Police and public housing officials, curious about a foul odor, discovered yesterday the badly decomposed body of a woman who had been sealed behind the wall of a kitchen pantry in a Southeast home.
Dr. LeRoy Riddick, deputy D.C. medical examiner, said the woman was between 20 and 30 years old and had been dead several weeks. An autopsy showed she had been killed by repeated "blunt force" injuries to the head and face, Riddick said.
Two officers, a landlord and his aide searched the three-bedroom brick duplex for about 45 minutes, attempting to locate the source of the smell that neighbors had complained about for weeks.
They traced the odor, to a walk-in pantry underneath a stairwell and became suspicious of an obvious freshly plastered area about 5 feet wide and 3 feet tall.
Using a bicycle kickstand they poke through the plaster and found men's, women's, and children's clothing in what should have been an empty stairwell, according to the landlord. They also found something bulky - "moist and mildewed" - wrapped in a large blanket, the landlord said, and the odor became stronger as they poked at it with a rod."We dragged the blanket toward the hole, and I could see a human back," said one of the officers, S. L. Hughes.
Riddick said the woman could not be immediately identified.
The house where the woman's body was found was at 3832 Ninth St. SE, part of the sprawling Highland Dwellings public housing complex in Congress Heights. The duplex is two stories, brick, and about 25 years old. A tiny front yard, gone to weed, is enclosed by a partly collapsed chain link fence, and the lower floor windows are barred.
Neighbors and the landlord said the last family known to live at the home was that of Junie M. Brown, 38, a journeyman carpenter from either Latin America or the Caribbean; his wife, Francine, 25; and their three children, Marion, 14; Eleanor, 13; and Nathan, 5.
Neighbors said that Junie Brown was last seen leaving with the children about a month ago. Neither they nor his wife has been seen since, neighbors said.
Homicide detectives are seeking Junie Brown for questioning.
Neighbors and the landlord portrayed the Browns yesterday as embroiled in quarrels for years.
"They were fighting all the time, every night, and when it got real bad she'd run up to my place," said Louise McCants, of 3836 Ninth St. SE. Other neighbors said Junie Brown sometimes cursed, beat and stoned his wife in front of their home.
The landlord for the complex, who asked not to be identified, said he had counseled the couple repeatedly about their domestic problems.
Late yesterday police revealed no evidence that linked Junie Brown to the murder.
The couple moved into the duplex in November 1975, the landlord said, and periodically one or the other would drop out of sight. Last year the whole family left for several weeks, he said.
Junie Brown's occupation was listed as unemployed at the time the family moved in, the landlord said, but neighbors said he sometimes worked as a carpenter. The landlord would not disclose the couple's rent, but said rents in the complex range from $30 to $200 a month.
The landlord said he inspected the apartment on May 18 after complaints from neighbors about the smell and found a peculiar, but not overpowering odor. "I knew they had a cat, and I thought that might be it," he said. "There were clothes in the home, food in the freezer, and I assumed they had never moved out. They never told me if they had. I still assume they haven't moved out."
After several more visits to the apartment, the landlord sent for fumigators, and that service on Tuesday helped eradicate the odor, he said. "I still didn't suspect foul play," he said, noting that he had encountered far more overpowering death stench during tours in the military and at other death scenes in public housing.
Neighbors said yesterday they knew all along something was wrong. Last week, said Andre Butler, 12, "we were playing tag and everybody stopped in front of the door and took a sniff. It smelled like a dead animal."
The landlord said he and his aide inspected the home about 9:30 a.m. yesterday and found that a molding had dropped from inside the back door. Still curious about the odor, and suspecting a possible burglary as well, they sent for police.
"As soon as I went in I knew what it was," said Officer Hughes. "It's an odor you really can't describe, but once you smell it, you don't forget it."
The body was found about 11:30 according to police.
Riddick, the deputy medical examiner, said that the blunt force blows suffered by the dead woman could have come either from her head being struck against a firm object, or being struck by an object such as a baseball bat, hammer, fist or cinder block.