Let’s say you want to drop something off east of xxthe Anacostia River. You don’t know the area very well, though. Only what you read in the papers and hear on the news: that Southeast is D.C.’s very own mecca of murder and mayhem, where life is cheap. At least, that is its reputation; that has been its notoriety for a generation now. And that’s exactly why you want to go over there.
Let’s say that thing you want to drop off is, in fact, a body. That’s why you go to Anacostia—the perfect place for the end to the perfect crime. More than a natural boundary, that river is a border between two worlds. Across that border, the evidence would naturally finger the usual suspect—Southeast: the perfect scapegoat. Why not pin the crime on a place?
But you don’t want to drive around the unfamiliar streets of Southeast with a dead body in your car. This is no time to get lost. Besides, from what you’ve heard, it’s dangerous over there. So you choose the quickest beeline: South Capitol Street across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, and you take the first exit. It doesn’t really matter where, just as long as you’re on the other side of the Anacostia. It’s the bad part of town, where people do all sorts of unspeakable things to each other in the middle of the night. That’s what they say, anyway.
The off-ramp takes you around until you’re nearly under the bridge: It is a parking lot, a desolate no man’s land between Anacostia Park and the back gate of the Anacostia Naval Station. There are a few empty tour buses parked nearby. Over a small rise of scrub vegetation is the river.
Nobody’s around. And who would be out here on a winter night? In a bare patch of dirt near the bridge’s granite pillars, a mess of empty bottles lies scattered. Yeah, it’s a dumping ground all right. The habitues of the place have found some shelter other than this wind-whipped spot, chill factor bobbing close to zero.
So you get the body from the trunk and go about your business, as if this is what you’re supposed to be doing in the darkness on the banks of the Anacostia River. It weighs barely 100 pounds, so it’s no big haul carrying it over the barren hump and down to the inky-black, ice-cold, polluted water. And then you shove it in, and it slowly sinks and joins the old cars and refrigerators and other rubbish—including a few other bodies, no doubt—at the bottom. And that’s the end of that.
Well, almost. You need to leave some crumbs behind. So people will know where to look. No need to get too fussy about it. Some ID cards and house keys and pocket trinkets to tell the world who someone is. Just chuck them on the ground, out in the open, where any damn fool could stumble on them.
The whole operation takes maybe five minutes at the most. All that activity has almost made you forget how cold it is out here. Almost enough to make your teeth chatter. You get back in your car and head back across the Anacostia.
It was dark and cold out, but she was close to home. No problem. You can just drop me off here and I’ll walk. Don’t go out of your way. I’ll be fine. That’s what Joyce Chiang always said when she was catching a ride.
Driving Chiang home was a ritual her friends relished. It was a time to catch up and really commiserate with the woman whose day-to-day trajectory veered a million different directions. In the passenger seat, Joycie—as her friends called her—was a captive audience, always eager to listen and offer valuable advice. She had the effect of a mood enhancer, regaling you with stories of some crazy mishap. Though she often assumed the role of a mentor, the girlish-looking 28-year-old remained a faithful comrade-in-mischief, a connoisseur of everyday absurdities.
Chiang was never comfortable on the receiving end of a favor. It was she who was most often doing the giving, whether it was a homemade, personalized birthday gift, a surprise phone call with her playful “Hey, Bud” greeting, or some other beyond-the-call-of-duty gesture. She prided herself on her independence, beholden to nobody. On a whim, she’d book a budget flight to some European capital for a solo visit, to turn a long weekend into another adventure. But her dislike and fear of driving had long ago become a sort of inside joke among Chiang and her friends. Unless it was absolutely necessary, such as when she sometimes rented a car on business trips, the intrepid world traveler simply refused to get behind the wheel. So most social evenings ended with someone giving Chiang a lift home—or, at least, part of the way home.
On this cold Saturday, Jan. 9, 1999, Chiang had been busy on her usual weekend routine, mixing work and friends. That morning, she had the typical hello-goodbye exchange with her younger brother, Roger, who was just waking up as she was leaving. They shared a basement apartment on Church Street NW, a one-way shady lane of brownstones in Dupont Circle. Like his sister, 26-year-old Roger was always punched-in, crisscrossing the country as an advance man for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo.
