Before there was the beloved music teacher, there was the well-known transportation planner. Before them, there was the sheriff’s wife.
Three fixtures in the Alexandria community, all as prominent as they were loved, all gunned down inside their homes for reasons that elude police.
The killing of Ruthanne Lodato on Thursday was shocking in its own right. The 59-year-old music teacher, police say, was shot after she opened the door for a balding, bearded man in a tan jacket.
But as the investigation moved into its second day — and as police and city officials said they still had no idea who killed Lodato, or why — those on the streets of Alexandria were left to face a disturbing reality: Could the three killings be linked?
They all occurred in broad daylight, at homes within two miles of one another. The killer or killers didn’t force their way in. The victims were all high-profile, even if just in the fabric of Alexandria.
Alexandria Police Chief Earl L. Cook said Friday that detectives were “looking at any similarities” between Lodato’s slaying and other unsolved cases, including the 2003 slaying of Nancy Dunning, the wife of the late sheriff James Dunning, and the November killing of Ronald Kirby, the director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He said that no evidence linking Lodato’s case to other crimes has been found but that police would be “remiss” not to look further.
Detectives will check whether the suspect described in Lodato’s case matches suspects in others, and they will compare ballistics test results and other forensic evidence, said Crystal Nosal, a police spokeswoman.
The lack of answers has left some feeling disconcerted.
“There is a level of fear in this community that we didn’t have before,” said David Mudd, a lifelong neighbor of Lodato’s.
Cook said investigators now believe that the man who killed Lodato — and shot and wounded a caregiver who worked in Lodato’s home — was wearing a tan jacket. He said it was too early to know whether Lodato or her home, in the 2400 block of Ridge Road Drive, was targeted or if the attack was random. Detectives planned to interview the caregiver again, once she is healthy enough. Late Friday, police released a composite sketch of the suspect.
Mayor William D. Euille (D) said that police will not spare any expense in tracking down the killer. He said that residents had a “right to be concerned,” although officials did not have enough information to confirm what is perhaps everyone’s worst fear.
“I don’t want to characterize it that there is a serial killer floating around the city,” Euille said.
Family members of the victims in the city’s two other high-profile cases said they could not help but notice the similarities between Lodato’s shooting and the slayings of their loved ones.
Anne G. Haynes, Kirby’s wife, said in an interview Friday that the main connection between Lodato’s and her husband’s killings was that both seemed “random,” but detectives had not followed up with her since the more recent slaying.
Liz Dunning, whose mother was a well-known real estate agent, said her heart sank when she heard the news of Lodato’s death, although she was not aware of any possible connections to her mother’s case.
“It’s heartbreaking there is another family that is experiencing this type of loss without answers,” said Dunning, 36.
Among Lodato’s family and friends, shock seemed to give way Friday to grief and sorrow.
Joan Gartlan, a longtime friend of Lodato’s who spoke for the family, said no one could comprehend who would want to hurt the music teacher. Lodato, Gartlan said, was a loving wife to her husband, Norman, with whom she had three daughters, Lucia Lodato, 32; Gina Lodato Pelusi, 29; and Carmen Lodato, 20. She said that Norman and Ruthanne Lodato lived with Ruthanne’s 89-year-old mother, Mary Lucy Giammittorio, and that a caregiver helped them while they were at work.
They were a happy family, Gartlan said, with no enemies.
“I mean — she taught music to young children,” Gartlan said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Gartlan said that Ruthanne Lodato, whom she knew from their high school days at St. Mary’s Academy, had recently helped plan her class’s 40th reunion, and she remembered fondly the music teacher holding up her hand to cue the group to sing the alma mater.
“We’re all devastated,” Gartlan said. “She was really kind of the glue that held everything together.”
A few of Lodato’s family members, who declined to talk, issued a statement saying that they were “heartbroken” by the loss
“A beloved wife, mother, sister and daughter, she was our family rock and we will not be the same without her,” they wrote in the statement, provided by Gartlan.
Outside Lodato’s house — which was still cordoned off with yellow crime tape Friday afternoon — were remembrances: flowers and two piano books.
Neighbor John Kelly said that Lodato had given music lessons to his two children and that her loss was keenly felt. “Ruthanne was woven into the fabric of this community,” Kelly said.
In their grief, though, neighbors also grappled with the fear that a killer who had walked along their street Thursday was still on the loose.
Louis De Merode, who lives across the street from Lodato, said his house cleaner saw the aftermath of the shooting. The housekeeper told him that she glanced out a window after she heard a dog barking, saw a man running across the Lodato’s front yard and heard a woman screaming.
While that in itself was terrifying, De Merode said, pondering a connection to other killings in the area was even more so.
“This shooting felt completely random, almost like a meteor just happened to strike here,” De Merode said. “But when I found out this morning about Kirby’s killing in a similar way, things felt a little more ominous.”
One man, who asked that his name not be used to protect his privacy, even reached out to police on Twitter after spotting someone roughly matching the description of a suspect in the Lodato slaying about 9:30 p.m. Thursday on Washington Street near the Lyceum Museum. In a text-message conversation, he said that the man — who was balding with gray hair and a full, bushy beard — was “speaking to himself loudly” and that after rapidly walking south, he suddenly turned north.
The tipster said he typically “would have thought nothing of it,” but in light of the day’s events, he told two people he was talking with that they should leave and he later contacted police. He said late Friday that the man he saw did not match the sketch released by police. Nosal said detectives would follow up on his tips and many others’.
Patrick Svitek, Rachel Weiner, Patricia Sullivan and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.