The retired World Bank economist and his wife found a refuge in their large home on an idyllic bend of the Potomac. Johan de Leede, 83, tended flowers, took grandchildren out on the river in a flotilla of little boats and sparred with guests over politics around a crackling fire.
De Leede was happiest when the house was full, and so it was one night last March when a gunman crept up behind the residence in Fairfax County, his family said. De Leede sat drinking a warm milk and eating a banana in front of the TV in his living room.
While his wife and her relatives slept in nearby bedrooms, the gunman unleashed a barrage of gunfire, hitting de Leede multiple times in the back just after 1 a.m., the family said. De Leede later died, and his killer slipped into the night.
Nearly 11 months later, the de Leede family said in their first public comments about the killing that it makes no more sense today than it did that night. Who would target an elderly man quietly living out his golden years? They hope speaking out can help crack the case.
The circumstances have made the slaying of the avid outdoorsman and civic activist one of the most mysterious in the D.C. area. Fairfax County police revealed this month that a pickup truck was seen leaving the neighborhood near de Leede’s home on River Drive in Lorton on the night of the killing and asked that anyone with information come forward.
De Leede’s slaying would be tragic under any circumstances, but the family said the lack of answers has lent it a special cruelty.
Liesbeth de Leede, 78, who was married to Johan for 56 years, described herself as “lost” in a note to The Washington Post. She said she was too distraught to sit for an interview, but her daughter-in-law did agree to speak for the family.
The de Leedes said the home that was the center of the family’s life, where Johan de Leede joyfully tripped over his grandchildren’s toys and they warmly shared large gatherings at Christmas, has become a place of mourning.
“I do not feel at home,” Liesbeth de Leede wrote. “The last thing Johan would have ever imagined is to die in this way in a house he loved so much.”
The de Leede’s residence sits in an upscale neighborhood of $1 million homes on the Mason Neck peninsula, which is about 45 minutes south of the District but feels much farther away because of its bucolic beauty. The home has views of the river, which laps at the back yard.
Johan and Liesbeth were born in the Netherlands and emigrated to the United States in 1970, when he got a job at the World Bank. De Leede spent 25 years working on improving economic infrastructure in Sudan and other African countries before retiring. He helped spearhead the Mason Neck Trail project in the area. He had four children and eight grandchildren.
The night of the killing unfolded with little indication of the trouble to come, said Susie Paul-de Leede, de Leede’s daughter-in-law. On March 10, de Leede and his wife were hosting her siblings, who were visiting from abroad.
The couple and the three houseguests had a lively dinner that night, before everyone except Johan de Leede turned in about 11:30 p.m., Paul-de Leede said. Shortly after 1 a.m., Liesbeth de Leede wrote she was awoke by the sound of gunfire.
At first, Liesbeth thought the shots had come from a program her husband was watching on TV. She found de Leede lying on the floor. She thought he had fallen.
But in the minutes that followed, Liesbeth noticed broken glass and blinds. She realized with growing alarm that Johan had been shot.
The family said it appears de Leede was sitting in a chair in the living room when he was struck by the bullets. They said it appeared the shooter remained outside and fired through a back window of the house.
Paul-de Leede said the family believes de Leede then staggered out of the chair and fell. Johan was hit in the back three or four times, and other bullets were discovered in the home, Paul-de Leede said.
The slaying touched off a massive search for the assailant. Fairfax County police combed the property and surrounding areas with dogs and a helicopter, but the perpetrator was never located.
The de Leede family was in shock as the story played out on the local news the next morning. The family had watched countless news reports about murders, but now they were the ones featured.
“On the banner at the bottom of the screen was his name,” Paul-de Leede said of her father-in-law. “It’s just surreal. The phone starts ringing, and people are checking in to see if it’s true.”
That day, Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. appealed for the public’s help, calling the case a “true mystery.” In the months that followed, police canvassed the neighborhood, set up a checkpoint, put divers in the river and filed a search warrant for cellphone numbers that had pinged a nearby tower on the night of the killing.
Second Lt. Ron Haugsdahl of the Fairfax County police homicide unit said police have yet to discover a suspect or motive, despite ongoing efforts. He renewed the chief’s call for assistance, mentioning the public could provide tips anonymously via the CrimeStoppers program.
“As far as active suspects, we still do need the public’s help,” Haugsdahl said. “Mainly, it’s because we haven’t had any breaks in the case to link evidence we’ve found at the scene to a suspect.”
Haugsdahl declined to discuss the evidence, saying it might jeopardize the probe. He did say a neighbor saw a dark, full-size pickup truck leaving the area quickly with its lights off on the night of the shooting. He said it remains unclear whether the truck is tied to the crime.
Haugsdahl said police are also still working to unravel another mystery about the case: Did the killer arrive at the scene by land or water? They haven’t been able to arrive at a definitive answer.
Like the police, the de Leede family has spent months turning over the killing in their minds. Paul-de Leede said they have failed to find any enemies, financial issues or feuds in de Leede’s past that might have led him to be targeted. That has left them apprehensive: Could the perpetrator strike again?
Despite the fears, Paul-de Leede said their lives have begun to settle into a new normal. They try to remember de Leede as he lived, not as he died, for the benefit of the grandchildren. The family is working to reclaim the house they love so much.
Still, finding the killer would bring some sense of closure.
The week after de Leede’s slaying, the family held a memorial service attended by mourners who came from as far as Europe and Japan. Paul-de Leede said each mourner dropped a flower in the river that de Leede loved so much.
“You are altered,” Paul-de Leede said of the killing. “Maybe you don’t see things as nicely as before. Our bubble has been burst.”