As she did on most weekends, Chiang spent a couple of hours at the Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters on I Street NW, where she worked as a lawyer. Afterward, she took the Metro to the Pentagon City Mall to return some items. Then she met up with a few friends, including an INS co-worker, at the Xando coffee shop, a few blocks from her place. This was not the usual perky Chiang, for understandable reasons: “She was a little tired,” says Patty First, a Justice Department lawyer who had known Chiang for years. “She’d had a hard week at work, she had a cold, and she had just come back from an extremely long detail.”
Chiang was dressed for the bitter weather and the head cold she’d been battling since New Year’s. Over her light-blue jeans and black turtleneck, she wore a thigh-length green coat, a red paisley scarf around her neck, and a black one wrapped over the hood of her jacket. First recalls how cute Chiang looked all bundled up, her dark brown eyes peering from all those layers of clothing. “When we were leaving, she pulled up her hood,” says First. “She pulled the strings to pull it tight around her face, and it was hysterical. She was so tiny, and she looked really funny.”
In the brief time the women had been in Xando, the temperature outside had plummeted along with the waning daylight. After dropping First at her home, Chiang and her INS friend spent the afternoon in Friendship Heights at a screening of the courtroom drama A Civil Action. The women returned to Dupont Circle for dinner at Lauriol Plaza, at the corner of 18th and S Streets.
After dinner, though it was not even 8:30 p.m., Chiang said she had to call it a night. At 9 p.m. sharp, she explained, she needed to phone someone in San Francisco who was scheduled to appear in a theater production that evening. Typical Joycie: She wanted to send a good-luck message before her friend left for the performance. No matter what was going on in her own jampacked life, she managed to keep tabs on important events in her friends’—an exam, a big legal case, or something more personal—and she rarely failed to make contact and give her support.
As always, Chiang’s dinner companion offered her a ride home. The restaurant was only a few blocks from Church Street, but it was already dark outside, and the temperature had continued to plunge, to well below freezing. Chiang grudgingly accepted. True to form, though, she insisted that her friend drop her off along Connecticut Avenue, instead of having to double back along the one-way streets that led to her apartment. Why go through all that trouble? After all, this was her neighborhood, where gas-lamp streetlights flickered above familiar sidewalks in a wintry wonderland. Not exactly the mean streets of D.C.
At the corner of Connecticut and R Streets, Chiang hopped out of the car. She said she was going to the Starbucks across the street. She’d sworn off coffee and caffeinated drinks a few years before, after her doctor warned her of an impending ulcer. What she wanted was a cup of hot herbal tea to take the chill off during the walk through Dupont Circle. She had plenty of time to make it back for her 9 p.m. phone call. No problem. I’ll be fine. Chiang stood on the corner in front of La Tomate restaurant. The car pulled away into the night.
When a crime happens in Dupont Circle, authorities know where to look to find evidence: nearby Rock Creek. It has long been a favorite drop-off point for everything from guns to bodies.
But it was alongside the Anacostia where a couple found Chiang’s INS identification card the next day. By then, Roger Chiang had figured that his sister had spent the night at a friend’s house—a common enough occurrence. When she didn’t come home Sunday night, though, he began to get worried. Monday afternoon, he phoned her office: She hadn’t reported to work, and nobody had heard from her. It was one thing for Joyce to spend the weekend away, but quite another for her to skip a work day without calling. Her friends told Roger they had no idea where she could be. The next day, he contacted authorities to report his sister as missing.
On Jan. 21, nearly two weeks after Chiang was last seen, authorities launched a massive search effort at the riverside site where her ID had been found. Nearby, they found her torn green coat, along with her Blockbuster and Safeway cards. Right out in the open. Her keys showed up near the chain link fence of the naval station gate.
They combed the Anacostia River as well, a wide but shallow area, no more than 20 feet deep in the middle. They had a fleet of boats and helicopters and dogs trained to find cadavers. Teams of divers from the Metropolitan Police Department’s Harbor Branch scoured the river bottom.
They did discover a body, but not Chiang’s.
It was by accident, really. After a half-day, the divers took a break to regroup, convinced that Chiang’s body was not in the designated search area. Then a helicopter spotted something a hundred yards away, nearly underneath the Frederick Douglass Bridge. It was bobbing on the surface, jostled from the depths by the boats and activity.
It was the decomposed body of a man who had been in the cold water for much longer than two weeks, maybe even months. Later he was identified as Ridgley Tyrone Pleasants Jr., 25, whose last known address was on a shady street of brick colonials in Cheverly, just across the District line in the Prince George’s suburbs. His previous address had been in far Southeast. There was no public clamor to find out how Pleasants had ended up at the bottom of the Anacostia. According to police sources, his mother had reported him missing in the fall, but no search parties ever went on the trail to find him. His death, ruled a drowning by the D.C. medical examiner, remains a mystery; but the manner of death was listed as “undetermined.” He didn’t rate a mention in any newspaper.
