In the June 17 Washington Post Magazine article on three unsolved murders linked by DNA evidence in Northern Virginia, the last name of the Arlington County lead detective, Andy Baciocco, was misspelled. (Published 7/8/01)

She appeared to be in her early twenties, pretty, with wavy dark hair and the taut body of an athlete. Naked, save for a top yanked up to expose her breasts, and white knee-high stockings still primly in place. Her jeans, purse and red shoes lay next to her, and something about the orderly way they were left in the dead winter leaves made investigators believe she must have removed them herself. From the looks of it, she had briefly escaped and was running away from her killer, running blindly through the sticker bushes when he shot her midstride, dragged her back to a clearing, then raped her.

The search for evidence began with detectives pacing a mile in either direction on Hunter Mill Road, their eyes scouring asphalt and bramble, storm drains, the unyielding Virginia clay, for whatever a killer might have left behind. A cigarette butt, a gum wrapper, thread from a snagged sock, buttons ripped from a shirt, a wallet lost in haste or struggle. Sometimes they got lucky that way. But on this December morning, nothing.

Murder, uncommon in Fairfax County, was rarer still in the bosky cul-de-sacs of Reston, and three dozen cops quickly swarmed the neighborhood. One woman thought she had heard gunshots while out for a walk the night before, yes, three or four in a row, then two more an hour and a half later, after she was back inside. Probably hunters, she had decided. They were known to poach the white-tailed deer that foraged across the street, in the woods where crime scene technicians now zipped the beautiful girl into a body bag.

Police probed the ground with metal detectors and unleashed search dogs. They sent up a helicopter for an aerial survey. They began cordoning off the crime scene with yellow police tape, which is when they came across the second body, that of a strapping young man with bright red hair. He was fully clothed. His wallet was missing, but the killer hadn't bothered with the braided gold chain around his neck. He had been forced to kneel, then shot from behind, a single-round execution. That must have been when the girl bolted, the detectives speculated.

All they had to go on was this: Jane Doe, John Doe. No identification, no motive, no weapon, no car, no trail. The killer knew what he was doing, they surmised. The only thing he left behind was his own DNA. It was duly processed, analyzed and stored in the Fairfax County Police property room, a genetic map that led nowhere for 12 years.

"Warren, honey, do you want me to iron that shirt for you?" Warren Fulton III was 22 years old, about to graduate from George Washington University, but Jackie Fulton still fussed after her older son. It was Saturday, and Warren had a date that night. He unbuttoned his plaid flannel shirt and handed it to his mother.

They lived in Vienna, a few blocks from the Dunn Loring Metro, in this place at this time purely by the grace of God. The Fultons were conservative Christians whose lives were a spiritual crusade charted by the Salvation Army. Both Jackie and her husband, Warren II -- like his own father before him -- were ordained ministers and high-ranking officers in the religious organization. The family moved often, but the two Fulton sons thrived no matter how many times they were transplanted. Now Stewart, their younger son, was contemplating medical school while Warren was finishing his English degree and hoping to be recruited by the Cincinnati Reds. He was captain of GW's baseball team, a tribute as much to his personality as his .367 batting average and gift for stealing bases.

Warren lived in the finished basement of his parents' house, but kept a college senior's erratic schedule, often bunking with buddies who had an apartment just off-campus. He and his best friend, Dan Gutstein, could spend hours shooting darts or deconstructing sonnets. They daydreamed about bumming around the world together.

On Saturday morning, December 3, 1988, Warren had worked out early with the baseball team, then come home for breakfast with his folks. The Salvation Army was planning a special holiday service the next day, and the Fultons were decorating small styrofoam crosses to hang on the church's Christmas tree. Jackie teased her son about being stingy with his glitter as he painstakingly glued gold spangles one by one with his big, freckled hands. Don't push your luck, he said, laughing.

Later that day, Warren asked his father to help him shop for dress shoes, then grabbed a quick nap before showering and getting dressed for his night out. Rachael Raver was coming to the house for dinner, then they planned to stop by a party in Arlington before hooking up with friends for drinks at Mister Days in the District. Jackie had a pot roast simmering in the crockpot. They called it "baseball stew" because they usually ate it on game nights. It was Warren's favorite dish.

Supper that night was convivial, and the Fultons were delighted that Rachael wanted to join them for the tree-decorating service the next morning. Rachael was the youngest of four children, the cute little sister everyone adored. She was still close to her parents back home in Yorktown Heights, a Westchester County hamlet about an hour outside New York City. Rachael had graduated from GW six months earlier with a degree in education, but a disappointing stint as a student teacher had convinced her to look at other career options. Now she was doing secretarial work for the American Council on Education and planning to apply for law school. Piles of books already filled the back of the brown Toyota Corolla her mother had just handed down to her, along with a towering box of junk she had salvaged from the family attic.

Rachael and Warren had been dating for three months, since meeting at a bar that was a favorite hangout for GW jocks. Like Warren, Rachael was 22, athletic and outgoing, a wholesome preppy who had played college soccer until sidelined by a knee injury. She had a terrific smile, charm to spare, and a weakness for redheaded Irish boys. Warren was likewise smitten. She soon became his first lover, a delicious secret neither of them revealed to their strait-laced families. He wrote her poems. She called her mother at work for a chicken recipe to make a romantic dinner.

