The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Skeletal remains found in Southeast D.C. neighborhood unnerve residents

The skeletal remains of three females were discovered behind an apartment building in Southeast D.C., police confirmed on April 28. (Video: WUSA9)
Placeholder while article actions load

The woods behind Toia King’s house in Southeast Washington, once a playground for her children to hike, collect sticks and build forts, have become a scary place.

Now, the area is roped off by hundreds of feet of yellow crime-scene tape tied to tree limbs and stakes pounded into the dirt, marking where D.C. police over the past four days found the skeletal remains of two females, along with a third set inside a crawl space of an apartment building.

This residential neighborhood of apartments and single-family homes where Wayne Place meets Mississippi Avenue in Congress Heights, a half-mile from the Anacostia Freeway, is now a macabre crime scene that on Saturday was crowded with authorities in windbreakers with “homicide” and “forensic investigator” stitched on the backs.

On Sunday, two police cruisers guarded the scene — quieter, but no less discomforting.

“Nobody knows what’s going on,” said King, who works for the District’s Public Works Department and has lived in her house since 2006. Her concerns echoed the fears and chatter of her neighbors. The bodies, she said, “could have been there for years.”

The first set of remains was found Wednesday by construction workers renovating a ground-floor apartment in the 100 block of Wayne Place SE. Andrea Stephens, 47, a nurse who rents the apartment, said contractors were working to fix several problems when they found the skull in a basement crawl space. Police then found the rest of the remains, also in the crawl space.

“It just unfolded from there,” said Stephens, who has lived in the building for about a year. “I’m living there for now,” she said, “but I’m going to figure something out. It’s creepy. I don’t really want to be there.”

On Saturday, authorities recovered two more sets of remains in the back woods.

Police find skeletal remains of three females in Southeast Washington

It’s now the job of the medical examiner to try to identify the remains, their age, how long the victims have been dead and the cause of death. LaShon Beamon, spokeswoman for the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said police and forensic investigators will be back on the scene Monday searching for additional clues.

Beamon would not say whether­ officials are looking for more bodies. D.C. police, who did not respond to requests for comment Sunday, have not said whether any other evidence, such as clothing or personal items, was discovered.

Roger Mitchell Jr., the District’s chief medical examiner, said authorities have to painstakingly examine the grounds to make sure all the skeletal remains are recovered. He said the agency’s forensic anthropologist, Jennifer Love, will clean the bones and try to assemble each of the skeletons.

“Then we will make an evaluation of what we can say or determine — age, race, gender and whether there is evidence of disease or injury,” he said.

Mitchell said the process “can take some time,” adding: “We are working diligently to get it done as fast as we can. . . . We understand the community’s interests and concerns.”

District’s forensic anthropologist is expert on bones and identifying the dead

The remains were found in Ward 8, an area of the District that has been struggling with crime. Of the 42 homicides this year, 21 have occurred there, helping push the number of killings across the city up 17 percent over last year.

Without facts from police, residents speculated Sunday on whom the remains might belong to. Some mentioned the possibility of finally finding Relisha Rudd, who was 8 years old when she went missing in 2014 from the homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, where she had been living with her family.

Mary J. Cuthbert, who chairs the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the neighborhood where the remains were found, mentioned the notorious and still-at-large serial killer called the Freeway Phantom. Police say he killed six girls and young women ages 10 through 18 over 16 months starting in 1971. The victims were raped and strangled, their bodies left along or near busy roads and highways in the District and Maryland.

“We had a lot of homicides and a lot of young ladies missing,” Cuthbert said.

But James Trainum, a retired D.C. homicide detective who reinvestigated the Freeway Phantom case in the mid-2000s, said Sunday that the killer nearly 50 years ago “was pretty much dumping the victims out in the open, in places where they were bound to be discovered.” These latest remains were all hidden.

Still, Trainum said his ears perked up when he heard about the discoveries. Finding three sets of remains in one place, he said, “is very much a rarity around here.” He likened the investigation to an “archaeology expedition.”

Police will cull the files of missing-person cases, although they will be able to narrow their search once the medical examiner determines how long the remains were buried and how long ago the victims died.

D.C. police close most of their missing-person cases.

Of 970 people reported missing this year, all but 31 have been found. In many of the unclosed cases, the investigations are in their early stages. Between 2012 and 2017, police found all but nine of the 16,997 people reported missing in the District.