The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 1984 she went missing. Could the skeletal remains found in a D.C. apartment crawl space in April belong to this mother?

Gwendolyn Bell, 75, left, sister of Barbara Jean Dreher, a public school secretary who went missing from the District in the summer of 1984, and Anthony Blalock, 56, her nephew, who is Dreher's son, talk about Dreher at Bell's family home in Accokeek, Md., June 3. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Anthony Blalock had not seen his mother in two weeks when he spotted her burgundy Oldsmobile. It was on a street in Southwest Washington. A man he didn’t know was driving it.

It was 1984, and Barbara Jean Dreher was missing. Blalock, then 23, followed the car as it pulled up to an apartment building and watched the man go inside. He asked a friend riding with him to stay behind as he rushed to a nearby home and called police.

The police found some disturbing clues: a ski mask, rope and gloves in the trunk of the Oldsmobile. They questioned the man but did not file charges. There was no sign of 39-year-old Dreher then, and there has been none since.

For more than three decades, the disappearance of the mother of five has left her family in a kind of emotional limbo. At first, hopeful she would come home, relatives celebrated Dreher’s birthdays with a family gathering and a cake, though they used no candles. Eventually some began to accept Dreher as dead, but to others that felt like giving up on their loved one.

Blalock, who became a father himself, then a grandfather, eventually became resigned to the idea he would never know his mother’s fate.

Then, this spring, a D.C. detective reached out after a construction crew discovered skeletal remains of a woman in an apartment building crawl space in Southeast. During a search, police found the remains of two more women in a shallow grave behind the building. At least two were African American. Two had been shot, the other beaten.

Authorities are now using DNA comparisons to try to determine the victims’ identities, and Dreher’s case is one they are looking at. The remains were found less than a mile from the apartment complex where Blalock had followed his mother’s car.

Skeletal remains found in Southeast D.C. unnerve residents

D.C. police investigate thousands of missing-person cases each year, but most people return home or are soon found. Of the nearly 24,000 people reporting missing since 2012, 99 percent of the cases have been solved.

But some families endure years with no answers. The Cold Case squad, which takes on old, hard-to-solve cases, is investigating 18 missing person cases since 1983, among them the disappearance of Barbara Dreher.

Now, her son is waiting for an answer he’s not sure he wants to hear.

“I want closure, but I don’t want her body to be one of those bodies under that damn ground,” Blalock said. “I’m just saying, I don’t want her to have died like that, under some damn building.”

At first, nobody was alarmed

Dreher grew up with her sister and two brothers on Kenilworth Avenue, in the Parkside neighborhood of Northeast Washington. Their parents were estranged and they were largely raised by their grandparents. Early recollections were of neighborhood schools and apple and pear trees in the back yard.

“It was sort of like the country part of D.C.,” recalled Dreher’s sister, Gwendolyn Bell. “Some people had chickens. It was fun.”

Police seek DNA to help identify remains

Bell married, had children and went on to work dispatching emergency calls for D.C. police. Dreher worked for over a decade in a secretarial job at Moten Elementary School in Southeast.

The evening of Aug. 12, 1984, Dreher dropped off her 6- and 9-year-old sons with her older daughter. She said she would return soon, but didn’t.

At first nobody was alarmed. Dreher was separated from her husband, but often visited him at his Hillcrest Heights home, sometimes staying for days.

After nine days without word, though, Blalock tried to track his mother down. He called her husband, who said she had not come to his house. Blalock reported his mother missing to police. Officers assigned the case number 84-411927.

A few weeks later, he saw her Oldsmobile.

Relatives believe police did not initially take the case seriously. In 1984, the drug of choice in the city was PCP and, while overall crime was down, homicides in the District were edging upward.

The family learned only later that the man in Dreher’s car had recently been released from prison, where he had served time in the killings of two people. While Blalock did not recognize the man, it is possible he knew the family. Police told Bell that the man had worked in maintenance for D.C. public schools. Dreher’s husband was a maintenance supervisor in the school system.

Bell said it was hard to go to work at police headquarters. The detectives, she said, “were not doing what they were supposed to be doing, and every time I would see them and tell them something, they would not check it out.”

The man in the car

In 2007, James L. Trainum, a 17-year veteran of the D.C. police homicide squad, tried to help the family. The now-retired detective had been assigned to organize a messy filing system. He pulled together case files of murders and missing persons, hoping to force new attention on forgotten cases.

Trainum spent hours trying to find the file on Dreher’s disappearance. He went to the 7th District station and plowed through records, looking for references to a rope and a ski mask. “Nobody entered the property into the books,” Trainum said. His search turned up nothing.

Dreher’s family believe that had police retained the evidence, it’s possible today’s advances in technology would provide a vital DNA link or other clues linking the disappearance to the man Blalock had chased down. They worry that any chances at criminal charges might have been squandered.

“How do you just throw away the mask, the rope?” said Bell. “How do you throw all that stuff away when someone is missing?”

A D.C. police spokesman confirmed the original file and missing persons report was lost but did not offer an explanation. Detectives have restarted the file and written a new report, reviving the 1984 tracking number. The spokesman, Dustin Sternbeck, said only: “No additional updates are available at this time.”

Trainum believes the evidence police had back in 1984 warranted an intense investigation of the man Blalock had found with his mother’s car, who also had her car keys with a blue canister of mace attached.

The man also had a violent record. When he was 18, he had pleaded guilty to killing a 23-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl in Southwest Washington, but was spared a lengthy prison sentence because he cooperated with prosecutors. Both were repeatedly stabbed by four men who took turns stabbing the victims. The girl was raped by three of the men before she was killed.

A year after Dreher vanished, police charged him with abducting a woman from a bus stop in Northeast and raping her in his apartment. Those charges were later dismissed.

“I don’t think they should have let him go so easily, especially with his record,” Trainum said. “Nobody connected the dots. Nobody said, ‘Here’s a guy with the missing woman’s car. Let’s check his background.’ It would be doing the bare minimum.”

A final chance

Over time, the celebration held on Dreher’s birthday turned into an annual family cookout. Bell raised her sister’s children; two of whom died over the years.

Blalock, who works in the federal government, said his mother’s disappearance weighs on him but “as time goes on, you have to keep moving on.”

He remembers her as devoted to her children but a strict disciplinarian. Once, he recalled, she scolded him for his dirty clothes by cutting his pants into shorts, leaving him only one pair. The punishment was short lived. She promptly took him shopping.

Blalock said he knows his mother didn’t run off. “As much as she had done for us, there is no way she would have left us,” he said.

Missing woman’s picture added to playing cards used by inmates

He still can recite the license plate number of his mother’s Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. And he has never returned to the apartment building where he last saw the car.

Mementos, too, have been lost to the family. Police who initially investigated the disappearance also took Dreher’s personal items for evidence — her diary, letters and photos, the family said. Now they’re gone, apparently purged by the department clearing space for more pressing cases.

In 2009, the D.C. jail put Dreher’s photo story on the back of playing cards distributed to inmates, hoping to catch a break in the case. She was the King of Hearts. No tips came in.

Bell said she felt particularly close to Dreher because they were close in age. Two of their brothers have died; she is the only sibling left.

Without knowing for sure whether Dreher is dead or alive, Bell said, she cannot mourn her sister.

“What if she comes back?” said Bell, who is 75. “Having a funeral or any type of closure like that would not be appropriate.”

The bones may be the last chance for the family to learn what happened.

“Those bodies,” Bell said, her voice trailing off. “They make me think about her.”

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