When they didn't come home that Saturday night, and were nowhere to be seen Sunday, friends and family members joked that they must have eloped; the alternatives were too horrible to consider. Rachael and Warren were both creatures of habit, predictable and responsible. Friends saw them leave the D.C. bar shortly after midnight. Rachael had nursed a few beers, but Warren was stone-cold sober. The last anyone knew, he planned to drop Rachael off at her place in Alexandria, take her car home to Vienna, then pick her up for church the next day.

On Sunday morning, the Fultons woke up to find that Warren hadn't come home. When he didn't show up at church, they began to worry and started calling around. None of his friends had seen him. By Sunday night, Dan Gutstein was convinced something was wrong, too. Warren always crashed on his couch Sunday nights; the baseball team trained early Monday morning, and he never missed it. The Ravers hadn't heard from Rachael, either. Her big sister Deidre called Sunday night, but the phone just rang and rang.

By Monday morning, concern hardened into panic. Rachael missed work. Warren wasn't at school. "Warren is dead," Jackie told her husband with dull certainty. He went to District police to file a missing persons report, and was given the brushoff: They hadn't been gone the requisite 48 hours, and it wasn't their jurisdiction, anyway, because Warren and Rachael lived in Virginia. Fairfax police were more sympathetic, putting out a bulletin and urging the families to start calling hospitals. The Ravers made plans to drive to Virginia and organize a search. They would check every roadside, every bridge, for some sign of the Corolla. An accident, there must have been an accident.

On Tuesday morning, a caretaker inspecting an old Reston farm earmarked for development discovered the first body, and police, the second.

The Ravers were en route to Virginia and couldn't be reached. Warren's father got a call from a Fairfax detective. Could he come to Fairfax Hospital immediately? A body had just been brought to the morgue. Red hair and a flannel shirt.

An aunt of Rachael's who lived in Bethesda was driving to work when she heard a report on her car radio about two bodies found in Reston. She called police, who matched Rachael's name to a business card found in Warren's pocket. The Ravers arrived in town late that afternoon, primed for a search that was already too late. Veronica Raver screamed and began pounding the wall when told that her youngest child was dead. Rachael's father, Norm, stumbled around in blind rage.

Investigators initially suspected that carjacking was the motive behind the Raver-Fulton case, though a nine-year-old Corolla hardly seemed worth the trouble. The rape was considered a crime of opportunity; the double murder the most efficient disposal of witnesses. Police theorized that the couple had been abducted in D.C. and forced to drive to Reston, 40 minutes and two toll booths away, because the killer knew the area and wanted the isolation of Hunter Mill Road. The FBI offered a psychological profile suggesting a career criminal.

For the next month, Rachael's family searched for her missing car, following every brown Corolla they spotted, even once trailing a gray-haired granny pulling into a B. Altman's parking lot. They checked every turnoff and rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Then, six weeks after Rachael was buried, her parents received a $70 summons from New York City police in the mail. The Corolla was parked on the wrong side of a street in Jamaica, Queens. It had been ticketed the morning after the murder -- and several times since then. Detectives hurried up from Fairfax County to the drug-riddled streets of Jamaica and found a burned hulk filled with trash. They fog-bombed the car with chemicals and used laser technology to lift fingerprints. A computer checked the latents against more than 100,000 known suspects in a matter of minutes. Nothing.

The two shattered families had little contact with each other. Shortly after the murders, Rachael's father had telephoned the Fultons twice, barely coherent, ranting in his grief that Warren should have protected Rachael. The Fultons left Vienna a few weeks after Warren was slain. God had called them to serve in Atlanta. They laid their son to rest there in a Salvation Army cemetery and told themselves that Warren had been promoted to glory. Media attention petered out as fresh tragedy became stale news with no promising leads to follow. The families embarked on their emotional journeys in opposite directions, the Fultons not wanting to dwell on the murder, the Ravers not able to stop.

Rachael's mother and her older sister Deidre became obsessed. Deidre recruited the help of recovering addicts from a local rehab center to join her as she blanketed the neighborhood where the Corolla was found with leaflets offering a $10,000 reward for information. A hair recovered from Rachael's body indicated that the killer was black, but there was no description beyond that. Deidre hand-delivered fliers to dozens of police precincts in New York and introduced herself to the homicide detectives. Every rape-murder in the newspaper or on TV became a potential link to Rachael's killer. When another Northern Virginia murder made it onto "Unsolved Mysteries" six months after Rachael's death, her mother was instantly on the phone to Deidre. This sounds like Rachael's!

Like Rachael, Veronica Jefferson was young and beautiful, but she was black, not white, and she was alone, not with a boyfriend, and she was raped before she was shot, not after, and she was murdered in Arlington, not Fairfax, and her car wasn't stolen. Police had reason to believe she might have known her killer; it was likely a date rape.

One thing the two cases did seem to have in common was the promise of DNA evidence left behind. But in 1989, the science was still in its infancy, and while its potential as a crime-solving tool was recognized, it was far from realized. Someday, there would be a nationwide databank capable of checking open cases like the murders of Rachael Raver, Warren Fulton and Veronica Jefferson against the DNA of convicted criminals. Likewise, crime scenes could be compared to one another based on DNA evidence, linking them in a matter of seconds. Someday, scientists and law enforcement both believed, computers would be able to instantly match crimes and criminals all across the country.

