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  In Month-Long Mystery, Hope Survives

By Maria Elena Fernandez and John W. Fountain
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 10, 1999; Page B03

Joyce Chiang needed to be home by 9 p.m. to call a friend in San Francisco to wish him well on an acting performance – the kind of across-the-miles attention Chiang's friends were used to getting from her.

But, first, the Immigration and Naturalization Service lawyer needed a hot cup of tea. The temperature had dropped to 24 degrees since she left the apartment she shared with her younger brother that morning. Chiang craved something warm to sip.

So she asked a girlfriend, with whom she had just had dinner, to drop her off at Connecticut Avenue and R Street NW, across the street from Starbucks. Chiang's petite frame was covered by her hooded, thigh-length, green suede coat. Around her neck was a red paisley scarf; a black scarf was layered over the hood of her coat.

At 8:20 p.m., she exited her friend's car and started across the intersection surrounded by bustling restaurants, two coffee shops, a church and a movie theater. She planned to buy her tea and walk the five blocks to her home.

That was Jan. 9. No one has seen the 28-year-old woman since.

"We're still hopeful that she's alive and out there and will return home safely," said Roger Chiang, 26, the missing woman's younger brother and roommate. " . . . In my heart, I truly believe she's out there."

Chiang's family and friends rally every Saturday night by the Dupont Circle fountain to pray for her safe return. The case is equally frustrating to FBI and D.C. police investigators, who found some of her belongings on Jan. 21 but have not been able to trace her whereabouts.

On Monday, the FBI got an "encouraging" boost when forensic tests on Chiang's coat, keys and several identification cards yielded "additional leads in this matter," said FBI spokeswoman Susan Lloyd. Sources close to the investigation said the evidence consists of hairs and fibers that investigators hope will help them focus on suspects.

Investigators collected fiber samples from Roger Chiang's carpet on Monday and asked for his home and cellular telephone carriers, he said. Roger Chiang also agreed to take a polygraph test at the FBI yesterday because "I want them to go through the motions and quickly rule me out so I can be more cooperative. I'm being as cooperative as I can, but I think I can be helpful if they communicate a little bit more with the family."

Roger Chiang, who said he does not believe he is being treated as a suspect, said his polygraph test was "inconclusive."

"They feel I am not focused enough," he said. " . . . The FBI does not have any true suspects at this time."

The FBI would not disclose whether it has any leads on suspects, Lloyd said.

"The leads that we have gotten have produced very little," Lloyd said. "We have not ruled out any theory, nor do we have a theory that we're relying on more heavily."

Jan. 9 had been a productive and ordinary Saturday for Chiang. She stopped by the office to finish some work before heading to Pentagon City to run errands at the mall.

At 4 p.m., she met a friend, Patty First, a lawyer at the Department of Justice, and a co-worker for coffee at Xando, also at Connecticut Avenue and R Street. There, the three women caught up with each other's lives over coffee and peanut butter cookies.

"She was tired because she had had a long week and had been sick over Christmas," First said. "But she was still Joyce: funny and a little zany. It was so cold that day. She had her hood up and the drawstrings really tight around her face. She's so small and slight. She looked so cute."

Chiang and their other friend, who declined to be interviewed, took First home before heading to a theater to see "A Civil Action." After the movie, the two women had dinner; then Chiang was dropped off at the intersection that now has become a memorial of sorts to the missing woman.

For the past month, Chiang's colleagues have spent their weekends posting fliers with her photograph all over Northwest Washington. Wearing yellow ribbons as a sign of solidarity and concern, Chiang's colleagues also rose with the sun yesterday morning to flood Metro stations across the city with the fliers.

"It's just maddening," said Ruth E. Tintary, 32, a congressional liaison specialist at the INS. "You just don't know. You don't want to grieve because that means you gave up hope. You don't want to give up hope because the alternative is too awful. You just can't believe it's happening to someone you know and love."

Even people who never met Chiang say it is impossible to overlook the pretty, smiling woman in the haunting fliers that blanket the city. People she never knew now refer to her by her first name. Strangers want answers.

"There's something about that smile in her photograph – she looks like somebody who could be your friend," said Josh Rolnick, 28, who lives in the 1900 block of Connecticut Avenue NW. "It's become a very personal thing. You can't walk past that corner without thinking of her, and you can't walk anywhere in this area without seeing her face. Everybody knows Joyce even if they never met her."

By far, friends said, Jan. 21 was the toughest day for Chiang's family and for them. Chiang's coat, keys and two identification cards were found in a secluded, grassy area near the north gate of the Anacostia Naval Station just south of Anacostia Park. Sources said later that the belongings appeared to have been deliberately placed there.

Nearby, police also found Chiang's government access card, wrapped in a Jan. 11 newspaper, sources said. Her coat had a tear in the back, sources said.

"It was so tough," said First, one of several people called to identify Chiang's coat. "For the first two weeks, this whole thing seemed to be happening in a parallel twilight zone universe. It didn't seem real. Then, that day, very quickly, it became real."

By all accounts, Chiang is a vivacious, intelligent woman who made friends everywhere she went and knew how to keep them. She grew up in suburban Chicago, graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in 1992 and received her law degree at Georgetown University law school in 1995.

"I think about this every day, over and over again," said Barbara Strack, a special assistant in the INS policy office. "I drive near her house, I walk past her office, I see her nameplate. I put on the earrings that she gave me for a Christmas present. There's still a sense that it's unbelievable that she is not going to come walking down that hall, smiling and laughing. We just need to know what happened."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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