"Dawn Rothwell, 33, who lived on the 12th floor at 800 Southern Ave. SE, fell out a window at 5:12 a.m., police said. She was pronounced dead at 8:10 a.m. Police said the circumstances of her death are under investigation."
-- The Washington Post, Page B3, July 9, 2002
Thus the beginning and end of all references to Dawn Rothwell in this newspaper or anywhere else in the media. But, of course, there was more to Dawn's death than that. And since July 7, when it happened, Dawn's mother, Barbara Rothwell, and her sister, Rhonda, have been working tirelessly to find out why and how Dawn plunged 12 stories to her death.
Mother and sibling cried as they sat across the table talking about Dawn. At times they just leaned on each other and wept. Dawn's death occurred almost seven months ago, but their grief was still fresh.
Rhonda could hardly get out the words as she recalled seeing her sister's body lying on the ground, separated from onlookers by yellow police tape. She shook with anger as she told how D.C. cops at the scene wouldn't respond to her frantic questions, even when she asked where they were taking her sister's body. When Mrs. Rothwell arrived and asked about the location of the medical examiner's office, cops said they didn't know and turned away. A family friend had to look up the location and give them directions.
After returning from the medical examiner's office, where they identified Dawn by a photo, they went to the 7th Police District headquarters for information. They were told no police report was available and were referred to the homicide division.
Barbara and Rhonda Rothwell gave me copies of e-mails and letters they have sent to Mayor Tony Williams and Police Chief Charles Ramsey seeking information about the status of the investigation. For their troubles, the Rothwells received an open postcard from the mayor's office and a form letter from the chief, a far cry from the treatment of the Chandra Levy family.
Mrs. Rothwell has called just about everybody for help: Assistant D.C. Police Chief Alfred J. Broadbent Jr., Marie Lydie Pierre-Louis of the medical examiner's office and Det. Elbert Griffin, the homicide official working Dawn's case. Her written chronology shows the heartbreaking trail of a mother's desperate struggle through the police bureaucracy.
She and her daughter gave the police plenty of leads, including the names and phone numbers of people who claim to have heard another young woman say the previous day before Dawn's death, "I'm going to throw that yellow b---- off that balcony."
And, they said, three other people entered the apartment with Dawn earlier that evening, they were told. One of them was an off-duty D.C. police officer.
Mrs. Rothwell didn't try to sugarcoat her daughter's life. Yes, Dawn was a college graduate, had a good job working as an accountant. And she was popular among her friends. But Dawn also knew her way around drugs. In fact, drugs were how Dawn and the other people came together that fateful evening, Barbara and Rhonda Rothwell said.
The story they pieced together and told the police was that it was the off-duty cop who picked up Dawn and two other people on the night of her death and drove them to a drug dealer from whom they bought a "dipper" (a cigarette laced with the drug PCP). Dawn, the police officer and the other two people returned to Dawn's apartment, where the dipper was consumed, they said.
Sometime early the next morning, Dawn dropped from the 12th floor to the ground.
Barbara and Rhonda Rothwell were not acquainted with the police officer, but they were given his last name by friends who had seen him with Dawn the night before she died.
Using his last name and information I developed from other interviews, the D.C. police confirmed that a 36-year-old 12-year veteran police officer assigned to the 4th District had been placed in "non-contact with the public" status last October and was placed on administrative leave with pay in November. Homicide officials confirmed that the officer, whose identity is being withheld, is under investigation by the department's internal affairs unit.
Fourth District Cmdr. Larry McCoy told me in a phone interview that he had heard the officer "was somehow linked" to the investigation into the death of Dawn Rothwell. McCoy said he was initially instructed to place the officer in non-contact status but was later told to place him on administrative leave with pay, which means the officer stays away from the office.
And the investigation itself?
The police, while officially indicating the investigation is still pending and the cause of Dawn's death is undetermined, indicated on Wednesday that they were leaning toward declaring it a suicide. While remaining tight-lipped about the results, they suggest that the presence of the dangerous and volatile drug PCP in Dawn's system, as well as statements by unidentified witnesses, point away from homicide.
That doesn't sit well with the Rothwells. They acknowledge Dawn's drug use. But they argue that she had a deeply religious aversion to suicide. They believe her death is linked to a troubled relationship she had with a young woman who was present in her apartment that night. They also complain that the police have failed to follow up on leads they have supplied.
On Thursday, D.C. Chief Medical Examiner Jonathan Arden said that, based on the police department's "lengthy and detailed" investigation, which included interviews with people who were in Dawn's apartment at some point during the evening before her death, as well as the "absence of evidence of a struggle or foul play," he has ruled Dawn's death an accident.
From Barbara Rothwell's Sept. 10 letter to Chief Ramsey, copies of which were sent to Mayor Williams and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton:
"I know that nothing will bring my daughter back, but I feel I deserve some consideration . . . and above all, I want to see justice done. One of those, two of them or maybe even all of them that were in my daughter's apartment that night know what happened. (And please do not insult my intelligence -- I know my daughter did not jump from her balcony.) Chief Ramsey, please don't let this get swept under the rug because one of your officers was involved."
If ever a case cried out for further review and reinvestigation by the criminal division of the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, it is the mysterious death of Dawn Rothwell.