But for now, what they had amounted to a master key with no door.

The case that had caught Veronica Raver's attention on "Unsolved Mysteries" in fact had happened seven months before Rachael and Warren were killed, and 15 miles away. Fairfax and Arlington police briefly compared notes, but saw no pattern.

Veronica Lynn Jefferson -- Tina to her family and friends -- had gone to visit a cousin in Maryland on the evening of May 10, 1988. She stopped off at the all-night Giant in Baileys Crossroads on her way home to the apartment she shared with two girlfriends a few blocks away on Columbia Pike. With characteristic caution, Tina parked her red Camaro with the vanity license plates near the front of the store. Inside, she picked up the staples of a 23-year-old single woman: microwave popcorn, sliced turkey breast, a carton of ice cream, bananas, shampoo. The receipt read 9:30 p.m.

Doug Taylor saw the Camaro, and Tina, maybe half an hour later. Taylor was a deputy sheriff who worked central booking at the Arlington County jail. He hated the job, but it paid his tuition. He was studying computers. On his way to work this spring night, he was stopped at the busy intersection of Carlin Springs Road and Columbia Pike when the lights from an oncoming car caught him in the face. Turn off your brights. The car, a flashy red Camaro, came up over the curb as it made a right turn -- not just clipping it, either. Taylor fell in behind. The car was moving too slowly, weaving slightly. This guy's gotta be drunk, Taylor thought. He could see a man slouching in the driver's seat, one hand on the wheel, leaning over and talking to a woman on the passenger side. Taylor noticed the license plate: MS VLJ. Suddenly the Camaro pulled over. Taylor idled behind it. A pretty young woman stepped out of the passenger side, then leaned through the window, talking to the driver. She glanced back at Doug Taylor. There didn't seem to be any trouble. Taylor didn't want to be late for work. Besides, he was in his civilian car with no radio, no way of calling for backup, no bulletproof vest or weapon. Confronting a suspected DUI would violate all rules of officer safety. He drove past the red Camaro and the pretty young woman and didn't give either another thought until both showed up on a police flier two days later.

Less than an hour after Doug Taylor spotted the Camaro, several residents of a quiet Arlington neighborhood behind McKinley Elementary School heard a woman screaming, followed by what sounded like gunfire. Followed by silence. No one called police. A couple of guys riding motorbikes came across the body behind the school at 2 in the morning. The victim was nude. Her jeans, jacket and red sweater were neatly folded next to her, alongside her matching red shoes.

When the horrifying discovery was reported on the morning news, Tina Jefferson's roommates immediately called the police: Tina hadn't come home the night before, or shown up for work that morning at the CIA, where she was a junior accountant. An upstairs neighbor who happened to be a policeman went to the station and positively identified Tina from photos of the crime scene. Later that afternoon, a patrol car found her Camaro back in the Giant lot, parked now around the side of the building, her designer purse in the back seat, her ice cream melted in the grocery sack. There were no obvious signs of struggle, and no fingerprints. Whoever killed Tina Jefferson was brazen enough to abduct her and then drive her car back to a huge, 24-hour store full of potential witnesses.

Arlington police set up camp in the Giant and, with help from the FBI, interviewed 186 employees. A box-cutter had been found in the Camaro, leading them to suspect the killer worked at the store. Friends, acquaintances and neighbors also were interviewed, and detectives pressed their snitches for leads. The field of potential suspects was whittled down to half a dozen; blood samples were taken to check against the DNA evidence. No matches. Tina's boyfriend and other male acquaintances were likewise cleared.

Velda and Henry "Jeff" Jefferson had trouble accepting the theory that Tina knew her killer. Because Tina's clothes were found folded on the ground next to her body, some investigators speculated that the sex may have been consensual. Velda was especially pained by this. That didn't happen, she insisted. Tina was not the kind of girl who would lie down in the dirt behind some school late at night with a man. She was dating a medical student. She was an accountant who died wearing her sorority pin, not some streetwalker. And what kind of consent required a bullet? The Jeffersons felt certain the killer was a stranger. Still, they packed every sympathy card and telegram of condolence they received into a shoe box and sent it to investigators to examine.

Rumors began to circulate that Tina might have been killed because of her job, that maybe she had uncovered some sort of embezzlement at the CIA. Tina had been recruited by the agency during her senior year at Oklahoma State, and was in line for a promotion. She'd been in Virginia for two years, but was thinking of going back to Oklahoma. She was homesick. Her parents urged her to stick it out. There wasn't much of a future for her in a dull prairie town like Lawton. Tina would be coming home for Memorial Day weekend; they could talk about it then.

The CIA sent her parents posthumous letters of commendation lauding Tina, which they framed and hung on the family room wall next to the portraits, diplomas and other testimonials that form their private memorial. Fairfax detectives pursued the CIA rumors, but found nothing.