It is no real surprise that Washington seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief when the body turned out to be a local John Doe instead of Chiang. Victims don’t come any more perfect than Chiang, at least not from a media standpoint: charming, humble, and demure—a friend to all. You know the type. And just in case the warm anecdotes from friends and colleagues didn’t get you, there were the photos. More than just pretty, she had a warm, inviting smile that was a beacon of trust. She was the kind of too-good-to-be-true person that newspapers and their readers pick up on: the cute one, the nice one, the one whom everybody still wonders about. Never mind that there were dozens of dead people all over the city whose stories never see an inch of newsprint.
Chiang’s disappearance had all the elements that make for an irresistible story: walking down the street in her own neighborhood, and then, in a flash, no more Chiang. Posters of her were immediately plastered all over the city. Then came the weekly vigils, seemingly of their own accord. Watching them on TV, you shared in the protest. You didn’t even know Chiang, but she was already like a part of your family—your sister, your girlfriend, your daughter.
And all the others, the ones who existed only in the small type of the crime section of the paper? Well, they had it coming. Bad address, bad time of day, bad corner, bad customer. They were just part of the background noise of the city, unworthy of celebrity even in death.
Chiang’s circle of familiars grew quickly after her disappearance. She soon became one of the most well-known missing persons in the country. Yet the publicity surrounding the case did little to flush out helpful information. Fox’s America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back ran a segment on her disappearance; the broadcast garnered few calls and no solid leads.
Not only was Chiang a beautiful, brilliant young woman, she was also a federal employee, so it was a high-profile case from the start, with the FBI spearheading the investigation. Despite her youthfulness, Chiang had friends in high places, including her former boss, Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. As the months went by, some powerful Washington people reportedly made personal calls to FBI Director Louis Freeh, demanding some progress on the case.
The basic line went something like this: People just don’t vanish from the middle of Dupont Circle. Not on a Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. Sure it was cold, but it was Connecticut and R, for goodness’ sake. It just didn’t make any sense. And if the FBI couldn’t solve this sort of mystery right in its own back yard, then who could?
Meanwhile, Chiang’s family and countless friends continued to canvass the city, posting fliers with her radiant photo and talking with anyone who would listen. Week after week, without fail, they held candlelight vigils in Dupont Circle; these ceremonies, led by Roger Chiang and organized by her friends, sometimes counted more than a hundred strong. Their efforts helped to comfort them and nurture a glimmer of shared hope, but did little to help solve the case.
Then the tide did what no law enforcement agency or loved one’s prayers could accomplish. On April 1, a canoeist was paddling down the Potomac River south of Belle Haven Marina in Fairfax County. He lives in a riverside subdivision—his back yard is on the water—and his solo excursions have been a daily ritual for years, no matter what the weather. He usually hugs the shoreline to get a look at the wildlife, particularly the birds. Sometimes he comes across the carcass of a sheep or a deer that has washed down from Roosevelt Island or some place above Washington. He wonders what mishap—falling through frozen ice? a flash flood?—has sent the animals to their final resting place on the banks.
This evening, something else caught his eye as he drifted along a remote stretch of rip-rap rocks that buffer the upscale Arcturus neighborhood from the river below. At first, he thought it was one of those dummies used to train emergency workers for rescue missions. As he drew closer, though, he realized it was a body snagged in the boulders just above the lapping low tide. Fully clothed down to a pair of black shoes, the body lay face down in the rocks. The head appeared bald. Though badly decomposed, it was still intact—no outward signs of trauma—though the canoeist didn’t draw closer for further examination. From what he could tell, it had probably been submerged in the chilly water before the tide finally exposed it.
The lack of hair meant that it had probably been in the river for a long time. (Among many striking features, Chiang boasted a mane of lovely, shoulder-length black hair. She had a habit of twirling the long strands.) Judging from the petite body, especially the small hands and shape of the hips, he guessed that this was the corpse of a woman.
It took authorities nearly two weeks to make a positive identification. Dental records proved inconclusive, so they had to rely on DNA testing to confirm that this was the body of Chiang. After that delay, the medical examiner’s office took another month to announce that the body was too badly decomposed for them to determine a cause of death.
