C.W. Monroe wasn't a loner, but he didn't get out much. The rail-thin 34-year-old lived by himself on the Loudoun County farm his family has owned for seven generations, didn't drive or have a license, or a bank account or a credit card. Friends gave him rides to work, and friends came to his wide-open 20 acres to party.
So when the antebellum stone-and-wood barn that Monroe had converted into an apartment and workshop was destroyed in a spectacular fire May 8, his family and friends presumed Monroe had died along with his three beloved dogs. Monroe's family began making funeral arrangements.
Loudoun fire and sheriff's investigators spent the next five days at the smoking ruins in Philomont, trying to determine a cause for the fire and to recover Monroe's remains. They dug and scraped and lifted and tested. The fire had been so hot it melted pennies, which requires a temperature of 2,000 degrees, Loudoun sheriff's Sgt. Jamie Koontz said.
In the end, investigators found the remains of Monroe's dogs, but the fire had been so intensely destructive that they could not determine how it started.
And they could not find a single bit of C.W. Monroe.
Authorities and family members waited to hear from Monroe, figuring that maybe he'd escaped the fire. Investigators entered him into law enforcement computers as a missing person and waited for some news.
Nearly five months later, they're still waiting.
Everyone has a different theory about what happened to Monroe. Some think he died in the fire. Some think he was abducted and killed. No one who knows him thinks he purposely vanished. Police are open to all possibilities, Koontz said.
"We're still handling it as a missing person, trying to get any information we can get," Koontz said. "But when you have somebody like C.W., where there's not much of a trail to begin with . . . "
Charles W. Monroe Jr., the oldest of four children of Charles W. Monroe Sr., was born and raised in Loudoun and graduated from Loudoun Valley High School. He grew up on the farm just off St. Louis Road, which was originally 144 acres but has been parceled out over the years and is now down to about 20 acres, his father said.
The property has a tragic history of fires. In the mid-1990s, Monroe's father said, his parents' home on the property was consumed by flames. No one was hurt. C.W. Monroe had been living there with his grandparents, and he then took over the barn, crafting a living space out of its top-floor loft and a workshop filled with tools on the main floor.
And in the 1930s, a rental house on the property also was destroyed by fire, killing seven people, said the elder Monroe, 61.
"We're selling the land," he said.
His son took vocational training in auto mechanics and learned carpentry skills, his father said. He picked up frequent construction work around Loudoun, helping to frame new houses and repair old farms in the still-rural southwestern section of the county.
"Everybody was always after him to come and help them," his father said. "They knew he was good with woodwork."
After the main farmhouse burned down, C.W. Monroe remained as the lone caretaker of the family property. His father, a retired electrician, lives a short distance away. He would pick up his son and bring him over to his house to do laundry, because the barn apartment had no indoor plumbing.
The younger Monroe has never married and has no children. He is 6 feet 3 inches and 160 pounds, though some think he weighs less.
Lots of people came to pick up Monroe, bumping down the gravel road, past the big new houses on the south side of the old property, to give Monroe a ride to work or to hang out at his barn and pastures. Neighbors and family said his friends drove all-terrain vehicles over the rolling hills, hunted and target shot near the woods, and held occasional bonfires, drinking beer and playing with Monroe's three dogs while rock and country music played.
"I used to tell him he was like a free spirit from the '60s," said his cousin A.C. Echols III, who also hired him for construction work. "He didn't have a care in the world, didn't have many responsibilities. He was happy just to live there." He said Monroe didn't drive because he never bothered to get his own truck in running order and he had friends who'd drive him.
"He was just all around a nice person," said his uncle, Bobby Monroe, who is the last person known to have seen his nephew. Bobby Monroe had spent much of May 7, a Saturday, at the farm and left about 9:30 p.m. C.W. Monroe almost never left the farm after dark, partly because he liked working in his shop and partly because he had no car, his family said.
Bobby and Charles Monroe were not aware that C.W. Monroe had made any enemies. "He was always happy," his father said. "Always helping people out."
It was the horrible howling of Monroe's trapped dogs, about 2 a.m. the next day, Mother's Day, that awakened neighbors. Ron Brence rushed over and circled the burning barn, trying to help.
"The flames had to be 50 feet in the air or more," Brence said. As firefighters arrived, Brence warned them that Monroe kept tanks of propane and various gases and fuels around the barn. He told them a man lived in the barn. By then, the flames were too fierce to penetrate.
Brence was amazed by the intensity of the blaze and believes it simply incinerated Monroe's body. Bobby Monroe agrees.
"I think he died in that fire," Bobby Monroe said. "He didn't have anywhere to go. He wasn't expecting anybody. He wouldn't have just run off and left for no reason. If he left, he'd been in touch."
Monroe's father has a different theory. "I think it's foul play," he said. "He wouldn't have set fire to it with his dogs in there -- he loved those dogs -- and all those tools." He had a Rottweiler, a pit bull and a mutt, neighbors said.
Without a bank account, Monroe kept all his money stashed in his apartment, his father said. "We figured somebody went in there and robbed him," Charles Monroe said, "and took him out of there and killed him and dumped him somewhere." He said strangers sometimes accompanied Monroe's friends to the farm, which Monroe didn't like.
Charles Monroe suggested that his son's body might be discovered this week, when hunting season begins.
With no way to know whether the fire was set, "there are any number of scenarios that could have happened," said Koontz, the lead investigator. Three cadaver dogs, specially trained to find human remains, were brought in but found nothing, Koontz said.
Koontz discounted the possibility that the fire had completely consumed Monroe's body. Traces of Monroe's dogs were found, and Koontz and other fire experts said some parts of the human body will withstand even the concentrated heat of a cremation oven. Debris that might have included human remains was sent to the state medical examiner and was ruled out.
Koontz also did not think Monroe had much money, perhaps a few hundred dollars at the most, because he didn't work steadily and hadn't been paid recently. Koontz said he wouldn't rule out robbery by strangers as a motive but noted that a large jar of coins -- melted together -- was found in the ruins.
There has been no memorial service for Monroe. "We still want to have one," his father said. "But we didn't want to have anything until we found out what's going on."
Anyone with information about C.W. Monroe is asked to call Loudoun sheriff's investigators at 703-777-0475.