When a Washington TV station ran an anniversary piece about the sensational murder of Tina Jefferson, an elderly couple suddenly realized they had seen her in the grocery store that night. They told police an attractive black man had flirted with Tina at the deli counter, and that they had later noticed him standing with her next to the red Camaro. She kept glancing around. The woman thought she seemed anxious. "She did smile at him. She did laugh," the witness later told "Unsolved Mysteries." "I did have an uneasy feeling -- not dramatic enough to push ahead." Working with the couple, a police artist produced a composite sketch of the suspect. Memory is unreliable, though, and so much time had passed. The composite just didn't feel right to Doug Taylor. The sheriff's deputy had undergone hypnosis a few days after the murder, but he had only glimpsed the man behind the wheel of the Camaro, and his subconscious could not fill in any details. The guy in the sketch just seemed too handsome and preppy.

Nevertheless, the composite was circulated. More than 250 calls poured into the police hot line after "Unsolved Mysteries," but not a single one panned out. The lead detective on the case made a point of presenting it to each class of new recruits, in hopes that someone might come up with a fresh angle. Years passed. Detectives retired or moved on, informants dried up, suspects were eliminated, no new witnesses emerged, and the files marked "Jefferson" were relegated to the shelves where unsolved cases molder.

"We are a culture that's been raised on a steady diet of resolved mysteries and it's hard for us to come to grips with the fact that a random homicide is by definition the hardest to solve," reflects Arlington Police Chief Edward Flynn. "Homicide investigation is not a boxed Clue set where you start out knowing you've got a candlestick, a library and Colonel Mustard."

And while homicide has the highest clearance rate of any violent crime in America -- 69 percent, according to the Justice Department -- all rookies learn that the ones they don't solve within the first 72 hours are the ones they probably never will.

In Fairfax County, the Raver-Fulton case met the same fate. Family members occasionally called, and at their behest, Fairfax detectives had even presented the case to an elite Philadelphia club of criminologists to brainstorm in late 1999. The experts at the Vidocq Society were flummoxed, too. This killer seemed too meticulous and careful for a carjacker. Some crucial part of the puzzle seemed to be missing. "He has his own script of what he wants to happen," concluded Richard Walter, a Vidocq co-founder and criminal profiler.

Reluctantly, homicide detectives in Fairfax and Arlington were reaching the same conclusion about their separate cold cases: DNA was their only real hope.

Biotech Two, the state forensics laboratory in Richmond built with an infusion of cash and foresight from local celebrity and crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, is a blindingly white building as new as the technology it contains. Here, experts can extract DNA from the sweat stain inside a baseball cap, from the unseen saliva on a paper cup, from a speck of blood, from a drop of semen. A profile is created from a series of numbers assigned to 13 genetic loci, or locations. The chance of two human beings, other than identical twins, having the same DNA profile is infinitesimal. For laymen, though, the term "profile" is, for now, misleading: The genetic information currently analyzed by criminal investigators reveals no identifying traits, characteristics or medical conditions. Science has not yet reached that stage. No analysis of the DNA left behind by the man who raped Rachael Raver, for example, can tell detectives his race, or the color of his eyes, or whether he is diabetic, or a genius, or mentally retarded. It is the chemical equivalent of a bar code, not a list of human ingredients that add up to a description.

The national DNA databank is not a single repository of profiles, rather a network of state databanks -- around three dozen so far, with the rest still trying to update their labs and technology to meet the uniform standards required. Two kinds of samples are logged in: DNA profiles from convicted offenders, and DNA taken from the scene of unsolved crimes. Each state determines whose DNA to include among the convicted offenders. Many started out profiling only those convicted of homicide or sexual assault. Virginia charted a pioneer course, in 1990 becoming the first state to require DNA samples from all felons entering the penal system. The National Institute of Justice reports that at least 20 other states now have legislation pending to do the same.

When homicide detectives separately entered evidence from the Fairfax and Arlington murders, no matches were found. Today, Virginia's bank of 135,000 convicted-offender samples is the largest in the country, and accounts for fully a quarter of the national total. Some 300 cold cases have been solved by the computers in Biotech Two, matching the DNA of convicts to DNA taken from crime scenes, and as the databank expands, the pace quickens. "We're averaging a hit a week now," says Paul Ferrara, the state's chief forensic scientist. The vast majority of these "hits" have linked people imprisoned for burglary to unsolved sexual assaults -- nonviolent offenders to violent crimes. An additional three dozen cases have been linked to each other, with the perpetrator still unknown.

But the process of checking crime-scene evidence against the databank can be time-consuming and expensive for local police departments. The National Institute of Justice estimates the average cost at about $1,000 to $1,500 per crime scene (Ferrara puts it at three times that amount), and even a lab with little or no backlog, like Biotech Two, can take 100 days to return results.

Experts conservatively estimate that nationwide there is a backlog of at least 1 million blood samples that have been collected from convicted felons but not analyzed or profiled because state labs are overburdened, underfunded and often lack the equipment or technicians to do so.

In New York, where Rachael Raver's car was found and where detectives presume the killer has some tie, testing the semen collected from Rachael's body against the state's meager databank of killers and rapists was an exercise in futility. Thousands of rape kits from New York City alone were sitting around unprocessed, and would be for years to come. Checking the killer's DNA against offenders and similar crimes in Maryland or the District was also pointless: D.C. has no databank, and Maryland, like most other states, was seriously behind in entering DNA evidence and responding to requests for matches.

