A 24-year-old woman lies naked on the ground behind a schoolhouse, raped and shot. Folded beside her slight and still body is her clothing; a red sweater, matching tennis shoes, a pair of acid washed jeans and her denim jacket.
This was the scene two men found as they rode motorcycles past McKinley Elementary School at 2 a.m. on warm, spring night in May, 1988. It marks the beginning of a trail of evidence that has led Arlington investigators first into the Fairfax County and later to the metallic shell of stripped car on the streets of Queens, New York. Yet after 16 years, the identity of this woman’s killer remains a mystery to this day. Her name is Veronica Lynn Jefferson and her case is cold.
On the day of her murder, Jefferson traveled to visit her cousin in Maryland and on her way home that night, she stopped to buy groceries at a Giant supermarket near Bailey's Crossroads, according to Lt. Ray Harp, then an investigator with Arlington's Special Victims Unit. Shortly after the discovery of her body, an elderly couple would tell police they'd spotted her in the store around 9:30 p.m., engaged in a friendly chat with a tall, black man who left with her as she walked out to her car. That same car — a red, 1986 Chevy Camero — was later followed by an off-duty police officer after it scraped against a curb at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Carlin Springs Road. He called the dispatcher, believing that he was tailing a drunk driver, but stopped following when the car stopped. A young, black woman stepped out and began talking to the driver.
Less than an hour afterwards, people on the streets nearby heard a woman screaming. Later, Jefferson's car was discovered back in the Giant's parking lot, her receipt still inside along with her groceries.
Police have since conducted hundreds of interviews over the years and Harp has seen numerous potential suspects come and go, most cleared by blood evidence.
A forensic analysis of semen samples found with her body confirmed that Jefferson's killer was a black male. The elderly couple helped police to create a composite sketch that was circulated nationwide, the only face anyone has given him.
"For years, we've worked this case with the idea that she was killed by somebody she knew," Harp said. "But the possibilities are now much wider than we'd thought."
Seven months later, a young couple finished a night-cap at Mr. Days, a bar on 18th Street in Washington, D.C., and left to drive home. That same night, a motorist on Hunter's Mill Road in Fairfax County caught sight of a man and a woman walking into the woods with a black male. It was the last time anyone would see Rachel Raver and Warren Fulton alive other than the man who killed them. Two days passed before the caretaker of a nearby property discovered their bodies in field and called police.
According to Fairfax homicide detective Bob Murphey, both had sustained gunshot wounds to the upper body and, like in the Jefferson case, Raver was raped. But at the time, neither Arlington investigators nor those in Fairfax had any reason to suspect a connection between the two cases.
Fairfax County police began searching for one crucial piece of missing evidence, Raver's 1980 Toyota, the car she and Fulton had driven the night of their murders. It was nowhere to be found. The year ended and two months passed before Raver's mother got a notice in the mail from the New York City Police Department warning of possible penalties if Rachel didn't pay a past due parking ticket in Queens. Fairfax investigators headed to New York, hoping the car might hold further clues but someone else had gotten to it first.
"It had been completely stripped," Murphey said. "That car was driven to the Jamaica section of Queens, we think, shortly after the murders and dumped. It had sat out on the street since February."
The investigations into the Jefferson murder and the killings in Fairfax County might have ended in 1988 were it not for breakthroughs in forensic science that would ultimately link the two cases. In April, 2000, technicians at Biotech II — Virginia's state-of-the-art forensic laboratory in Richmond — submitted semen samples taken from Raver's body into CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, a national electronic database established by the FBI for genetic material recovered from crime scenes. Almost immediately, the computer returned with a hit, a match to the samples recovered from Jefferson's body.
Forensic science established the connection but the idea of the two crimes being the work of one murderer has left police with an inconsistent profile.
“Veronica Jefferson was black, Raver and Fulton were white,” said Murphey. “Jefferson was alone and it seemed like she knew the guy. We’re not sure how Raver and Fulton met up with him but they were together as a couple.”
“The actual method of the murders is the same but they differ in terms of the circumstances and the victimology,” he said.
Yet the link is solid according to Paul Ferrara, director of Biotech II. With an annual state budget of more than $23 million and a staff of 50 forensic scientists in four lab across the state, Biotech II has helped to solve an estimated 2,300 cases of violent crime since its creation. Its workload is heavy enough now, that the back-log of samples and evidence it has to process currently means almost a 6-month wait for some investigators.
Each time its technicians complete a genetic analysis through samples taken at a crime scene, that information is logged into the CODIS network, which includes genetic information on all violent felons convicted in the state since 1990. The hits returned by its computers compare 13 genetic “locations,” the orientation of certain chromosomes on a strand of DNA.
“We focus on areas of genetic material that are highly polymorphic, areas where you see diversity,” Ferrara said.
He added that 99 percent of a person’s genetic code — the elements that determine race, eye color or body type — looks roughly the same. The segments that help to identify a criminal, however, are “junk DNA”, parts that seem to serve no function.
“Biologists and geneticists don’t know what purpose they serve but they allow us to narrow the list of suspects down to one, specific individual in the world’s population,” he said.
The man who killed Veronica Lynn Jefferson, Warren Fulton and Rachel Raver, may have his freedom for now. But the men who have followed his trail for the last decade and a half still have hope that he may be singled out in the future, a hope that is grounded in science.
“It’s still possible he could be picked up on another violent offense somewhere down the line,” said Harp. “And if he is, he’ll be matched to these murders once they take a DNA sample. It is still possible we could find him.”