Heating up a cold case

Investigators of woman's 1973 killing look to class reunion

August 09, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Bowie High School's Class of 1973 will gather tonight at a local hotel to dance and reminisce. They'll award gifts for distinctions like farthest traveled and youngest child. Almost certainly, someone will request a song by Steve Miller, a favorite of classmate Donna Dustin.

They will also hear an impassioned plea from an Anne Arundel County cold case investigator, seeking clues in Dustin's killing 35 years ago.

Seventeen-year-old Dustin was found naked and beaten beyond recognition in a deserted gravel quarry north of the Bowie racetrack after a night of partying and just a few months after graduating. Her class ring was one of the few clues to her identity.

Three decades later, her classmates are graying. Many have grandchildren. But investigators believe that someone in attendance might know something that could help provide more clues.

"Over the years, we think a lot of those people were scared to talk or have made assumptions that we have information that we don't," said David S. Cordle, the chief investigator for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office, who will speak at the reunion.

"With a cold case, the most important thing to remember is that relationships change, people mature and guilt takes over. ... They may have information that they're now willing to share."

The long-dormant case heated up about 10 years ago, with men in New York and Florida being ordered by a court to produce blood samples in an effort to match DNA with evidence preserved from the crime scene. Anne Arundel County police Capt. David Waltemeyer, a detective once assigned to the case, said a "handful" of additional suspects have provided samples since then - one as recently as late last year - but he would not say whether anyone has been conclusively linked.

"We have new samples to test, and we are testing some right now as we speak," said Cordle.

Mary Nusser, one of the organizers of the class reunion, said Dustin's death has hung over the class through the years. Private security was hired to staff the 25-year reunion in case tensions boiled over. Some have stopped attending altogether. But remembrances of Dustin, and others who have since died, is a major theme of the gatherings.

"People know a lot. They're just not talking," Nusser said. "No one in the class is a suspect, but other people that we all knew were at the party. ... It's as if this code of silence went out, as if to protect someone."

Investigators said Dustin, an outgoing and popular girl, went to an ice cream parlor on a double date on Nov. 16, 1973, while her parents were at Disney World in Florida. According to an affidavit filed in a New York court, she dropped off her date about 1:30 a.m. and said she "wanted to get more beer and continue partying."

"That was the last person who wasn't involved in her death who saw her," Cordle said.

She was later seen at a Bowie party talking to two men and is believed to have left with them. Citing sources familiar with the investigation, the Washington Post in 2000 reported that Dustin and a group of men - perhaps four or five - all went back to her house to drink more. Later tests indicated that several men had sex with her, the paper reported.

"Most of the people that we've looked at were several years older than Donna but lived in the Bowie area," said Waltemeyer, who now heads the county police criminal investigations division. "Donna and her friends hung out with a high school crowd but also an older crowd who were involved in the drug world. They were not the best group. But there are other persons outside of that group that we've looked at."

Hunters found Dustin's body the next day, about three miles from her home in Prince George's County near the Patuxent River. There is no evidence to suggest Dustin was killed in her home, Waltemeyer said, but it is believed that she was assaulted at more than one location.

"We think there are multiple crime scenes, and we're certain there's more than one person involved," Waltemeyer said.

Police said she had been beaten to death with a blunt instrument and might have been the victim of a "crime of sadism," according to reports published at the time.

When investigators reopened the case on the strength of a tip, suspicion centered on the Florida man, a convicted sex offender with a record stretching back to 1965; and the New York man, according to the court affidavit. One of the men told police that the two had gone driving around on Nov. 17 with a six-pack of Schlitz beer, looking for girls. Schlitz bottle caps had been found on a stool in Dustin's living room.

Investigators said a witness told them that when the Florida man returned to the party in Bowie, he said he had been out with Dustin. They said they learned that he appeared disheveled at work that morning, wearing the same clothes from the previous night. His clothes had dark stains and briers and thistles stuck on the pants, the documents show.

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