Over the past decade, the FBI has recorded a total of 1,212 hits in the national DNA databank -- 705 linked offenders to unsolved crimes, while 507 matched crime scenes to one another without identifying the suspects.

"The technology is undeniably effective, but it's purely a matter of money," says Chris Asplen, executive director of the Clinton administration's National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. Last December, Congress authorized $170 million to help states process DNA evidence, but whether those funds will actually be appropriated during the Bush administration is uncertain.

"DNA has the ability to identify and convict a suspect, connect crime scenes and exonerate the innocent," Asplen says. Yet it can take six months to a year for many states to field and respond to a police request for a possible DNA match. "You're costing people's lives, and that's unacceptable," Asplen adds. "Some police departments won't even let you ask for DNA testing unless you have a suspect."

Fairfax was willing to spend the money, though, and the department's cold-case squad resubmitted DNA from the Raver-Fulton case last year. DNA technology had improved greatly over the years, for one thing. And the killer may have been convicted of some other crime since 1988, with his DNA profile now registered in the national databank. Bob Murphy, the homicide detective who had inherited the Raver-Fulton case, thought it was worth a shot. He and his partner had 70 unsolved murders in Fairfax County dating back to 1964, and the Raver-Fulton case was one of the few with no suspects. Coincidentally, Arlington police had just formed their own cold-case squad, and one of the first orders of business was to have the state lab process DNA from the Jefferson murder again.

In April 2000, detectives in Arlington and Fairfax got a call from Biotech Two. They ought to get together, the lab tech advised, because whoever killed Tina Jefferson had killed Warren Fulton and Rachael Raver, too. After 12 years, police in the neighboring counties realized for the first time that they weren't looking for a crackhead car thief or random rapist. They were dealing, in all likelihood, with a serial killer.

The summer before Rachael died, she went with her mother and aunt to Arizona. The trip was her graduation gift. One afternoon, a black crow suddenly swooped toward her, coming so close that Rachael had to duck and cover her eyes. When the women happened to mention the strange incident to a Hopi woman they met, they were surprised by her reaction, how visibly upset she was. Only later, after Rachael was gone, did her mother learn that the crow was a legendary emissary between the living and the dead.

With the murders of Rachael, Warren and Tina linked by a strand of DNA evidence, what once seemed like odd coincidences now became potential clues, their meaning maddeningly unclear. Were the nearly identical red shoes Tina and Rachael wore a fetish item that enticed the killer? The two women didn't live near each other, but could the killer have first spotted them in the same place -- maybe a bar, or a gym, or at some social event? Tina had been killed on May 10 -- Rachael's birthday. She also had the same first name as Rachael's mother. Was that significant?

The DNA match for the first time offered Fairfax police eyewitnesses who could provide at least some description of the suspect, while Arlington now had a New York connection to consider, thanks to Rachael's abandoned car. Detectives from both departments met to brainstorm and try to pick up a trail cold for 12 years. Threads that might have been tugged had investigators suspected a single killer from the outset would prove difficult if not impossible to find again, though. Friends and roommates of the victims had moved on, memories had purged, paper trails had disintegrated. Hard to trace now, for example, whether someone at the Giant when Tina Jefferson was killed was at the since-closed Mister Days seven months later on the night Warren and Rachael disappeared.

The investigations may have been at a virtual standstill for more than a decade, but the Ravers had been in constant motion. Deidre Raver became a political activist, lobbying hard for funds to establish a comprehensive national DNA databank and donating time to various victim organizations. Her obsession with solving Rachael's murder grew ever deeper. She wrote letters to the media, elbowed her way into meetings of the national DNA commission, networked with forensics experts and profilers around the country, and badgered the procession of investigators assigned to her sister's case. She went to Reston and stood in the field where Rachael died, calmly asking the detective who accompanied her: "Wouldn't he have gotten blood all over him?"

"I was neglectful of my personal life," rues Deidre, now 40. "Relationships were very difficult because when you're obsessed with something, you need to focus on that one thing. You feel like a tornado has picked you up and put you down in Oz, like starting a whole new life in a whole new world. I became so involved I forgot it was my sister. It was a case."

In the New York City apartment she shares with the five stray cats she has adopted, the bookcase is crammed with criminology tomes and true-crime stories. Deidre went to night school to earn a master's degree in criminal justice. She thinks about one day working as a crime statistician, but for now, she's employed by an investment management firm in Manhattan. Whoever murdered her sister took away the life Deidre might have had, as well. "We can never accept what happened," she says with finality.

Her determination to find and punish Rachael's killer was drawn from a hidden well of guilt. "I was raped at 19 and didn't report it," she announces evenly, another fact to recite, a statistic internally calculated. It was a date rape. She told Rachael the details when her younger sister was 15, stressing to her the need to be vigilant. Rachael always was. "I feel guilty that I'm still alive and she isn't," Deidre admits, knowing this is common among survivors, inevitable even. She wonders whether Rachael's killer had raped before, if there was a victim whose silence cost her sister her life.

