Donita Cutts came home shortly after midnight on Saturday, July 29, 1978. Six hours later, she was dead. The murder of Donita Cutts has never been solved.

As police reconstruct it, Donita Cutts came in her front door alone, shortly after midnight, on Saturday, July 29, 1978.

She climbed the stairs to her second-floor bedroom, turning on lights as she went. She turned down her bed, took off her clothes and dropped them on the seat of a rocking chair. She put on a nightgown and flicked on the television set, choosing Channel 5, which runs all-night movies on Saturdays. Then she went to the bathroom to wash up.

Shortly afterward, a second person confronted Cutts in her house in Old Town Alexandria. Perhaps it was an intruder who had come through an unlocked bedroom window. Perhaps a prowler, attracted by the lights, knocked on the front door and forced his way in. Perhaps a friend with a grudge had let himself or herself in with a key.

Those are the theories. The fact is that six hours after Donita Cutts returned to her $126,000 home at 125 Wolfe St., she was dead. Her body was found in the cellar. Although an autopsy later determined she had been struck on the head, she died from asphyxiation, caused by smoke from one of seven fires her murderer set, apparently to cover his tracks.

The Cutts murder shocked Old Town then, and still does two years later, for the victim reflected much that Old Town admires in itself.

Dorothea Lane Cutts II, 38, traced her ancestry to Dolley Madison. A pretty, vivacious woman, she attended college in Switzerland and grew up on her family's 200-acre estate in The Plains, a town in Fauquier County.

In 1976, she bought the 19th century home on Wolfe Street, according to city records, and spent more than $64,000 redecorating the house and filling it with antiques. She was known as a gracious hostess and entertained frequently in her well-appointed home.

Cutts sold real estate in Alexandria. And in the words of Wellington Goddin, Cutts' former boss at Goddin Real Estate, "she had lots and lots of good friends."

The Cutts murder has never been solved, even though Alexandria police interviewed more people (400), devoted more man-hours (6,000), ran more polygraph tests (20) and spent more money for special travel and expenses ($5,000) than in any other investigation in the city's history.

Nor do police expect to solve the case.

This past April, according, to Lt. Arthur Bratcher, who supervised the investigation, the Cutts case was quietly placed on inactive status, along with 14 other unsolved murders committed in Alexandria since 1970.

"That means there was no new lead or bit of information we hadn't checked," Bratcher said. To solve the case now, "it would almost have to be a case of someone we didn't know coming forward and saying he did it."

But Bratcher, other police sources and several of Cutts' friends think they know who the killer is.

"It is just theory, and the man has never been charged," said Joseph Soos, a police officer who helped investigate the case until he resigned more than a year ago to join the Alexandria's Sheriff's Department. "But he is the one man who has never been eliminated."

The man, a former mental patient, is free today and lives only a few miles from the Cutts home.

He was arrested the week after the murder not far from the Cutts home. Police, who believed from the beginning that Donita Cutts' murderer was a burglar, then suspected the man was about to strike again.

Police questioned him then and on several other occasions. According to his attorney, police still have him under occasional surveillance. But the man was not charged, and police expect he never will be, because, Bratcher said, "of a lack of physical evidence."

But other sources are more harsh in their judgment of why the man got away; shoddy police work. Those sources contend that police made so many mistakes in their investigation that they permanently fouled up any chance they might have had to convict the man on a murder charge.

For example, the man's attorney says he was arrested several months after the Cutts murder on another charge. But, the attorney says, police spent several hours questioning the man about the Cutts murder without allowing his attorney to be present.

Former police investigator Soos says that the night the man was arrested near the Cutts home, police showed him photographs taken at the house the night of the murder.

"But this is the kind of guy who says Satan is in his soul," Soos said. "His mind goes 14 different ways every 30 seconds. He has been seen sleeping in graveyards, talking to himself, that kind of thing.

"So when he made statements about the case, we couldn't be sure he was reacting to the murder, rather than pictures of it. It would never have stood up in court."

The fact that the man is free has greatly increased the fear if residents who live near the Cutts home.

"I've heard it said that they know who did it," said one of Cutts' neighbors, a businessman who has lived in Old Town more than 30 years. "That gives me the creeps."

