RICHMOND, JUNE 6 -- Two decomposed bodies found near a parking lot in a suburb about 15 miles northeast of here were identified today as those of a missing Fairfax County woman and her former boyfriend, sheriff's officials said.
The deaths of Debbie Ferguson, 21, and James Sherrin, 20, are being investigated as a double homicide, said Lt. Howard L. Wray, chief investigator for the Hanover County Sheriff's Department. How the pair died has not yet been determined, he said.
Through dental records, the Medical Examiner's Office in Richmond identified the clothed bodies, found by a passerby Tuesday in some woods near a park-and-ride lot along Route 360 in Mechanicsville, Wray said. The pair was reported missing to Richmond police on May 26, he said.
Bradley T. Coats, Sherrin's stepfather, said today that the pair was last seen leaving his stepson's town house about 10:30 p.m. on May 18. Coats said the pair dated for about 1 1/2 years but had stopped seeing one another last year. "They were not a couple," he said.
Asked if he had any theories as to what happened, Coats said that there were "a lot of rumors floating around" but that "I'm just hopeful the police will find something."
The 6-foot-6 Sherrin, who loved sports and the outdoors, attended Murray State College in Oklahoma on a basketball scholarship before transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond for one semester, Coats said. Sherrin, who was not enrolled at VCU when he disappeared, was doing some construction work, he said.
"He was a nice guy; we're all shocked by this," said Curt Clifton, a VCU student who lived with Sherrin in a row house near the campus. Although Sherrin had not been seen for three weeks, Clifton said he had been "expecting the best."
Ferguson's parents, who reportedly went to Richmond to search for their daughter, could not be reached for comment today.
Ferguson would have been a senior next year at VCU's School of the Arts, where she was majoring in painting and print-making, a spokeswoman said.
She graduated in 1987 from Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax. There, school officials said, she was known for her artistic abilities, but also made a lasting impression with a quick smile and a radiant personality.
"It just stunned us," said William E. Jackson Jr., principal at Robinson. "She was always full of life. . . . She had a charisma about her."
"When anyone else was around her, they were happy," said Carolyn Burlingame, her sponsor on the drill team. "That laugh . . . she made you feel good."
At the VCU campus, the news of Ferguson's death surprised few who had read of her disappearance. Emotions ranged from sadness among those who knew her to outrage at the latest reminder of the dangers of living on campus in a city where the per-capita homicide rate last year was the fourth-highest in the nation.
"She was a sweet person -- really, really pretty with wonderful red hair," recalled Annette Radigan, a VCU student from Reston who said she once worked with Ferguson at Richmond's Tobacco Company restaurant.
Lately when Radigan saw Ferguson, it was usually at Joe's Inn, a popular hangout near VCU where Radigan works. "She was really generous. She always made sure she left a good tip."
VCU's main campus is in Richmond's Fan District -- an eclectic neighborhood of town houses and narrow side streets whose mixture of students, artists, young professionals and lower-income residents don't always mesh easily. Street crime is commonplace. As in Washington, many of Richmond's homicides and other crime are drug-related, police say.
In addition to city crime, a series of unsolved double homicides has occurred along a stretch of Interstate 64 east of Richmond in the New Kent County and Williamsburg areas. It does not appear that the most recent double homicide is related to those cases, Wray said.
"You think, man, this could happen to us," said Katherine Piche, a recent VCU graduate from Newport News. Since the disappearance, "everyone's real careful about what they do."
Radigan agreed. "Everyone is talking about it," she said of the case. "A lot of us girls get together and talk about how angry we get that we can't just walk where we want to."