Deidre experienced the world in absolutes. "There is good and there is evil, and you really have to try to get out and do good to make up for the evil. Life is very precious." She became a volunteer for victims' advocacy and support groups. When she refers now to her friends, their names are welded to graphic clauses: so-and-so, whose daughter was strangled by her jealous boyfriend; so-and-so, whose teenage sister was gunned down over a cheeseburger. For a decade she immersed herself in victims' lives, until finally she could no longer bear the aggregate weight of their pain. Deidre went to the mountains and learned to ski. She fought the temptation to call the police whenever another rape or murder in the paper made her wonder if it was the work of Rachael's uncaught killer.

Deidre was finally learning how to let go, how to begin tentatively filling in the big empty spaces of her black-and-white life with colors, when the DNA match revived her sister's case. She quickly tracked down the Jeffersons in Oklahoma, their shared anguish forging an instant friendship. There had never been that kind of connection with Warren's family. "After, our family was drinking, talking about killing this guy, and the Fultons were in church praying, saying they forgave, that Warren was a spirit now," is Deidre's take on the divide between them. The Jeffersons eagerly joined Deidre's renewed campaign for justice. They appeared together on various TV shows to draw attention to DNA's crime-solving potential and push for federal funds to eliminate the backlog of profiles. After the Montel Williams show, a man with an accent that sounded Caribbean called Deidre at home. "I did your sister," he said, then hung up.

Rachael's parents coped in different ways. Norm Raver at first was so distraught that his family couldn't reach him. "We would hear him walk through the house slamming doors," Deidre recalls. "He was totally out of his mind." Veronica visited Rachael's grave sometimes two or three times a day. On the anniversary of Rachael's death, her mother stood alone at the newly placed rose granite marker and recited a prayer aloud. The squirrels chattering in the treetops fell eerily silent. When Veronica turned to go, she saw three black crows perched on a headstone behind her, watching.

Veronica is 69 now, retired from her job as a nurse in a hospital psychiatric ward, struggling to care for her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer's. The memory of Rachael murdered remains mercilessly vivid, and he leaves the room if he hears her name. Veronica still sometimes speaks of her in the present tense ("Rachael has a teaching degree . . .") and finds solace in reminders of Rachael. "It was 11 years before I could touch her collection of teddy bears," she admits. Only this past winter did she begin getting rid of the sweaters her daughter once wore. Veronica keeps maps of Virginia and D.C., marked with the places Warren and Rachael were that night. She makes light of this. "I'm Jane Marple and Deidre's Nancy Drew."

It was Veronica who found the matchbook next to Rachael's grave less than a month after her murder. She went there to pray on New Year's Day 1989 and saw something black shining in the snow a few feet away. The matchbook hadn't been there when she had visited late the previous afternoon. Veronica picked it up. It was from a D.C. bar called La Cage aux Folles. Then she noticed the fresh cigarette butts in front of the grave. He's been here, she thought. The items were FedExed to Fairfax police. There is no record suggesting the cigarette butts were ever checked for DNA.

Like Deidre, Veronica had immersed herself in the annals of murder, using her medical training to try to comprehend the mind of a sociopath. "Apparently, it's not unusual for a person to go back to relive the crime," she explains. The experts from Vidocq felt Rachael had been stalked. The year before her murder, she had received menacing phone calls, which had stopped when she moved after graduation. But several weeks before she was killed, Rachael told family members there had been another disturbing message from a stranger on her answering machine. It was so obscene she refused to repeat it.

On a cold February day last year, just two months before the DNA match, Veronica found a nickel placed carefully on Rachael's grave. How clever, she thought. Rachael's friends would sometimes leave tokens or notes, to show they had visited. Veronica thought the nickel, with the image of Monticello face up, must be a greeting from some Virginia friend passing through. She left it on the grave. Later, Deidre would call her mother: Look what's on the other side of a nickel! Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is the last name of the other girl. By then, though, the nickel was gone.

If anyone ever left a mysterious calling card on Tina Jefferson's grave, the prairie wind whipped it away unseen. The wind here is resolute. Tina bought her beloved Camaro during a tornado warning, calling her visiting grandmother back at the house with instructions to wait it out in a closet. Panic wasn't Tina's style.

The car had to be red. Red and white were her college sorority colors, and she had been president of Delta Sigma Theta. Tina, with her hazel eyes and winning smile, had always been popular. Her old photo albums bulge with pictures of friends and good times. When the vague composite sketch of her suspected killer was released, Crystal Jefferson, then 16, went through her slain sister's scrapbooks methodically, looking for that face.

Velda Jefferson, like Deidre Raver, vented her emotions through support groups. She also found comfort in the dog-eared Bible she took with her to work each day at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber factory. Jeff Jefferson could not share his wife's faith. "I blamed God. I did, I sure did," he says. He used to sit alone at his daughter's grave for hours each night, listening in the wind, looking in the darkness, for an answer that still eludes him. But it was Crystal, her parents agree, who took Tina's death the hardest. Crystal could not bear to go to the cemetery, could not voice her anger or fear. "I never talked about it, ever," she says now. "I used to have really bad dreams. Dreams I was there. She would come talk to me." Once, Tina came to Crystal in a dream and named her killer: Wilson. It wasn't a name the Jeffersons recognized, but her father called Arlington police to pass it along, anyway.