"It's something that still upsets me to talk about, because it hasn't been solved," said Linda Powell, who lives at 2 Potomac Court, less than 100 yards from the Cutts house.

Because firemen came to the Cutts home at 5:30 a.m., in darkness, with sirens blaring, "my 4-year-old daughter is just at the point now where she can hear a fire engine without screaming," Powell said.

Because of the fear, few neighbors are willing to discuss the case.

Of 17 neighbors interviewed, only Linda Powell agreed to let her name be used. Most others said they feared retaliation from Cutts' killer.

Officials of two of the city's largest real estate firms, including one where Donita Cutts used to work, flatly refused to discuss the case. One neighbor walked away from a reported who tried to question him about the murder. Another agreed by telephone to an interview, but the next day canceled by leaving a note taped to the front door of her Potomac Court home. c

Seymour Young, president of the Old Town Civic Association, said he understands his neighbors' reactions.

"For some reason, people think if this guy got by with one, they might be next," he said.

Young said many neighborhood residents became much more careful about locking doors and windows just after the Cutts murder.

"But I haven't heard much about either the case, or doors and windows, for about the last six months," Young said.

One reason police had difficulty developing a lead in the two days immediately after the Cutts murder was that firemen, fighting seven blazes in the house, may have inadvetently obliterated critical evidence.

"They thought they were fighting a fire," said Soos. "No one thought this was a murder because no one thought she (Cutts) was home. She had been at Rehoboth until the night before. The body wasn't even found until an hour after the fire was out."

Cutts' body was lying face down in a four-foot-wide crawl space, 10 feet from a basement window. She had been bound, hand and foot, with "everything in the house," according to Soos -- sweaters, slacks masking tape, electric cord, even a pair of socks.

The killer apparently hit Cutts on the head with an antique lamp (police found the shattered base) and left her for dead in a cedar closet, with the door barricaded, in the basement, Soos aid.

But Cutts somehow got one foot free, and probably made her way up the basement stairs, only to find the door to the main part of the house barricaded, too according to Soos.

In the gathering smoke, "she must have thought of the little window at the end of the crawl space as her last chance -- she was pretty resourseful," Soos said.

"She damn near made it."

Although police later were able to track Cutts' movements during the early part of Saturday night (she spent the evening at Joe Theismann's Restaurant in Bailey's Crossroads), what happened between midnight, when she returned home, and 5:30 a.m., when a neighbor called firemen, "will probably never be known," Soos said.

Police never found anything missing from the house, and more than 100,000 worth of jewelry remained hidden in a secret compartment beneath the main staircase. No keys were unaccounted for, and no windows were broken, according to Soos. Cutts was not sexually assulted, according to a medical examiner's report.

Police did find a jammed handgun at the house. "I think (the murderer) intimidated her with that," Soos said, " and she allowed herself to be bound to some extent."

But Soos and other police officers believed she did not fight back. From personal interviews with friends and relatives, Soos has concluded that "she probably tried to reason with him. She was that kind of person."

The attorney of the man Soos and Bratcher believe committed the murder is adamant in saying the man is innocent. The man, the attorney says, is not the kind of person police would like to believe he is.

"My client is, I think, a fairly peaceful person," the attorney said. "He's not violent. He has never been involved in any kind of assult. He traveled for a long time in a very rough section of town without getting into fights. And he's never been arrested since the marijuana charge."

The attorney advised the man not to permit a reporter to interview him. Independent efforts to contact him were unsuccessful.

For nearly 18 months after the murder, Donita Cutts' house stood vacent while damage from the fire that killed her was repaired. The house was sold on Dec. 19, 1979, to Sarah E. Coghlan, who said she bought it only after numerous discussions with the police.

"It was safe as far as I was concerned," Coghlan said. "And the neighborhood's been very protective of me, for which I'm glad.

Donita Cutts' mother, Dorothea Cutts, refuses to discuss her daughter's death. "(It is) still too painful, I'm afraid," Dorothea Cutts said last week before hanging up on a reporter.

And while the case still causes fear, or curiosity, in Old Town, "It isn't on the front burner any more," according to Wellington Goddin.

"It's more like, 'Hey, haven't they solved that Cutts case yet?' I think it's gone to rest. Just like she has."