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In September 2008, Metropolitan Police Department Det. Danny Whalen sat down with one of the District’s monsters.
A “come-up” order had fluttered through the federal prison system all the way through the D.C. Jail, and U.S. Marshals escorted Darryl Turner into a conference room on level B-1 at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Judiciary Square.
Turner had been in prison since October 2001, convicted of murder in the rapes and deaths of two women. Whalen knew that the women were only a sample of his victims. In fact, prosecutors had indicted him in two other homicides but, once Turner was sentenced to life in prison without parole on the first case, decided it wasn’t worth the expense of a new trial.
The public knew Turner as “The Princeton Place Killer,” a werewolf who preyed on women in and around the Park View and Petworth neighborhoods in the 1990s. He had already been publicly linked to the deaths of several other women. Whalen wanted to talk to Turner about some of those unresolved cases.
“Ironically,” Whalen wrote in a woodenly phrased, oddly capitalized, and strangely melodramatic summary to his bosses, “Inmate TURNER” had written a series of letters to his appellate lawyer and the judge in his case, Nan R. Shuker.
“In these letters, he expressed a desire to clear his conscience and talk specifically to Detective WHALEN (who he trusts, based on the integrity displayed throughout this pursuit) about the entirety of the violent crimes he previously committed (the ones he was caught for, as well as others he had gotten away with),” the report states. “Since being in prison, Inmate TURNER has found religion and believes it is the honorable thing to do in taking responsibility for his actions; thus, he wanted to identify and clear the remaining unsolved murders, and convey his apologies to all the victims’ families.”
Turner had some conditions. First, he wanted immunity from any further prosecutions. Second, he didn’t want any of these other cases to make the news (it would be too embarrassing for Turner’s stricken wife, Barbara). Finally, he wanted to be moved to a prison “closer to his family and roots” in North Carolina.
Whalen got the deal approved, and in three separate interviews over the next few weeks, Turner confessed to nine rape-homicides, including those two for which he had been convicted already. It was, by any standard, a coup.
The problem, former MPD Det. Jim Trainum says, is that at least one of those confessions is “total bullshit.”
On the 1997 disappearance and death of Jessica “Bird” Cole, Trainum tells City Paper, Turner’s words have little relationship with the facts.
“Darryl Turner’s confession is inaccurate and unreliable and should never have been used to close out that case,” Trainum says. “And the means by which they obtained that confession tainted any other confession that he gave at that stage.”
“Basically, what his confession consisted of was, ‘I did it,’ and a bunch of details that were not accurate or could not be corroborated,” Trainum adds. “But D.C. police were very happy to be able to close out these cases so that’s all they cared about.”
D.C. cops still refer to high-profile cases as “heaters.” (The word is probably an import from former Chief Charles Ramsey, who brought it with him from Chicago and who was in charge when Turner was finally brought to justice.) It refers to cases where outsized public attention puts pressure on the department to handle a case with care and—above all—to get it closed.
None of the nine homicides for which Turner has confessed would qualify, on their own, as a heater. His victims were mostly middle-aged, poor and drug-addicted black women of the kind who were increasingly inconvenient in a gentrifying city still binding up its wounds from the crack wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But cumulatively, the Princeton Place killings became a heater for the department. Among other things, the neighborhood was beginning to gentrify. The killings pricked the consciences of those who wanted the unfortunate women to “move on” from the area—but certainly weren’t comfortable seeing their desires take on the menacing shapes of Turner’s fever.
John Slack, Turner’s landlord, had his own theory about the Real Culprit.
“What I believe is happening here is nothing less than the tip of what’s going to be happening in the 21st century,” Slack told City Paper shortly after Turner’s arrest in 1998. “Most of this is due to racism, a racism which is so sophisticated today that these young black men have no way of defending themselves against racism.”
Slack, a public health professor at the University of the District of Columbia, didn’t live in Park View, but he had bought several properties in the area and was rehabbing them. In 1998, one contractor described him to City Paper as a kind of “white godfather” to the neighborhood.
But Slack’s own experiences suggest caution with the Turner cases. Turner was not Princeton Place’s only killer. Slack found three homicide victims in his gutted properties—but only two of them would turn out to “belong” to Turner.
The first body Slack found, in May, 1997, was Lateashia Blocker’s. She was wedged in the floorboards in a building Slack was rehabbing on the 700 block of Princeton Place NW. In the years after Turner’s arrest, Whalen and other detectives looked for evidence that linked Turner with Blocker’s homicide—until authorities charged a District Heights man with her murder.
All that was to come later. At the time, Slack had to help D.C. police protect the evidence of the Blocker crime scene. He used one of his circular saws and cut a wedge out of the floor around Blocker’s corpse so that officials could carry her out.
“It’s really a very small, wonderful neighborhood,” Slack told City Paper at the time.
