Police on Wednesday said that three sets of skeletal remains found buried in Southeast Washington in April are of women who disappeared in 2006, a crucial step toward resolving a gruesome and puzzling discovery.
They were identified as Jewel Marquita King, 48; Verdell Jefferson, 41; and Dorothy Jean Butts, 43. Authorities said all three disappeared from locations near where their remains were found. Two had been fatally shot, the other beaten to death.
Giving the remains identities is the first step in what could be an investigation complicated by time. Detectives now turn to finding who killed the women more than a decade ago.
“There are no persons of interest at this point,” D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said.
Construction workers enlarging a crawl space in the basement of an apartment building on Wayne Place in Congress Heights found the first set of remains — now identified as Butts — on April 25. Two other sets — of Jefferson and King — were found a short time later sharing a single shallow grave in woods behind the red brick building.
King had been shot; Jefferson was bludgeoned. Newsham said investigators believe those two women may have “died as a result of one suspect or one circumstance” because they were buried together and disappeared near each other. Butts had been shot.
The chief left open the possibility of a serial killer, saying at the news conference Wednesday, “We would always consider that to be a potential in this case.”
But Newsham said the investigation, which was difficult to pursue before the bodies were identified, is in an early stage. “There’s still a tremendous amount of work ahead to find the person or persons that were responsible for these murders,” he said.
Newsham said detectives are trying to determine if there were any connections among the three and whether they had common acquaintances — of if they knew one another.
The remains were identified after a painstaking investigation that took months. Jennifer Love, a forensic anthropologist with the D.C. medical examiner’s office, said she created a “biographical profile” of each victim.
She said she determined that each was a woman, age 35 to 45. She was also able to generally describe the physical stature of each woman and about how long ago (albeit a wide range) each of them died. These profiles were turned over to D.C. police.
Newsham said investigators compared the descriptive information in Love’s profiles with descriptive information in the case files of D.C. women who disappeared in the wide time frame cited by Love.
He said police checked missing-persons files in the D.C. police department and in the federal National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUs) database. As a result, he said, investigators narrowed the field of candidates to eight women.
Detectives tracked down immediate relatives of the eight women and got DNA samples from them. The samples were sent to an FBI lab, where technicians compared the samples with DNA from the three sets of remains. From that group of eight women, the remains found on Wayne Place were positively identified, Newsham said.
Relatives for Butts could not be reached Wednesday; relatives of Jefferson and King said they did not want to speak publicly at this time.
King was last seen alive April 7, 2006, on Galveston Street in Southwest and was reported missing by her mother six days later. Jefferson was last seen alive May 1, 2006, on Wayne Place, where she lived, and was reported missing by her mother on Aug. 1, 2006 — three months later. Butts disappeared from Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE while going to a store Christmas Day 2006 and was reported missing by her sister that same day.
The macabre discovery of the remains in April had rattled residents, who watched for days as police, forensics experts and cadaver dogs combed through the basement of the building and in the expansive woods nearby, where many neighborhood children play.
Adan Escobar, a 42-year-old construction worker who uncovered the remains and took photographs, said at the time that “there were no clothes, no hair, no weapons. Nothing but bones.”
Police recovered the remains and then began their more extensive search out back — a large green yard bordered by thick woods that filled a triangular wedge surrounded by homes along Mississippi Avenue, First Street and Wayne Place. Dogs helped police uncover the shallow grave containing two more sets of skeletons. Police later determined all were women.
As police and forensics experts worked to identify and date the remains, police sought families of missing women. In addition to developing the eight genetic profiles submitted to the FBI, police held an open house for families to come in, provide DNA samples and talk to detectives about their missing loved ones.
Anthony Blalock and his aunt, Gwendolyn Bell, were among the families hoping the remains could bring answers. Blalock’s mother, Barbara Jean Dreher, disappeared in 1984 from an area close to Wayne Place. They had provided police with DNA samples a number of years ago.
Bell, Dreher’s sister, told The Washington Post in June that the remains might be the family’s last chance at knowing what happened. Police have long believed Dreher was killed, but the homicide file and evidence disappeared from the department many years ago.
On Wednesday, when police listed the names of the victims from Wayne Place, Barbara Dreher was not among them.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.