Her body was found in her third-floor apartment in Northwest Washington, and among the few valuables she left behind, police said, were a pair of mahogany leather boots, some cheap jewelry and $152 in cash.
Residents at her apartment complex said the woman, who was between 45 and 65 years old, developed a churlish reputation over the years. The only thing she was known more for besides her all-black ensemble and her affinity for cigarettes was her brusque demeanor.
“She was kind of an unusual lady,” one longtime resident of the Connecticut Avenue building said. “You weren’t really sure what to do [around her].”
More than six months after she was found dead of undetermined causes, no one knows her name.
In most instances, families and friends are notified fairly quickly about the death of a loved one. But there are also those found dead whose identities remain a mystery for months, even years or decades.
“There are families out there who don’t have closure,” said Officer Jonathan Perok of the Prince William County police department. “It’s hard for [the detectives] to know they have remains and to know a little bit about the person, and to know the family is out there.’’
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, run by the U.S. Justice Department, authorities in Maryland have been unable to identify the remains of 296 people, with some cases dating back to the 1950s. There are 161 cases in Virginia, according to the agency, including many that have remained mysteries for years. Some were suicides or natural deaths; others were slain.
Some of the bodies were discovered more recently. D.C. authorities said they are continuing to search for the identities of 20 sets of human remains or bodies found in the past decade. From 2009 through last year, there were 37 unidentified bodies in Maryland and 25 in Virginia, officials said.
When the obvious means to identify someone are exhausted, police turn to small clues — putting out descriptions with details of tattoos, clothing and jewelry in hopes that a friend or loved one will recognize them.
In November 2013, a woman’s body was found on the shore of the Potomac River. She was in her 60s or 70s and wore a gold ring on the ring finger of her left hand. In January 2012, an infant girl was found wrapped in a striped towel in the 3000 block of Channing Street SE. She died a few hours later of hypothermia.
In 1984, in Prince William County, a young Asian man was found strangled near the ramp from Joplin Road to Interstate 95.
All of their identities remain unknown.
Perok said breaks in these types of cases don’t come quickly, which makes it even tougher for those affected. “A lot of the time, it is just a waiting game,” he said.
Peter Gastelle knows what that’s like. His sister Cynthia vanished in April 1980 after she left her Takoma Park home for a job interview in Silver Spring. The 18-year-old had attempted to run away twice before and was nearly successful in changing her identity, Gastelle said, so his family waited several days to report her missing.
As time passed and she never came back, he said a part of him hoped she had formed a new life. But in May 2012, authorities matched DNA from his siblings to a skeleton that had been found in Prince William County in 1982. Cynthia Gastelle had been dead for decades.
“The not knowing is always the worst thing,” Peter Gastelle said. “As the years went by, you start to think that something terrible did happen, but you don’t want to let that genie out of the bottle.”
Cynthia’s skeleton showed injuries consistent with a stabbing, police said at the time. No arrest had been made. Now that the Gastelles know Cynthia is gone, their focus has turned to finding her killer.
“We were kind of happy living in a dream world,” Gastelle said of thinking Cynthia was alive and well. “Now we live with a brutal reality with a far dimmer hope that the perpetrator gets caught.”
Gastelle said his advice to families with missing loved ones would be to exhaust every effort. “My message to my peers in this awful club that we belong to is to not give up hope,” he said. “There are tools out there [you can use]. Retrace the steps of your loved ones. Be a detective yourself.”
Detective Wayne Promisel of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office said when a body is found, investigators look for any clues that can help point them in the right direction, including tire tracks, cigarette butts and bottles.
Since 1988, the Loudoun sheriff’s office has found three bodies — two infants and one adult — that could not be identified after an initial investigation, according to department spokeswoman Liz Mills. The infants were found in a pond; the adult, who had been shot, was discovered as a skeleton found wrapped in a blanket in a wooded area, according to the authorities. Those cases remain under investigation.
David Fowler, Maryland’s chief medical examiner, said his office usually is able to identify a body through fingerprints. “A significant number of people have fingerprints on file for one reason or the other,” Fowler said.
Facial reconstruction can be used to help identify victims whose bodies or skeletal remains are badly decomposed but it isn’t 100 percent effective, Fowler said.
And some people take steps to hide their identities, Fowler said.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the woman found dead on Nov. 5, 2014, in the Connecticut Avenue apartment is that she had a roommate of several years. Richard David Vail, now deceased, told authorities that they had been living together for 10 years, but he didn’t know her name, according to Vail’s brother, James.
James Vail said his brother took the woman in off the streets. She was homeless and didn’t wish to reveal her identity.
“She remained largely a mystery to Richard,” James Vail said.
Why did Richard Vail invite a homeless woman to live with him, rent-free? “Because that’s the type of person he was,” James Vail said. “He was selfless.” So selfless, he said, that the woman slept in his brother’s bed while Richard Vail took the floor.
James Vail said that his brother didn’t pester his roommate about her identity or possible family. In the last several weeks before she died, Richard Vail told his brother that the woman was sick, but James Vail said he didn’t know the extent of her illness.
Richard Vail died in February of natural causes. He was 76.
Three months after Vail died, police sent out a statement asking for the public’s help in identifying the woman. They provided details about when she was found, and they asked for anyone with information about her or how she died to come forward. Police said that the woman had no identification and no mail, prescriptions or other paperwork that could identify her.
Like other departments, they keep looking for answers.
“We would love to connect a family to a victim,” Loudoun County Detective Steve Schochet said. “I think when you’re in homicide, you’re always thinking of victims and their families.”