John Slack in 1998 Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Looking back, James Cole says, the police may have been trying to tell him something when they didn’t arrest his son for attacking John Slack.

“A couple of white men all bloodied, and they don’t drag the black boys away?” he says. “Something was up.” 

Slack and a colleague were passing through the backyard of one of their properties in the Park View neighborhood in late 1997, shortly after Cole’s wife, Jessica, had gone missing. A woman’s torso had been found over on Meridian Place NW, a mile away, but the authorities had not yet identified it as Jessica’s. 

Duane Cole, James’ and Jessica’s oldest son, didn’t need any further answers. He knew—just knew—that his mother was dead and Slack, the University of the District of Columbia professor-cum-property developer who liked to style himself “the white godfather” of the imperfectly gentrified Park View neighborhood, had something to do with it. 

When Duane and his friend Gary Jones saw Slack and his colleague in the backyard not long after Jessica’s Columbus Day weekend disappearance, they attacked. James Cole was in the front of the house and heard the yelling. When he got to the back, two cops were already breaking up the fight. 

“It was a war zone back then,” James Cole says of Park View. “Helicopters buzzing, cops were everywhere.” 

But the cops didn’t take Duane or Gary away. James says it stuck with him—that maybe Duane was on to something. 

***

No one has ever been charged with Jessica’s murder but, as City Paper reported last month, the Metropolitan Police Department has closed the case. In 2008, Det. Danny Whalen got a confession from Darryl Turner, the notorious Princeton Place Killer. It’s one of hundreds of “administrative closures”—cases the department has closed with a sweep of the pen rather than by arresting a suspect. 

The Cole homicide has divided investigators—retired MPD detective Jim Trainum is one of a handful close to the case who say that Turner’s confession was bogus and allowed Slack to go free for years before dying in a fire in his Capitol Hill home in 2017. Cole’s dismemberment and stashing were outside Turner’s pattern, Trainum and others claim; Turner didn’t have the proper tools, or space, to accomplish it, and Jessica’s torso had two strange hairs on it—one from a white man and the other from a rare dog. John Slack bred Mastiffs. 

The case has also divided Cole’s family. James and his sons believe Slack was the culprit. Jessica and Slack had argued publicly several times—Jessica accused Slack of exploiting the vulnerable black women who rented from him for sex and drugs. And Jessica was never one to be quiet about her worries. “He was a slumlord,” James Cole says.

But Arlene Ford thinks it was Turner who killed her baby sister, and she resents Trainum and her brother-in-law for reopening old wounds. 

“Why are they bothering with this now?” she asks. “Even if it was Slack, he’s dead, so the Lord took care of him. Let it go.” 

Duane Cole, Ford says, never really recovered from his mother’s disappearance and death. (His friend Gary Jones who helped beat up Slack in 1997, would die in Duane Cole’s arms a few months later, gunned down in the street violence that plagued D.C.) 

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Ford and her other sister, Marcia, still live in the Quincy Place NW apartment where they all grew up. They lived through the crack wars that took so many neighbors, through Darryl Turner’s predations, and now through an increasingly yuppified neighborhood that’s threatening to price many people like them out. “We’re not going anywhere,” Arlene Ford says. 

Bodies were dropping often in D.C. in 1997—Jessica’s was one of 301 for the year—and neighbors suspected Darryl Turner because so many dead women were turning up near his home, which he rented from Slack, Ford says. Turner and Jessica Cole had been seen together the weekend she died, and a cousin, worried about Jessica, had asked her if everything was OK. She assured him she was fine. 

After Jessica disappeared, Turner “went into hiding,” Ford says. 

Jessica—known as “Bird” because of her aquiline nose—was adored in the neighborhood. (“I’ve had much younger men tell me they were in love with Bird,” Ford says). Her disappearance nearly set Park View off. 

“There was talk,” Ford says. “They were going to wait for Darryl Turner to come out and they were going to kill him. But then the police came and arrested him.” 

Turner is currently doing life without parole in a medium-security federal prison in South Carolina. MPD and the U.S. Attorney’s office have both declined to comment. 

City Paper’s efforts to reach Slack’s daughters have been unsuccessful. 

***

On one thing, Ford and James Cole agree—Jessica was an amazing person. They all miss her, every day. “I see her get written up as a drug addict, a prostitute,” James Cole says. “Y’all forget all the years that she put in as a good mother, a good friend, a good neighbor.”

Bird was the neighborhood cut-up. She liked to pinch old men’s asses. If she thought you were pouting, she’d do “a politically incorrect” impression of a mentally disabled person until you laughed, James Cole says. 

“She could’ve been Richard Pryor’s sister,” Arlene Ford says. 

James and Jessica had known each other since they were children. At 15, James Cole was a scrawny kid with braces and thick glasses and, discovering girls for the first time, needed a little help to get the beautiful Jessica to go out with him. “Arlene said, ‘You’re going to give that boy a chance,’” he recalls. 

They went to see Superfly at the Loews Cinema (Jessica’s older sister, Marcia, was chaperone—they were all good Catholics). His geekiness notwithstanding, James Cole was actually more interested in “this other girl”—so much so, in fact, that he was skipping his part-time job at Spingarn High School to be with her. When Cole’s father found out about it, the old man dropped the hammer: James was confined to the house until further notice. 

While serving out his sentence, Jessica (James is one of the only people in her life who never called her “Bird”) and Marcia happened to pass by. “I said, ‘I can’t leave this porch. Will you please come and keep me company?’” James Cole recalled. 

They were together until she died. 

***

Whatever beast ultimately swallowed Jessica, the crack wars chewed her family up and spit them out. 

In the late 1980s, she was rushed into emergency surgery for a gallbladder infection. Doctors in Northwest didn’t credit her pain and it was only an aged doctor in Southeast who recognized what was happening and got her to a hospital. She survived, but lived in pain the rest of her life, James Cole says. 

“She didn’t believe she’d live,” he says. “She’d say, ‘You’ve got to be strong for the boys.’” 

Sometime in the early 1990s, Jessica hung out with a friend who introduced her to crack. She never really came back from that journey, James Cole says. “I knew it was the drugs, it wasn’t her,” he recalls. “I’d tell her, ‘You can always come home. Whatever it is, we’ll get through it. Just come home.’”

Jessica spent her last few hours with her sisters at their home on Quincy Place NW. As usual, she was cutting jokes, Ford says. “She hopped on that bike of hers, and away she went,” she recalls, referring to Jessica’s trademark gold 10-speed (which she had dubbed, “The Ghetto Bird”). “We never saw her again.”