Now, in her parents' living room, Crystal is reminiscing about the summer before Tina died, when she visited her sister in Northern Virginia, and she idly recalls how protective Tina was. There was this guy named Tony, Crystal remembers, a friend of one of Tina's neighbors and, like Crystal, an avid fan of the rapper LL Cool J. The neighbor put Tony in touch with Crystal, and they phoned back and forth. When Tony wanted to meet Crystal at a concert, Tina put her foot down: You're only 14. Tony was a grown man. Tony moved back to his home town but stayed in touch, sending Crystal tapes and notes. They fell out of touch. Tony was from LL Cool J's home base. Somewhere in New York. Queens.

Jeff Jefferson stiffens. "This is the first I've heard of this." The next day he is on the phone to Arlington police, reporting this newly discovered connection to the place where Rachael's car was found. He gets in touch with Deidre Raver, too. They will both tuck this information into the files they keep on the case they now share.

In Arlington, the police department's cold-case squad assigned an intern to review and reorganize the dusty folders and boxes that constitute the unsolved Jefferson case. Sarah Lake is 23, the same age Tina was when she died. A criminal sciences graduate student at George Washington University, Sarah has spent most of the school year rereading every interview, analyzing every long-ago lead, looking for holes or possible angles not yet pursued. The case now fills a dozen fat binders, orderly yet still incomprehensible. Sometimes Sarah will be riding the Metro and think, What if he's here, what if he's on this train? But what bothers Sarah most are the same questions that bewilder the Jeffersons, perplex investigators and haunt the off-duty deputy who last saw Tina alive that night: Was the Camaro weaving because the killer had a gun on Tina? When she got out of the car, why didn't she scream, why didn't she run, why didn't she flag down help?

"The impression I got from the police was it was a date that went wrong," says Velda. "I could never buy that in my heart. It upset me for them to have that perspective, but I didn't say anything." They also never complained to police about the deputy who spotted the Camaro driving erratically but failed to act.

"It sounds like he took his safety over hers," Jeff says. His wife and youngest daughter nod, then Velda speaks up.

"We're talking 12 years ago. We're talking black girl . . ."

"Hush, baby," her husband gently begs, "be quiet."

"Well, I said it."

Crystal cannot end it here. Her fury is hard and absolute, her words unsparing: "My sister could still be alive."

The family moved across town a few years after Tina's murder, so they wouldn't have to pass the cemetery on the way to work, so they would stop saying "check in Tina's room" when looking for something they misplaced. But the pain followed them, of course.

"I want to get back to that God thing, you know," Jeff Jefferson says urgently. "My religious faith is not as strong as my wife and daughter's. I don't understand why bad things happen to good people . . . I think I might see her run past. One day I was in the kitchen doing something. The music was off, the TV was off. I heard steps in the hallway and I felt someone here with me." Velda has a story like this, too.

"One of the things I thought most of all was I'll never hold my baby again," she recalls. "It was on a Saturday and I was sleeping. I felt her presence, right there, and I wouldn't turn and look but I felt this hug. God gave me that comfort because He wanted me to be able to hold her one last time. I've not been able to really cry until recently. One night here recently, I was by myself and I began to cry and cry and cry and cry."

Back in Virginia, Crystal's idle memory of a man from Queens is the first new information developed in the case since the DNA matchup. The cold-case detective overseeing the investigation, Andy Pachoko, heads to Oklahoma with Sarah Lake to question Crystal. They bring back a picture of Tony, and then ask Jeff to send a box of Tina's letters and personal papers that have been stored in the Jeffersons' attic, unopened for 13 years. They are careful not to get the family's hopes up.

Doug Taylor has left law enforcement and works in computers now. He remembers seeing the police flier seeking information about the murder of Tina Jefferson, and how he recognized her picture, and that car, and how the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.

"She looked over at me. Certainly I would have seen distress on her face, panic. She was composed. Certainly if she was in danger, I wouldn't have driven away."

Taylor himself had to submit to the humiliation of being considered a potential suspect, surrendering samples of his blood, his saliva, his hair, allowing technicians to look under his fingernails. His DNA cleared him of any culpability. After he appeared on "Unsolved Mysteries" on the first anniversary to talk about the case, Taylor was stunned by the angry calls he got from strangers who said he had caused Tina's death because he didn't stop the Camaro that night.

"They're not right," he says now with soft conviction. "They're not right."

Warren Fulton never lived in the lovely house in the suburbs of Atlanta where his parents now live, yet the guest room upstairs is referred to as his room. His baseball team photo hangs on the wall. His father has never gone to another game, and still freezes in his tracks when he hears the sound, coming from the TV set, of bat meeting ball.

"I never knew what wailing was, but I could not stop it." Warren Hudson Fulton II sits soldier straight at his kitchen table in his Salvation Army uniform, his eyes wet, dignity and despair in counterpoint. "I think we're far down the road to coping," he decides. "Our lives are devoted to caregiving. We knew what to do, but couldn't keep from having to live through it."

