. The discovery of the torso so frightened residents that police were called to a community meeting Oct. 20 organized by Smith to quell the perception that a serial killer was loose.

Police officials say there is no evidence that a single person is responsible; they emphasize that in the first three cases, the medical examiner has not ruled that the women died at the hands of someone, the legal and medical definition of a homicide.

The Washington Post began pursuing the group of deaths several weeks ago. With yesterday's finding of a strangulation, police said that for the first time they have expanded their investigation to include the mutilated corpse and the missing woman, Jessica Cole, a former resident of Princeton Place.

Several detectives have been added to the investigation, and Cole's husband, James Cole, said police recently requested samples of hairs from his wife's brush to try to gather DNA samples so they could determine whether the torso was hers. Moreover, as of yesterday and for the first time, the homicide unit in the U.S. attorney's office has become involved.

Cmdr. Alfred Broadbent, the police homicide unit's senior official, said the cluster of deaths convinced him in early October, shortly after he assumed command of the demoralized and ineffective squad, to assign a veteran detective to work exclusively on the case. Although still reluctant to label it a serial killing — principally because there is no cause of death in three of the cases — Broadbent hinted that the possibility cannot be dismissed outright.

"It's significant that we have several bodies in the same location. . . . We are very concerned about this. This is not ordinary," he said. "If we have somebody out there killing women and we don't know how he is killing them, this concerns me very much."

Smith, who is critical of police handling of the cases, said yesterday that the appearance of yet another body raises questions about how thoroughly the police and the medical examiner's office have investigated the deaths. "It means what I've been saying all along, that we have not put every resource to solve this problem. It's not easy. It's complicated. But on the other hand, we have too many corpses in one area to make it a coincidence."

Smith's concerns were echoed in the neighborhood, where for weeks people have speculated about the deaths and collected gossip about them, including who was seen with the women and when. All the victims who have been identified were well known in the neighborhood, not only because they lived there but because they were drug users, according to police, residents and some family members.

Over the last few weeks, relatives have pulled together what they could about the deaths, convinced in some cases that their loved ones had been killed, even though no such ruling had been made. James Cole, who said his wife knew the first three dead women, has plastered the neighborhood with "missing" posters. In recent weeks, the belief that that police were not investigating the cases because of who these women are — a belief vehemently denied by investigators — grew more widespread in the area, reflecting a pent-up frustration seen in other neighborhoods before.

"There's a serial killer or somebody who knows these girls were walking up and down and that they like to get high, and then taking them into the building," said Tony Saunders, a neighborhood resident. "It has to be somebody who knows this neighborhood."

Informing the community about a possible serial killer is a sensitive issue for law enforcement, which often is torn between promoting public safety and unnecessarily alarming people. But yesterday's ruling convinced some that the police had erred.

"We are alarmed. We're very upset, because we've seen that the police have not been open with us," said Anna Bowman, the area's advisory neighborhood commissioner. "We are convinced the others are homicides."

Bowman's comments refer to one of baffling aspects of the cases — the fact that no one knows how the other women died. Autopsies performed on Lateashia Blocker, 28, Emile Dennis, 42, and Priscilla Mosley, 49, were inconclusive. Toxicology tests found no traces of drugs, even though all three women were identified by police as drug users, and two of them — Blocker and Dennis — were found in houses where crack was sold and used.

Blocker was found at 766 Princeton Place on May 8, eight to 10 hours after she died, according to people familiar with the investigation. Birch's body was found Tuesday in the same house. Blocker and Dennis, whose body was found in a crawl space next door Aug. 9, were found by the owner of the properties, John Slack. In an interview several weeks ago, Slack showed how he found both bodies — Blocker beneath the floorboards, visible through a hole in the middle of the room where the bathroom used to be, and Dennis inside a crawl space at the rear of 768 Princeton Place. Dennis had been dead for three or four days, according to one official.

Mosley's case, the first in the series, differs from the others in several key aspects. She still showed vital signs when found Nov. 17, 1996, in her apartment in the 600 block of Newton Street NW, two blocks south of Princeton Place. Council member Smith, citing a recent conversation he had with the acting chief medical examiner, Humphrey D. Germaniuk, said Mosley had a pillow on her face and some bruises on her neck.

According to Smith, Germaniuk told him the bruises were caused by medical technicians or doctors who had worked on Mosley, who died about 18 hours after she was found. "This is what he said: 'We could have gone either way,'‚" Smith said, referring to Germaniuk's assessment of whether the case was a homicide.

To outside observers, among them some of the nation's leading medical examiners, a cluster of deaths involving women should always be viewed with extreme suspicion, particularly when autopsies and toxicology reports fail to produce a cause of death. Notoriously difficult to solve, deaths that result in "negative autopsies," as they are known, require not only close cooperation between the medical examiner and the police investigator but also a high level of forensic training, advanced laboratory work and consultations with pathologists who specialize in the most esoteric areas of the profession.

The cluster of deaths occur at a particularly sensitive time for the police department, which has been hounded by reports that it cannot investigate homicides properly, and the medical examiner's office.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno recently asked that the search for the District medical examiner be reopened, a request that prompted Germaniuk to be returned to the status of acting medical examiner.

The year-long search for a chief medical examiner has produced few, if any, top-notch applicants, according to medical examiners across the country, in part because the office's professional standing is so low. Among the experts making that observation are examiners who have received solicitations and have not considered the position because of the office's reputation and its failure to apply for, much less obtain, professional accreditation.

John Pless, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, as well as medical examiners in Florida and New York, agreed that the hundreds of "undetermined" deaths carried on the District's books is so high that it probably reflects a fundamental flaw in the way the medical examiner and, to an extent, homicide investigators have been doing their job.

"A properly functioning ME's office should not have that many undetermined deaths," said Michael Bell, of the Dade County, Fla., medical examiner's office.

Such observations are critical in light of what has happened on Princeton Place because it is possible that a number of homicides have gone undetected in the city, lost amid the cases that were classified undetermined. If this is the case, according several experts, the city is ill-prepared to identify a cautious and meticulous serial killer.

"Basically, what you have here is a system that doesn't have the capacity to discriminate the subtle deaths, and it takes a high level of experience and training to do that," said Pless, who also is director of forensic pathology at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

A request to talk to Germaniuk was denied yesterday. The D.C. Department of Health, in a statement, referred to the work of the medical examiner as "just a part of the puzzle" — an apparent allusion to work of homicide investigators — and said the agency is actively seeking a chief medical examiner and "the necessary resources to that office to enhance its operations."

Staff writer Robert A. Reeder contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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