The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her fiance said he found her body 23 years ago. Now police say he hired another man to kill her.

The fiance of Andrea Cincotta is accused of hiring a man to slay her in an Arlington apartment

Andrea Cincotta, in an undated photo, was found slain in her Arlington, Va., apartment on Aug. 22, 1998. Two men, Chris Johnson and Bobby Joe Leonard, were indicted on a charge of murder in her death. (Family photo)

On the last day of Andrea Cincotta’s life, the Arlington librarian was scheduled to have lunch with a friend at a favorite Italian restaurant. She confirmed the appointment with an email, but never showed up.

That night, she had made plans with her live-in fiance to see a movie. She didn’t keep that date either. Around 1:30 a.m., Cincotta’s fiance told police he had discovered her body tucked in the bedroom closet of their Colonial Village apartment on North Rhodes Street. She was 52.

That was in August 1998. Cincotta’s slaying remained unsolved for the next 23 years, even as her adult son Kevin Cincotta continued to push Arlington police to find her killer.

Now, Arlington authorities claim they have done that. After empaneling a special grand jury, prosecutors obtained indictments charging Andrea Cincotta’s fiance with hiring a man to kill her, and both men have been arrested and charged with aggravated murder, formerly a crime punishable by death before Virginia abolished capital punishment earlier this year.

James Christopher Johnson, 59, who had lived with Cincotta for seven years, was arrested Tuesday morning. He is accused of enlisting Bobby Joe Leonard, 53, to kill Cincotta, who had been strangled.

Johnson’s lawyer, Manuel Leiva, strongly defended his client Thursday. “The assertion that Mr. Johnson hired Leonard to kill Ms. Cincotta is false,” Leiva said. He noted that Leonard “has long been a suspect in Ms. Cincotta’s death and was known by law enforcement officials as a very violent individual. … Mr. Johnson is innocent.”

Johnson said in a 2002 interview with The Washington Post that he had been intensely investigated by Arlington police, including an interrogation session in 1998 shortly after the slaying that led to an incriminating statement he said was false. “It is based entirely on information that they gave me,” Johnson said. He said he was extremely vulnerable when interviewed by then-Detective Robert Carrig.

“She was the love of my life,” Johnson said of Cincotta. “I had just found her. I was not in a very rational state.” He denied killing Cincotta.

Leonard is already in prison in Virginia serving a life sentence for raping and assaulting a 13-year-old girl whom he strangled and left for dead in a closet. The girl survived. That incident happened in 1999 in Fairfax County, a year after Cincotta’s slaying.

Cincotta reportedly donated an unwanted computer to Leonard, her son said, and police have said they targeted Leonard in 1998, in part because he had prior convictions for armed robbery, assault and forcible sodomy, but they were unable to link him to Cincotta’s death.

Court records do not list a lawyer for Leonard, who has not yet been arraigned. In a 2002 interview with The Post, Leonard denied any role in Cincotta’s death. “I’ve cooperated in every way that the Arlington police wanted me to,” Leonard said in a telephone interview from prison. “I submitted to a polygraph; the examiner told me I passed. I submitted DNA and fingerprints. They searched my apartment. I was totally cooperative, never asked for a lawyer. I didn’t have anything to do with that.”

The indictments were handed up last Friday, and court records show Johnson is being held in the Arlington jail with no bond. Leonard remains in Wallens Ridge State Prison. The indictments indicate that both men testified before the grand jury.

“It’s the happiest day of my adult life,” Kevin Cincotta said. “This has been like a cloud that’s been hanging over me for my whole adult life. I feel like it’s been lifted.”

Kevin Cincotta said his mother grew up in the District and southern Maryland, and graduated from Ballou High School and George Washington University. She worked as a reference librarian for the Arlington County Public Library and raised Kevin as a single parent. Johnson worked at Home Depot in 1998 but had experience in construction and was building a house together with Andrea Cincotta on the Rappahannock River near Warsaw, Va., Kevin Cincotta said.

On the morning of Aug. 21, 1998, Andrea Cincotta had the day off. After her daily morning swim at Washington-Lee High School, she arranged to have lunch in Springfield with one of her swimming friends. Her friend left messages on Cincotta’s answering machine when Cincotta didn’t appear.

Johnson told police that he came home at 6 p.m. and noticed her car was gone, according to a detailed typed statement Johnson gave to a private investigator in 1999. Johnson reported that he did his laundry, went to bed and around 1:30 a.m. noticed that her closet door was shut, opened it and found his fiancee’s body, with no blood or apparent trauma, the statement said. There was no forced entry to the home and no obvious signs of a struggle, police said.

Police questioned Johnson until 8 a.m., according to his statement. Later that day, Johnson drove to Andrea Cincotta’s parents’ home in Maryland, and when he drove back toward Arlington, he spotted Cincotta’s car on the shoulder of Interstate 295.

“This is the last nail in my coffin,” Kevin Cincotta said Johnson told him at the time. “They’re going to think I did it because I found the car.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Cincotta focused on a man who had been in his mother’s apartment several weeks earlier, in late July or early August 1998. Andrea Cincotta was planning on throwing out an old computer when she saw a large white truck outside her building labeled “Trash Masters.” Thinking they were with a trash company, she approached one of the workers, who told her they were not. But the man needed a computer for himself, if she didn’t mind, Kevin Cincotta recalled his mother saying.

The man took Andrea Cincotta’s computer and her dot matrix printer, loaded them into his truck and then resumed working on the apartment building’s mailboxes. Johnson and Kevin Cincotta were “appalled, just letting a stranger in,” Kevin Cincotta said in 2002. “But we didn’t worry because it was already over. We thought the danger had passed. … She approached him. He couldn’t have been planning anything.”

Arlington police located the man, Leonard, and said they had searched his apartment not far from where Andrea Cincotta’s car was found, took DNA samples and fingerprints, and gave him two lie-detector tests. The police said in 2002 that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Leonard.

In 1999, Leonard took a 13-year-old girl from the District to a vacant apartment in Herndon and raped her, choked her and left her for dead in a closet. The girl identified Leonard and he was arrested. He went to trial in Fairfax in 2000, represented himself, and was convicted and sentenced to life plus 30 years. Arlington police said they re-interviewed Leonard after his Fairfax trial but still didn’t have enough to charge him.

Kevin Cincotta kept pushing. Arlington police said in a news release Thursday that their cold case unit revisited the case in 2013, reviewed evidence and lab results, and did additional witness interviews, then presented it to a grand jury. There was no indication of how Johnson and Leonard might have connected. Both are charged with killing Cincotta “with premeditation … for hire.”

“The passage of time does not diminish the need for answers and accountability in this senseless crime that took Andrea’s life,” said Arlington Police Chief Andy Penn. The indictments indicate that Penn testified before the grand jury, and he apparently worked on the case when he was a homicide detective. “The indictments are the culmination of years of dedicated investigative work in our ongoing pursuit of justice on behalf of Andrea and her family.”