When the man charged with killing Pamela Butler appeared in D.C. Superior Court for the first time after his arrest this month, his defense attorney questioned whether prosecutors could even prove a crime occurred.
Butler, a 47-year-old computer analyst from Northwest Washington, disappeared shortly before Valentine’s Day 2009. Authorities insist that Jose Rodriguez-Cruz, Butler’s then-boyfriend, killed her in a jealous rage. But because Butler’s body has never been found, Rodriguez-Cruz’s attorney argued, there is no evidence of a murder — let alone evidence that proves her client is a killer.
“There is insufficient evidence that Ms. Butler is deceased or, if deceased, that her death is the result of a murder or that Mr. Cruz is the perpetrator,” Judith Pipe, of the District’s Public Defender Service, argued at an April 10 hearing.
It was an argument judges in the District have heard before in those rare murder cases in which the victim’s body has never been found. In the nation’s capital, there have been four such cases that have gone to trial, the first dating to 1984, according to prosecutors who track them.
But no-body cases, as they are called, are not that uncommon. In Maryland, Montgomery County prosecutors secured convictions in two high-profile no-body murder cases — the killings of Lisa Tu, 42, in 1988 and Michele Dorr, 6, in 1986. In a no-body case in Northern Virginia, a federal jury in Alexandria convicted a former naval intelligence officer in 2006 in the death of his wife, Doris Lentz.
Montgomery detectives also have alleged that two sisters missing from Wheaton since 1975 — Sheila Lyon, 12, and Katherine Lyon, 10 — were killed, even though their bodies have never been found. A suspect in that case, Lloyd Welch, faces trial this year on murder charges in Bedford County, Va., where the girls’ bodies were believed to have been taken and possibly burned.
In the District, authorities believe that 8-year-old Relisha Rudd is dead after she vanished in 2014. But that case is unlikely to ever end up in court, as the suspect in her disappearance, a janitor at the homeless shelter where Relisha stayed, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Without a body, prosecutors lack a key witness during trial, the medical examiner. The medical examiner often gives the narrative of the person’s death, detailing the cause, time and specifics.
“They are difficult. With a no-body case, you don’t have the essential piece of evidence,” said former D.C. prosecutor Tad DiBiase, author of the book “No-Body Homicide Cases: A Practical Guide to Investigating, Prosecuting, and Winning Cases When the Victim is Missing.”
When prosecutors do decide to file charges in such cases, DiBiase said, it often means they have collected a significant amount of evidence. That can include witness statements, DNA or statements from other defendants.
Since the early 1800s, about 480 no-body cases have gone to trial. Of those cases, about 89 percent resulted in convictions, DiBiase said.
Of the four cases tried in the District, all four resulted in convictions, DiBiase said.
The most recent case involved the death of 18-year-old Latisha Frazier of Southeast Washington in 2010. Prosecutors argued that Frazier was brutally beaten by a group of teens, who then discarded her body in a dumpster. Her body was never recovered and authorities believe that it was dumped in a Virginia landfill.
Six people pleaded guilty in the case. One defendant, then-17-year-old Johnnie Sweet, was charged as an adult and pleaded not guilty. After a trial, a jury found Sweet guilty of orchestrating Frazier’s death. He was sentenced to 52 years in prison.
Former D.C. prosecutor Chris Kavanaugh, now a federal prosecutor in Virginia, said as long as other evidence in the case is strong, jurors today are pretty “sophisticated” and realize a murder suspect may dispose of a body in an effort to avoid charges.
But Kavanaugh said other pieces of evidence have to be strong, such as proving a motive, uncovering a false alibi or showing a history of violence.
“Jurors understand when evidence is missing . . . such as a murder weapon in a case, that the person on trial is responsible for the evidence being missing,” he said.
During Sweet’s trial, prosecutors had the advantage of the account of a co-defendant. That witness, a 19-year-old woman, told the jury how she and her friends beat, kicked and choked Frazier to death on Sweet’s orders because he believed Frazier had stolen money from him.
There are no co-defendants in the Butler case. But authorities say there is ample circumstantial evidence as well as a history of violence.
Butler, who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, had surveillance cameras installed outside her home. The cameras showed Rodriguez-Cruz in and out of the house in the days after Feb. 13, 2009, several times carrying trash bags and once cleaning supplies. He told police that he was removing personal items after he and Butler had broken up.
Though police did not find evidence of blood or a weapon inside the house, they said that parts of the house were in disarray and that Butler’s bedsheets and blanket were missing.
During the initial hearing for Rodriguez-Cruz, prosecutor Deborah Sines noted that Butler had been declared dead after years without contact with her family.
Sines said Butler was abused during her relationship with Rodriguez-Cruz. Sines said the defendant had also abused other women and may also be responsible for the disappearance of his first wife in 1989.
Past evidence of abuse, particularly in domestic relationships, often is key in no-body cases, DiBiase said. The majority of such cases, he said, are the result of domestic violence involving a parent killing a child or a boyfriend or husband killing a partner.
DiBiase said assailants in those cases often believe authorities will view them as the primary suspect and then decide that if there is no body, it would be more difficult to make an arrest.
In 2010, a D.C. Superior Court jury found Terrence Barnett, then 45, guilty of second-degree murder in the 1999 disappearance of girlfriend Yolanda Baker after prosecutors argued that Barnett had a history of abusing Baker. Baker was officially declared dead in 2009, 10 years after she was last seen leaving her Northeast Washington home. Her body has not been found.
Defense attorney Nikki Lotze, who represented Barnett in the trial, said not having a body is a “glaring” piece of missing evidence because it “sets the scene of the crime.” Lotze said that for prosecutors who don’t have any witnesses to a crime, persuading a judge to admit details about a suspect’s past is not a guarantee.
Lotze was not surprised to hear that Rodriguez-Cruz’s attorney immediately argued that there was no proof of Butler’s death.
“By arguing there is no body, a defense attorney is doing their job and pointing out the absence of evidence,” she said.