The parents of a Bowie teenager who was slain 26 years ago will mark her birthday next week with something that's been absent since the day hunters found her bruised body in an Anne Arundel County gravel pit: a reason to hope for justice.
This week, investigators from the county's cold case squad told Joe and Delores Dustin that they have identified two suspects in their daughter Donna's killing and may finally, after years of frustration, be closer to an arrest.
Detectives confirmed they collected enough fresh evidence to haul a 46-year-old Syracuse man into a New York courtroom last week and ask the court to demand he produce a blood sample, in an effort to match his DNA with evidence preserved from the crime scene. At the same time, authorities in Orlando collected a specimen from a second suspect.
Police have not named the suspects because neither has been charged. The Syracuse man will fight the request for a blood sample in a hearing Jan. 4.
For Anne Arundel County's two cold case investigators, who battle long odds as they try to squeeze new leads from yellowing files, the progress in the Donna Lee Dustin case has provided a rare chance for optimism.
And for Donna's parents, who still hang her Christmas stocking on the wall, the flurry of activity has revived hopes that they may finally learn more about their daughter's untimely death.
"Twenty-six years is a long time, but in some ways it's like yesterday," said Delores Dustin, 65, who choked back tears amid the cheerful Christmas ornaments decorating her living room. She and her husband, Joe, 64, still live in the Bowie house where they raised their family, roughly two miles from the Anne Arundel County line and the scene of the crime.
"As I sit here today, I can tell you we never dreamed we wouldn't find out who did it," Delores Dustin said. "We never dreamed all this time would go by and we wouldn't find out why."
By all accounts, Donna Dustin was a gregarious free spirit who graduated from high school with a wide group of friends. She dated constantly, her mother said, but "would've been square as square can be once she settled down and got married."
She wasn't a whiz in school--her parents remember how she tried to persuade them her poor marks weren't that serious, telling them "there's not much difference between a D and a B because they're both just one letter away from C."
But she took on a job as soon as she graduated, doing secretarial work for her father's employer, the Ironworkers International Union, in the District, and began studying for business school.
After five months in the new job, Dustin had saved up enough money to buy a car, and she went with her father to pick out the latest model of Chevy Impala. She made only one payment before she died at 17.
The investigation into Dustin's slaying grew cold at some point, though no one can say exactly when. It was 24 years after her body was found that a call came in to David H. Cordle, the chief investigator at the Anne Arundel state's attorney's office, about a man who claimed he was being hassled over what he knew about a 20-year-old murder. Cordle wouldn't elaborate on the tip.
Cordle called Detective Herbert Hasenpusch, who specializes in old cases at the Anne Arundel County Police Department, and the two men got started.
"Usually in a murder investigation, time is the enemy," Hasenpusch said. "With the cold cases, time starts working for you again."
Years after a murder, relationships have changed. Loyalties have shifted.
"We've talked to some people who didn't want to say things for fear their parents would find out they were out drinking alcohol or missing curfew," Hasenpusch said. "Years later, that's the farthest thing from their minds. All of a sudden, they might come around with something new."
Cordle said he would guess that 80 percent of the teenagers who were around at the time of Dustin's killing still live in the shady Prince George's County suburb where they all grew up. Many, he said, had new details to share.
Now, more than at any time since the Nov. 17, 1973, slaying, the hazy final hours of Donna Dustin's life have started to come into focus.
Neither Cordle nor Hasenpusch would discuss details of the case. But an affidavit Cordle submitted to a New York court to justify his request for the Syracuse man's blood sample describes how interviews have helped unfurl the events leading up to Dustin's death.
According to the document, police believe that Dustin spent much of the night of Nov. 16 on a double date. With her parents and younger brother away in Florida, she felt free to stay out late. Around 1:30 a.m., she dropped her date off at his Bowie home and said she "wanted to get more beer and continue partying."
It was during the early-morning hours, according to evidence and witness accounts described in the document, that Dustin and the two suspects met up. Caps from beer bottles of the same brand the suspects had in their car also showed up at the home of Dustin's parents. Witnesses saw Dustin enter a party where the two men were drinking. Others described how Dustin had met one of the suspects two weeks earlier.
One of the two men had an extensive history of sexual offenses.
The following morning, the affidavit states, witnesses saw one of the suspects arrive at work "looking disheveled," wearing the same sports coat and slacks from the previous night, only now they were "covered with dark stains . . . briars and stickers."
Hunters found Dustin's nude body at 10:30 a.m., in a remote, abandoned quarry near Odenton, roughly two miles from her parents' house. An autopsy report, also described in the court filing, said she had been brutally beaten, and it revealed evidence of sexual assault.
Evidence recovered from the scene when she was found includes DNA left behind by two or more suspects, which police have saved on slides.
Based on the evidence, Cordle argues in the affidavit, the suspects "had the opportunity and the motive to commit the murder of Donna Dustin."
While the suspect in Florida has agreed to provide a DNA sample, Cordle said the Syracuse man "is fighting it more than anyone else has."
James C. Hopkins, a Syracuse criminal defense lawyer representing the suspect in Syracuse, said his effort to block prosecutors from obtaining the blood sample should not be misread.
"I am in a bind," Hopkins said. "I don't want to foster further suspicions against my client, but my client has a constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy."
Hopkins said he believes the police lack any solid evidence and are trying to obtain genetic samples merely to rule people out.
"My client cooperated fully with the investigation back in 1973," he said. "I have no reason to believe that his information was anything other than truthful."
That investigation was already underway on the evening after Dustin's death. Her parents and younger brother were returning from a day at Walt Disney World when they saw a Florida police cruiser pull up to the house where they were staying. Delores Dustin thought maybe they had parked illegally, until she looked down the driveway and saw her husband.
"His shoulders dropped," Delores Dustin said. "I said, 'No, something's wrong.' "
The couple threw all their belongings into the trunk and began an agonizing drive back to Maryland.
The investigation slowed and time passed, but life remained hard for the Dustins. Delores still slips up occasionally and calls her 14-year-old granddaughter Donna. Joe finds the whole subject difficult to talk about.
"I don't forgive very good," he said bluntly.
As police home in on suspects, the parents' only hope is that they will find out something more about what happened. Given the strong suspicion that Donna spent her last hours alive with people she knew and trusted, they said they would like to know why she was killed.
"That's what I still can't understand," Delores Dustin said, choking back tears. "I mean, everyone liked Donna."
Anyone with information about this case is asked to call David Cordle of the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office, at 410-222-1740, ext. 3063.
CAPTION: Delores Dustin, seated next to her husband, Joe, wipes her eyes while talking about her daughter, who was found slain 26 years ago at age 17.
CAPTION: Delores and Joe Dustin have waited 26 years for word on a suspect. "In some ways it's like yesterday," she said.
CAPTION: Donna Dustin's parents display pictures of her as a 16-year-old and as a baby in their home. Her badly beaten body was found about two miles away.