Alexandria resident Ruthanne Lodato was shot and killed at her home on Feb. 6 by an unknown assailant. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Police now say that the brazen daylight slaying of a popular music teacher in Alexandria last month might be connected to the killings of two other high-
profile city residents over the past decade because investigators have determined that the same gun could have been used in each case.

Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook said Thursday that the markings on bullet fragments from the February slaying of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, the 2003 slaying of real estate agent Nancy Dunning and the November killing of regional transportation planner Ronald Kirby are so alike that detectives are now treating the cases as a “series of crimes.”

In each case, Cook said, the killer seemed to use a small-
caliber gun. And in each case, he said, the gun left a similar pattern on its bullets.

“The cases appear to be linked,” Cook said at a news conference at Alexandria police headquarters, “but until we have evidence to point to only one suspect, we investigate all possibilities.”

He cautioned that a forensic examination could not definitively prove that the same weapon was used in all three cases or point conclusively to a single killer.

Artist sketch of a suspected gunman whose weapon in a recent killing may be connected to two other slayings. (Alexandria Police Department)

Alexandria residents had long speculated — and detectives had long considered — that Lodato’s killing might be linked to Kirby’s and Dunning’s. All occurred in daylight, close to noon, at homes within two miles of one another. The killer or killers didn’t force their way in. Each of the victims was well known in the Alexandria community.

But Cook’s announcement was something of a bombshell — linking the shootings in a scientific way and renewing fears that a serial killer is on the loose in Alexandria. Cook advised residents to lock their doors and windows, not to answer for strangers and — if they had any concerns about anyone — to call police.

“The message we’re trying to send is to keep your awareness level up,” Cook said.

In Lodato’s neighborhood, some said the terror had not truly subsided since the 59-year-old teacher was gunned down answering a knock at the door of her Ridge Road Drive home.

“I haven’t walked my dog in three weeks,” said longtime resident Amy Repke. “You live here because of the great schools and great community. I fear for my daughter walking home.”

Police said that while the new development is significant, it did not produce an understanding of what could have motivated the killer or killers. They said detectives were combing through the victims’ lives, looking for possible connections, and hoping that a sketch of a man in the Lodato case might produce tips.

Cook urged residents to consider that sketch — which shows a balding, bearded man who police said was last seen in tan clothing — in the context of not only the Lodato slaying but also the Dunning and Kirby killings.

(The Washington Post)

Dunning, the wife of a former Alexandria sheriff, was found shot to death in December 2003 in the foyer of her home, near the front door. Kirby, a transportation planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, was fatally shot inside his home last November.

Friends and family members of the victims have said previously that they knew of no obvious intersections in their victims’ lives, and the cases do have some notable differences. Kirby and Dunning, for example, were found some time after they had been shot. Whoever killed Lodato also shot and wounded her elderly mother’s caregiver. That caregiver was able to flag down a neighbor, who called 911.

Liz Dunning, Nancy Dunning’s daughter, said Thursday that she was glad police were seriously exploring links, though she wondered how definite the connections were.

“It’s good they are thinking creatively,” Dunning said. “I hope my family and the others get some type of closure.”

Joan Gartlan, a longtime friend of the Lodatos, said the news “was something I’ve suspected and feared because there’s no way to comprehend how anyone who knew Ruthanne could harm such a beautiful person.”

“Now that the police have evidence that appears to show one person is likely responsible for devastating three families and an entire community, you can only hope and pray they will find that person before he hurts someone else,” she said.

Anne Haynes, Kirby’s widow, said she was scheduled to be briefed by police Thursday afternoon but could not be reached after the news conference. Relatives of Lodato did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Cook said investigators think a “small-caliber” weapon — one that is common across the country — was used in each case, though he declined to specify the exact caliber of the weapon or of the bullet fragments recovered. He said the fragments recovered in all the cases “have the same general rifling class and characteristics and are similar in design,” though comparing them microscopically yielded “inconclusive” results.

Police experts said that the similar markings, even if not microscopically identical, were important.

When a gun is fired, experts said, the bullet spirals down the barrel, picking up a distinctive pattern based on the “lands and grooves” inside. That pattern is unique to the gun and is imprinted on every bullet it fires, experts said.

“Each firearm has its own unique fingerprint,” said University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell, a former Prince George’s County police chief and Maryland State Police superintendent. “You have uniqueness all the way around, and bullets that are found are very valuable as leads.”

Still, they are far from perfect. As a projectile is pushed through the gun’s barrel, it twists, turns and scrapes along the side, roughing any distinguishing marks. Bullets that penetrate bodies can be even more mangled, mostly by hitting bones. That makes them hard to analyze with any certainty.

Shell casings extracted from semiautomatic handguns often provide more reliable fingerprints than do bullets, though police in Alexandria declined to say whether they had recovered and analyzed those. Some weapons, such as revolvers, do not expel shell casings.

Cook said police had run their forensic and other evidence through national databases to look for links with cases and across the country and as yet had found none. Special Agent John Risenhoover, the national coordinator of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, said that database contains more than 2 million pieces of evidence, collected even at trivial crime scenes from around the country.

As fear seemed to creep across the city Thursday, leaders in Alexandria rushed to reassure residents that they were doing everything they could to close the cases. Alexandria’s mayor, city manager and other officials said they were closely following the investigation and remained confident in police’s ability to find the killer or killers.

“These are complicated cases,” said City Manager Rashad Young. “We can be sensitized by TV to expect quick solutions, but the real world is that these are very complex matters, and they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”

Cook said Alexandria police detectives were working with FBI agents and others and were hopeful that Thursday’s announcement would generate more tips. He said police still had “tips and other leads that we have not completely vetted out,” and they were hopeful one of those might produce a break.

“We’ve never given up on these cases, and we’re hoping to bring this person or persons to justice as quickly as possible so we can put this horrible series behind us and get back to a normal lifestyle here,” Cook said.

Peter Hermann and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.