"Does that make sense?" Jackie asks brightly. She was once a schoolteacher. She confronted her anguish, that long-ago winter, by devising what amounted to a lesson plan. A psychology major in college, she now began reading everything she could about loss and healing, from academic papers and Christian tracts to the sugar-coated bestsellers. She emerged something of a self-taught expert on grief. Less than a year after Warren's death, the Fultons began offering grief seminars through the Salvation Army. They keep bright green folders full of charts and handouts, with "The Stages of Grief" plotted out in the shape of a U, 20 of them in all, with loneliness at the very bottom. They have completed this emotional obstacle course themselves, maneuvered their way past numbness and fear and panic, climbing back up the other side to hope and affirmation and helping others. Still, Warren's father privately likens his sorrow to an ocean without shores.

Six months after Warren's death, his parents spoke about grief at a Salvation Army gathering. A woman approached Warren's father afterward, and said her newlywed daughter and son-in-law had been killed by a drunk driver on their honeymoon. She put her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear: The joy will return.

It took seven years. Driving through the Shenandoah Valley at sunset, the light pure and beautiful, "I was flooded with an aesthetic moment of joy," Warren's father remembers. "It was like the fig leaf the dove brought to Noah to show that the storms were over and soon we'd be anchored again to dry land."

What pained the Fultons as much as losing their son was the possibility that they had not really known him. Warren had been raised in a strict Christian home, immersed in Salvation Army tenets of temperance, yet he had been in a bar the night he was killed. Were there other things about his lifestyle that his parents never knew? "The first thing that haunted us was: Has our son been involved in something illegal that put him in the path of this killer?" his father recalls. The detectives came to the house to search through Warren's room. Here is his checkbook, his father said, here are his dresser drawers. Jackie was distraught: Why do all this, do you think Warren was involved? Just routine police work, she was told.

When Warren's friends heard the news, Dan Gutstein called the Fultons and asked to come over. "I just wish we could form a prayer chain around him," he remembers Jackie saying, and he realized that she meant the killer.

Gutstein is a poet now, teaching creative writing at GW. He is angry and bitter about the way the investigation of his best friend's murder was handled, mocking detectives in his poetry, aggrieved that cherished friends were regarded as potential suspects, though DNA quickly exonerated them.

The Fultons feel uneasy about putting a name and a face to the killer for a different reason.

"See, in the Salvation Army, we believe that every person born in the world has access to the grace of God," Warren's father explains. "The whole movement of the Salvation Army is to love the unloved . . . For us, anger and hate after this man would be an insult to Warren. He will be brought down. I believe that. The Ravers wouldn't understand. We can't spend our lives hunting this man. We could have served this man, filled his stomach, and sent him away."

The Fultons have mastered grief now, and Warren's father was bewildered one day not long ago when he and Jackie were riding home from work and he recounted a co-worker's tale about a car slipping out of gear and hurtling backward down a steep hill toward the co-worker's son. The son was thrown from his car and knocked unconscious. Did you see the angels? Angels carried me from the car! he had said upon waking. Warren Fulton considered this an inspirational story, but Jackie was uncharacteristically silent in the passenger seat beside him, and when he glanced over, she was sobbing. Where were Warren's angels? she wanted to know.

A year has passed since a strand of DNA linked three families to a killer who remains unknown.

The Jeffersons occasionally hear from other parents of murdered children, and try to offer what comfort and hope they can. Crystal is 28 now, a single mother of two well-mannered children who looks at life warily. "I don't trust anyone," she declares simply. When the detectives flew to Oklahoma a few weeks ago, Crystal went through the scrapbooks again. Nothing has come of the Tony lead she unearthed.

Warren Fulton's baseball team went to the Atlantic 10 Conference finals the spring after he died. His father wears his championship ring sometimes. His mother wears the gold chain the killer didn't take, and she keeps the glitter-spangled cross her son never hung on the Christmas tree.

Veronica Raver still visits Rachael's grave as often as she can, seeking both comfort and clues. Deidre wonders if she and her mother should tack up new fliers in Queens now that there's a composite sketch. Even if police don't have much faith in the portrait, it's still something.

That a laboratory computer in Richmond discovered in 30 seconds what seasoned investigators had missed for 12 years encapsulates both the promise and shortcomings of DNA in forensic science. "The power of technology now can create linkups that logic never could," allows Arlington chief Flynn. "I tell you: You look at those homicides straight up, and there's no connection. It's very rare in the world of serial murders to take on a boyfriend. Both of them were exhaustively investigated from every point of view."

But the surge of hope fueled by the DNA link is now barely a flicker. Knowing what they do now, investigators have the sickening feeling that this may not have started with Tina Jefferson or ended with Rachael Raver. Killers do not retire. They are caught, or they die, or they murder again. The Arlington and Fairfax cases are waiting now for the FBI's behavioral sciences unit at Quantico to produce a psychological profile of the person capable of such crimes.

Richard Walter has his own theories already. There is no such thing as coincidence when it comes to murder, the Vidocq Society profiler believes. Everything has meaning. The red shoes, the matchbook and the nickel, are all part of the murderer's elaborate script, a secret no DNA or computer program can yet decode. "Contrary to what the public believes," Walter explains, "a murder doesn't end when the victim dies. It's over when he says it's over."

Tamara Jones is a Magazine staff writer. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.