Twenty-four years ago today, an assailant walked into a country store, 25 miles north of Washington.
What happened next, at least in broad outlines, detectives have long known.
James Kweku Essel, the friendly 57-year-old store owner who had traded in his banking career for the peace and quiet of running the Sugarloaf Mountain Market, rang up a small sale. The person standing before him demanded money. At some point — either before Essel handed over money or after the assailant attacked, Essel tried to fight back. He was stabbed more than 20 times and died near his front counter.
What police have never known is who did it.
On Tuesday, officials are expected to announce that they have reopened the case and appeal to the public for help. They say that detectives have DNA evidence, believed to have come from the killer, who was injured during the murder.
“Somebody out there knows who did this,” said Montgomery County Det. Mark Janney, who works on cold cases.
Among the new clues released: Janney said he believes the killer, likely a man, smoked Marlboro or Marlboro Lights. The suspect pulled up in a black Pontiac Fiero that he backedinto a space on the left side of the store — in the community of Comus, about three miles west of Interstate-270.
Janney thinks the man entered the store after 5:30 p.m. — it was a Sunday, March 22, 1992 — and based on cash-register records, bought items from Essel at 5:39 p.m.
Detectives never found the murder weapon but believe it was a medium, smooth-bladed knife, Janney said. A wine bottle — Essel sold wine and beer — also was used. When Essel fought back, the attacker received a cut, likely on his hand. He left blood on a cash-register drawer and on the floor.
A customer who came into the store around 6 p.m. found Essel’s body.
Essel immigrated to the United States from Ghana and had seven children. He was popular among regular shoppers, who would stop by for groceries and conversation. Janney said he thinks the killer knew the area and Essel’s closing time.
“Clearly, it was somebody who’d done some casing of the store,” he said.
The night Essel was killed, word spread among his family members. One called his oldest daughter, Evangeline Raphael, and told her that her father had been stabbed.
“What hospital is he at?” she remembers asking.
“No, you don’t understand,” her brother said. “He’s gone.”
Raphael, in an interview Monday, said her parents came to the United States around 1959, and they opened an African restaurant called Warababa on Kennedy Street NW in the District. Essel also held branch-manager positions at banks in Washington.
After he retired from banking, Essel wanted theserenity he’d had as a child growing up near the ocean in Ghana. He purchased the store in the small community.
Raphael said she often worked there, too. Her father sometimes extended credit to his customers. Friends called him James, Jim or Kweku.
“He loved people,” she said. “He loved talking to people.”
Essel’s gentle spirit is evident from news coverage 24 years ago, including comments from customers after the murder.
“He was a kind man, the nicest man,” Anne Hurwitz told The Washington Post at the time.
Cards were left at the store. “You weren’t just a friend, you were family,” someone wrote. “We loved you.”
On March 22, 1992, Raphael was supposed to work at the store.
But she didn’t feel well, it was snowing, and she called her father to say she wasn’t coming in.
“So many people depended on my dad,” she said. “I wish I was there. I was very close to my dad.”
She said her 24 years of grief have been intensified by the case remaining unsolved.
Her father had instructed her when she was working the store alone toturn over money if there were a robbery. “It’s not worth your life,” he had said.
Janney, the detective, said investigators submitted the DNA profile to national databases of convicted felons but didn’t get a match. He thinks the killer is still out there and said that all detectives need is a name, even if it comes through an anonymous tip.
The nature of the crime suggests that the killer may have had a drug problem and wanted cash fast, Janney said. And afterward, showed up somewhere with a fresh cut, likely on a hand.
“This is a case where the DNA would speak for itself,” Janney said.
Police are asking anyone with information about this case to contact Det. Mark Janney, of the Cold Case Unit, at 240-773-5091, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.