Veronique Duperly spent most of 1975 plastering posters of her younger sister’s high school yearbook picture onto street corners all around Fairfax County.
But using forensic genealogy testing, detectives with the Fairfax County Police Department linked remains found 21 years ago near a drainage ditch at Lincoln Circle in McLean, Va., to Gildawie. Last month, detectives told Duperly what happened to her sister: Evidence shows that the 17-year-old girl was shot in the head sometime in the mid- to late 70s in the then-wooded McLean Street, which is now the site of an apartment complex.
Police said potential leads about the female victim’s identity fell through for decades until they teamed up with forensic laboratory Othram — a company which they have used in the past. Othram scientists created a DNA profile for the victim that matched Duperly’s family tree. Investigators were then able to confirm the remains belonged to Gildawie in August through additional DNA testing, Fairfax County police said.
Police have made no arrests in the case, which they have ruled a homicide. They said matching the victim to Gildawie brings them one step closer to solving the crime.
Duperly said she had peace knowing her sister’s body can reclaim her name. But, she said, the discovery also left her with more questions in the weeks since Fairfax County police called her family: Who gunned down her sister? How long was she in those woods?
Fairfax County officials said detectives have those same questions. Now that police know whose body was at Lincoln Circle, they are investigating whether the person who killed Gildawie is still alive and trying to get away with the crime.
A cold case
Bruises covered Gildawie’s arms and legs the last time she spoke to her sister in February of 1975, Duperly recalled. They also sprawled over her shoulders and back.
“Whether she ran into things, or somebody was beating on her, I don't know for sure,” Duperly said.
Gildawie was a free spirit who did not like adults telling her what to do, Duperly said. In the months leading up to her disappearance, she said, Gildawie had rarely come home at all, stopping by for a couple of hours once every week or two.
Duperly said she worried.
She knew her sister was dating an older man in his 30s, though she did not know his name. He worked at an upholstery store near Church Street and Lawyers Road in Vienna, she said. Duperly remembered that Gildawie would sometimes drive up to Duperly’s place in the man’s white Cadillac Eldorado with a red interior.
“He let her drive around in that car,” she said. “I mean, that’s crazy. She was only 17 years old and didn’t have a license.”
Duperly said that when she saw the bruises, she brought up her concerns, and her sister decided to leave. Gildawie told her sister, “I’ll see you soon.” Duperly never saw her again.
Duperly and her mother, Jacqueline Bradford, spent years struggling to find Gildawie on their own. Police were unhelpful in the search, and a private investigation was not an option, she said.
“We couldn't afford anybody,” she said. “And we didn't even know where to start to look.”
Duperly married in 1981 and started raising three girls. She said that as she focused on her own life, she couldn’t keep up what felt like an endless search.
She decided Gildawie would stay in her heart, accepting that her family would probably never know what happened.
That was until a Fairfax County detective called Duperly’s daughter in early August, nearly 41 years later, about the remains of a White woman between the ages of 16 and 19 that had been found two decades earlier. The detective asked to get in contact with Duperly. The two got on the phone, and everything just clicked, she said.
As soon as he described the case, one thought came to her: “Choubi.”
It is not the first time Fairfax County detectives contacted family members regarding cold cases from years ago, because of forensic genealogy.
Police announced in July that they had identified Joyce Marilyn Meyer Sommers as the person who died by suicide at the Fairfax County Cemetery in 1996. She had previously been known as “the Christmas Tree Lady,” because she had placed a small tree on a blanket next to her before her death.
They worked with Othram, which is based in Texas, for that case, too. The company uses genome sequencing to create complete DNA profiles for victims who otherwise could remain unidentified.
Fairfax police initially began their investigation into the remains found in McLean in September 2001 with faulty information. A report by a medical examiner and anthropologist at the time said the victim was likely an African American woman. Gildawie was White. The report also said the body was in the woods for a year or two — which authorities now believe was incorrect.
Maj. Ed O’Carroll, head of the Fairfax Police Major Crimes Bureau, said DNA was critical to connecting Gildawie to the crime.
“Not only were they off by the time frame, but they were also off by the race, which really threw detectives off in their search,” he said. “We now think she was murdered not long after she was known alive, which was 1975.”
Kristen Mittelman, the chief development officer at Othram, said DNA profiles are precise and help avoid these discrepancies.
Othram used an online fundraiser to raise money to create a DNA profile for Gildawie’s case, just as they did for Sommers. Its scientists then placed Gildawie on Duperly’s family tree by using other profiles found in their DNA database, and other private databases that share their information with police.
Duperly was stunned that genealogy could give her family long-awaited answers, she said. When police got in touch with her, she already had a profile of her own with Ancestry.com.
She gave her lab results to Fairfax County detectives. Police confirmed that she and the victim were sisters within 15 minutes.
“Oh my god, I was just so relieved,” she said. “I can stop worrying: ‘Is she in jail? Is she in a prison? Is she hurt?’ Now I know. Yeah, she was hurt.”
O’Carroll said getting the victim’s identification had been a breakthrough necessary to solving the whole case. He said police were actively investigating the case, but did not reveal if they had any suspects.
Police are interested in identifying the older man who Gildawie was seen with — they would like to talk to him to get a better sense of what was going on that year, O’Carroll said.
“This killer might have gotten away for 47 years, but we’re closer today than we were yesterday,” he said. “And we’re excited about this development, but our job is far from done.”
Putting the mystery to rest
For years, Gildawie’s body was abandoned out in the woods, then her remains sat in police custody for a few decades more. Duperly said she would now like to find a place for her sister to rest.
“I knew her so little when she got to be a teenager,” Duperly said. “There was never a heart-to-heart chat about ‘when I die.’ That was the last thing on our minds.”
Bradford — Duperly and Gildawie’s mother — died in 2016, six years before her daughter’s body would be identified.
“She was so worried about her,” Duperly said of her mother. “And she never knew whatever happened to her after all these years.”
Bradford wanted her ashes spread in the ocean, Duperly said. The family is planning to cremate Gildawie and spread her and her mom’s ashes together, she said.
Duperly said she wonders about what Gildawie’s life could have been: Would she have gotten married or had kids? What would she be like now?
Duperly said she knows she will never have all the answers. But she is hopeful to find at least one: who killed her sister.