The sky was streaked pink, and the residents of Whitehall Square Apartments in Suitland were coming home from work. Dottie Shaw, 15, and four of her neighborhood friends lounged on the steps of one of the red-brick, green-shuttered buildings. They recalled last year, and the bodies in the field next door.
There were five bodies eventually -- all black women, all in their mid-20s, all small in build. The first was found by children a year ago tomorrow; the last two by Prince George's County police recruits on Jan. 13. The killings, which are still unsolved, came to be known as the Suitland murders.
"Huh, I wasn't scared," joked Shaw, a round-faced Forestville High School freshman with a big black bow in her hair. "I wasn't scared because I stayed in the house the whole time."
For weeks last winter, reporters and police investigators scoured the area. The volunteer protective group, the Guardian Angels, came down from New York wearing their red berets and met the children from Whitehall Square at the bus stop every day. Suddenly home -- a secluded, well-kept complex bordered by 300 acres of cemeteries -- was distinguished mainly by its proximity to a macabre private burial ground.
It was an exciting time to be living there. It was also spooky.
The children at Whitehall Square had heard about serial killers before, of course, in television movies, television news.
But this was different; this was yellow police lines and decomposed bodies turning up in their own playground. This was real life, real death. They could watch from the bedroom window.
"I wasn't worried," said Kalil Michaels, 11, sitting on the hill at the edge of the complex that overlooks Edgar Allen Poe Elementary School, where he attends sixth grade.
"I knew he wasn't going to get me. He went for women."
"I still think about it sometimes," he added, scooping up handfuls of slate rocks and spilling them on his blue-jeaned knees as he talked. "I see people going up in the woods looking strange -- maybe that's him. Sometimes my friends say, 'let's go over there and explore,' but I don't want to.
"I don't know, I just hope he doesn't ever come back over here anymore."
Nobody at Whitehall Square talks much about the slayings these days. The apartment manager, on hearing the reason for a reporter's telephone call, first muttered, "Oh, great," then said before hanging up, "You got two words from me -- no comment."
The residents and the management of the nearly 600 units would like to forget the association with violent death. The colonial-style complex on Suitland Road caters to mostly middle-class working people: federal government employes, the military.
A two-bedroom apartment with a washer and dryer is $669 a month; renters must have a minimum annual income of $28,000.
The parking lot is filled with Hondas and Nissans, a few county police cruisers, the occasional new black Volvo or old green Chevrolet.
"This is a really nice neighborhood and the bad publicity wasn't fair," said G.L. Davis, a telephone company employe who lives at Whitehall Square.
But in the weeks after the discovery of the bodies, she said, she regularly ordered her teen-age son Phillip to wait outside for her arrival home from work so he could escort her indoors. And even now, she said, "I find myself looking over toward those woods when I drive in. And I still hate that walk from the car to my door."
The area, despite its two-minute distance from the District border and the crowded neighborhood of Southeast, has a spacious, almost rural quality.
Up the hill on the west boundary of the apartments is the 70-year-old Cedar Hill Cemetery with its rock ponds, carved bridges, tall cedars and nearly 60,000 graves dotted with red poinsettias. On the other side of Suitland Road are the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery with 57,000 graves and the Washington National Cemetery with 15,000 graves. There is also a funeral home nearby and a firm specializing in "the design of monuments, markers and mausoleums."
The killer's burial ground was a 26-acre tangle of trees and dense growth on the north side of the apartments, property owned by the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Nobody seems to think the killer, as a bizarre joke, chose the area because of its cemeteries.
"It was just the idea of a hidden field, I guess," said Dorothy Richards, who works at Cedar Hill Cemetery.
Police were never able to determine if the five women -- all partly clothed, all but one of them stabbed -- were killed in Suitland or if their bodies were just dumped there.
None of them lived at Whitehall Square, although one of the victims, last seen walking to a store to buy a beer and cigarettes, lived at nearby Shadyside Garden Apartments. The others lived in Southeast.
The county police investigation, initially led by a 25-officer task force working 16-hour days, is now the responsibility of a single investigator who checks the dwindling new leads and and brings the case up to date. Every new body that turns up, including that of a 36-year-old go-go dancer in Bowie two weeks ago, is checked for similarities, but there have been no further "Suitland-type murders," said Maj. James Ross, commander of the county police investigation services.
Early, it appeared that police might have a break in the case when the body of a young black woman of similar description was found dumped in a Northwest alley within a week of the discovery of the last of the five bodies. Janice Elaine Morton, 20, of Southeast had been beaten, sodomized and strangled.
On Jan. 30, police arrested Alton A. Best, 30, a National Park Service laborer who lived in Southeast, and charged him with Morton's slaying. In August, Best, who admitted to a drug problem, pleaded guilty to Morton's slaying and was sentenced to 18 1/3 years to life.
Initially, Best was considered a leading suspect in the Suitland murders, but investigators apparently found no evidence linking him to the deaths.
"In the press, Mr. Best became the Suitland murderer and that is horrible for him and his family," said his attorney, Neal Kravitz, who works with the Public Defender Service.
In an interview, Ross would not comment on whether Best remains a suspect in the Suitland murders. He also refused to comment extensively on the life styles of the five slain women, a rather sensational point during the early investigation.
Four of the five women frequented Clancy's, a nightclub featuring exotic dancing on Good Hope Road in Southeast, Ross said. It is a straight shot up Suitland Road from Whitehall Square Apartments, a three-mile drive from the burial ground. Outside, the two-tone building that houses Clancy's is decorated with shamrocks, leprechauns and strings of blinking lights; inside are a pool table, the standard beer posters, and signs warning, "Do not touch the dancers." Nobody at Clancy's on a recent night acknowledged knowing any of the Suitland victims.
It is the way of serial slayings, perhaps, that the names of the victims, the particulars of their lives, get lost in the magnitude of the crime. The Suitland victims were Dorothy Ann Miller, 20; Pamela Maria Malcom, 25; Angela Maria Wilkerson, 22; Juanita Marie Walls, 26, and Cynthia Lee Westbury, 22.
In a basement apartment on Stanton Road, not far from Clancy's, not far from Whitehall Square, a family continues to mourn Cynthia Westbury.
"Yes, it would make us feel better if it was solved. Then we could put it to rest," said Cynthia's brother, James Westbury, 28, who was paralyzed by an accidental gunshot wound eight years ago. "I'd like to know why they did it, why they were picking on little . . . She didn't even weigh 105 pounds.
"Just because we're black and we live way over here in Southeast doesn't mean we're ignorant," Westbury said, citing "indifference" by police when the family first reported Cynthia missing, two months before her body was found. "We have feelings just like everybody else -- and that was our sister."
For Dottie Shaw and her friends at Whitehall Square, it isn't difficult to make that leap of imagination, to imagine themselves five or 10 years older, in trouble, facing the person who could end their life.
"It's creepy because it's real. You can't turn it off," said Nikki Webb, 14. "I remember when it was going on, thinking, 'What if it's me?' "
But the girls, who described themselves as serious students, said they would never go to nightclubs such as Clancy's. They wouldn't use drugs, they said, or go out with people they didn't know well. They have plans to become engineers, radio broadcasters, pediatricians.
"It's not the kind of thing you want to think about for a long time," Shaw said of the slayings. Then she and her friends got up and strolled over to a nearby store, bought 20 fireball candies, and walked back. It was time for homework.