The Confession of Darryl Turner, as reported by Danny Whalen, reads something like one of those old Victorian blue books—dispatches of concerned bureaucrats from life among the lowly.
Turner “non-boastfully defined himself as a ‘serial killer,’” according to Whalen’s notes, and “had ‘major issues’ at the time he was committing these murders, and did them through his own arrogance.” Just as he was getting out of prison for petty crime in North Carolina in 1987, Turner’s brother and an aunt “introduced” him to crack cocaine.
“In an effort to try to get away from crack, he naively left NC and went to DC—where he ran head-on into the crack cocaine epidemic and his drug habit continued (he developed a sex addiction too),” Whalen wrote.
But it wasn’t until Turner’s own mother died, around July 1992, that “something kicked in, and he began the process of retaliating against crack addicted women by killing them.”
“He targeted prostitutes—he looked down on them, and at [the] time believed they got exactly what they deserved,” Whalen reported. “In the beginning, his motivation for killing was simply revenge. But this soon turned into a compulsion he couldn’t control. Inmate TURNER knew what he was doing was wrong, but he seemed powerless to stop.”
In short order, Turner developed what Whalen called his “signature.” He liked to choke women from behind while having sex with them, wrapping his right arm around their throats until they passed out. Once they were dead, he would carry them to nearby buildings—including Slack’s—and dump them in floorboards or crawl spaces. He left them naked, “to degrade them,” Whalen’s said.
The problem—as even Whalen acknowledges in his report—is that Cole’s case doesn’t bear Turner’s “signature.”
Jessica “Bird” Cole
Around 7:30 on Columbus Day morning, 1997, a man was on his way out to his car on the 1400 block of Meridian Place NW when he saw a partially torn garbage bag near his driveway. A woman’s torso was inside it.
It took months for authorities to identify the dead woman as Jessica Cole, whom people in the Park View neighborhood knew as “Bird.”
Cole had run a cleaning business with her husband, her high school sweetheart. The couple had raised two children together, but by the time she disappeared, she had fallen into drug addiction. Sometimes she had sex in exchange for money to support herself.
Turner was a suspect in the case, Trainum conceded in a 2009 memo to Internal Affairs. Cole knew Turner from the neighborhood—in Turner’s confession, he says he often paid her for sex. Cole’s cousin saw her with Turner around 1 a.m. on the Saturday before her torso was discovered.
But one of Bird’s friends told police that she had called him from a payphone about three hours later, having left Turner’s apartment. She asked the friend, who lived near the Old Soldiers’ Home, if she could stay with him. She promised to be there shortly. She never showed.
The forensic science doesn’t add up, either, Trainum said, then and now. Whoever dismembered Jessica used a fine-tooth power saw, a Pentagon forensic anthropologist told police. Turner didn’t own anything like it. (He claimed to have cut her up in his bathtub with a chisel and a Ginsu knife, neither of which matched the patterns on Jessica’s torso.)
The D.C. medical examiner’s office determined that there were no signs of lividity on Cole’s torso—the blood in her body had not settled, which would leave a distinct discoloration.In other words, someone had taken the time and the trouble to drain her body of blood before cutting her up.
“The offender required privacy, electricity for a saw and plumbing to drain the victim’s blood,” one forensic analyst wrote to D.C.’s police department in 2000, one of hundreds of pages of documents Trainum has provided to City Paper.
Turner didn’t have a saw and had only a bathtub in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment. His wife, Barbara, was an in-home nurse who often worked weekends, but authorities have never recovered any evidence that Bird was dismembered there.
Then there’s the dump site. Meridian Place NW is more than a mile from where Turner had been stashing his other victims—including women he killed before and after Cole’s body was discovered. Emile Dennis’ body, in fact, was found under his apartment, in August 1997—Barbara had called the city to complain about the stench.
Furthermore, Cole’s locally famous gold bike was found at the McMillan Reservoir shortly after her disappearance—another mile in the other direction.
In late 1999, more than a year after Turner was arrested, Trainum brought in Vancouver Police Department Det. Kim Rossmo, a Ph.D. and an expert in geographic profiling of crime. The connection to Turner, Rossmo wrote after his analysis, “needs to be further examined.”
“But an important difference between these crimes is the degree of offender organization and the method of body disposal,” Rossmo quickly added.
Whoever dumped Cole’s torso probably used a car and more than likely was hoping to draw attention away from the neighborhood where she was killed, Rossmo said. Turner was arrested with a bus pass in his pocket and—given where he dumped his other victims—obviously didn’t mind bringing attention to his own door, let alone the neighborhood.
In his confession, Turner claims that he cut Jessica up and threw different parts of her body into trash bags, then pedaled her bike all over the city, dumping the bags, because he wanted to draw prying eyes away from himself.
But having gone through the trouble to scatter Cole’s body around Northwest, Turner claimed in his confession, he became “exhausted” and decided, after all, that he “wanted to make a statement.” He claimed he dumped Cole’s torso at Meridian Place NW early on Columbus Day morning. But then, despite his exhaustion, he pedaled the bike to the McMillan Reservoir, more than a mile away, and then walked home.
There are other inconsistencies. For instance, Turner claims that he bit Cole on her left breast “to punish her.” But her breast showed no sign of bite marks.
And key documents went missing from the file, Trainum said at the time. The first was an entry into the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, better known as ViCAP, which the federal government administers and can help investigators link crimes by their patterns. The second was a forensic anthropologist’s report that Trainum said went into great detail about how Cole would have been dismembered.
It’s true that investigators also found orange fibers on Cole’s torso that matched a blanket in Turner’s apartment. But authorities knew she had been with him, and besides, Trainum said then and says now, there were also two other pieces of evidence: One was a hair from “a Caucasian man.” The other was a hair from “an unusual dog.”
Trainum had been assigned to Cole’s homicide from the early days. He was there at her autopsy and had to tell her family that the DNA proved that Bird was dead. As the department’s lone “cold case” detective, he was supposed to be in charge of the investigation. He spent nearly a decade working the case.
It wasn’t just his ordinary diligence. At the time, D.C. didn’t have its own DNA lab and its crime lab was a sick parody.
As Trainum saw it, the key to the Cole homicide might well have been the two strange hairs found on her body, one belonging to a white man and the other to a rare dog.
He spent months lobbying his superiors to bring in an outside forensic expert to help lead the investigation. Around 2008, the approval finally came, Trainum says.
“And then Danny goes and does this end run around everybody,” Trainum recalls. “Using very questionable tactics, he gets this confession that’s totally inaccurate and for all investigative purposes was totally unreliable. And the department allowed him to do that and close out the case.”
Trainum took his concerns to Internal Affairs in 2009, just before he retired. But he says that the brass dismissed his report as a personal problem between him and Whalen.
“I don’t know anything about Whalen as a person, but as an investigator, I think he’s really sucky,” Trainum says.
Whalen declined to comment for this story. A D.C. police spokeswoman declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office. The warden at the medium-security South Carolina prison where Turner is now serving his sentence declined City Paper’s request to interview Turner, claiming it might endanger him.
Julie Grohovsky was the prosecutor who put Turner behind bars. Even though she’s now in private practice, she says the U.S. Attorney’s office urged her not to discuss the case’s specifics for fear that she might reveal information that’s supposed to be subject to grand jury secrecy. Nonetheless, she says Trainum has a voice she trusts.
“Jim is one of the most professional, thorough investigators I had a chance to work with,” she said. “His commitment to criminal justice and to comforting victims’ families was unparalleled.”
Cole’s homicide is now officially closed, one of hundreds shuttered by “exceptional means”—cases where no arrest is made but police believe they know who the culprit is—which the D.C. police department has used to clean its records for decades.
“It was easy,” Trainum says. “It gave them a stat. And that’s all they were looking for—stats. That’s all they ever looked for, is stats.”
In the first part of this century, D.C.’s crime rate dropped precipitously, but in recent years, it has begun a disturbing uptick. It’s nowhere near as bad as it once was, but still, many leaders are nervous.
Trainum, now a consultant who lives in the Hill East neighborhood, says he’s worried, too.
“It’s the same attitude and the same practices, because they went unchecked 20 years ago, 10 years ago, that are still in place today,” he says. “The same pressures to close the case—to not worry so much about the outcome of the case. The department is hoping you don’t look beyond the closure numbers.”
Trainum says he’s still open to the possibility that Turner killed Cole, for all the obvious reasons, but he thinks it’s improbable. It’s also possible that Turner killed Cole and someone else discovered her body and dismembered her, for reasons of their own. Another remote possibility is that Turner killed Cole but had someone help him dismember her body and stash it. Given the totality of evidence, though, Trainum thinks Turner has taken credit for someone else’s work.
Police interviewed dozens of people in the Cole homicide, from Cole’s nephew—who confronted Turner after her disappearance—to the man found pedaling around on her bicycle that fall. One person stands out in Trainum’s memory.
John Slack, the UDC professor and landlord, had been known to argue with Cole around the neighborhood. In his interviews with Trainum, he came across as a bit of an odd duck—he talked fast, and in circles, spinning elaborate theories about what had happened to Cole. He seemed unusually interested in the details of her dismemberment and talked “hypothetically” about how it might have been done, according to Trainum.
Of course, Trainum admits, “when you start looking at behavioral stuff, it’s so subjective and it’s prone to all kinds of errors,” so he could be wrong about Slack.
Then again, Slack owned Neapolitan mastiffs and once chaired the Rare Breed Dog Show on the Mall.
Slack died in a fire in his Capitol Hill home in February 2017.
Bill Myers lives and works in Washington, DC. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets from @billcaphill.