There was a clue of sorts: Chiang’s ATM card found tucked in her knee socks. Authorities had detected no action on her bank account; robbery had apparently already been ruled out as a motive. For the most part, though, the discovery of the body only deepened the mystery.
Now, six months after she disappeared, and four after her body was found, the case is at a full stop. Because the way Chiang died remains unknown, authorities have not officially declared her death a homicide. In the MPD’s Crime Solvers Web site, the case is dubbed a “death investigation.” Random violence, suicide, death by misadventure—nothing can be ruled out. A Joyce Chiang Task Force has been formed; its appeal to the public hints that she probably didn’t leave Dupont Circle of her own accord: “Anyone with information about the disappearance of Joyce Chiang, or anyone who may have been the victim of an attempted abduction in the Dupont Circle is asked to contact the FBI.”
The MPD is notorious for its backlog of unsolved cases, from theft to murder. One unsolved slaying bears some resemblance to the Chiang case: Last summer, a 28-year-old intern at the National Academy of Sciences was found in some woods off Canal Road near the Georgetown University dorm where she was staying. Christine Mirzayan was walking home from a barbecue at 10:30 p.m. when someone snatched her off the street. Her partially clothed body revealed how she died: severe blows to the head after an apparent sexual assault. Like Chiang, Mirzayan was the daughter of immigrants—in her case, parents who fled Iran after the shah’s downfall. Like Chiang, she was a pretty—some might say exotic-looking—young woman with a bright future. Her fiance came to Washington to claim her body. Her killer has never been found.
The Chiang case remains inexplicable. The FBI has released scant information—not unusual in an unsolved case that has precious little physical evidence. In recent weeks, its agents have used flotation devices to test river currents, trying to ascertain how the body could have ended up on the Potomac shore eight miles south from where her belongings were found: “We are basically trying to find out where the body might have gone into the river,” says Gregg Horner of the FBI’s Washington field office. “We’re just checking out the possibilities.”
Those familiar with the investigation say that a lot of time and energy have been wasted on frivolous theories that have focused on the fact that Chiang was a Chinese-American. Immediately following her disappearance, it apparently struck investigators as odd that no one (either her or a potential abductor) was using her bank card. A friend of Chiang’s says the clueless authorities tried to find answers in traditional Asian culture: “They consulted one of their internal Asian experts, who said it wasn’t such a big deal that she didn’t use her ATM card to withdraw any money because Chinese-Americans keep their money in a mattress. The ignorance of this is ridiculous—she went to Smith College!” The closest to hoarding money that Chiang ever got was tucking cash or bank cards in her socks. Indeed, family and friends recall a fully acculturated, thoroughly modern woman more at home entertaining guests with her collection of Smith china than following ancestral customs.
The absence of clues, let alone answers, led to other wildly speculative theories. Shortly after the body was identified, Fox News reported that investigators were examining whether the death could have been tied to an Asian prostitution ring. In this scenario, Chiang could have been kidnapped by a gang that mistook her for a teen. Bundled up and as petite—5-foot-2, 105 pounds—as she was, she could have easily passed for a junior-high-schooler waiting at a bus stop. The news report mentioned the 1998 abduction of a 14-year-old Chinese immigrant girl in Fairfax County. But it failed to mention that Dupont Circle is not exactly a nexus of the Asian community, so it would seem an unlikely location for so-called Chinese gangs to troll for victims.
A few wisps remain, adding up to not much. Reportedly, a Starbucks employee recalled a customer resembling Chiang’s description coming in the night of Jan. 9. In this version, Chiang stayed for more than an hour, drinking tea and talking with a blond woman. Authorities reportedly have a composite sketch of the woman, but they have yet to release it to the public. Excepting this employee’s vague recollection, though, there is no reason to suppose that Chiang did anything other than follow her initial plan: grab a cup of hot tea to go and head home.
One scenario—which is as good as any other— points to a stalker who knew Chiang quite well, even if only from afar. After all, she had a cheery hello for everyone, whether it was a Capitol Hill congressman or a Dupont Circle bum. She was the type of person whom the grocery-store checkout clerk remembers, if only for a bright smile. So why shouldn’t some secret admirer be smitten as well? He could have known where she lived and worked and all her daily routines. Then came the sequence: an abduction, a murder, and, finally, a disposal of the evidence down by the Anacostia.
If you stand on the spot where Chiang’s belongings were found, you can get a splendid view of the U.S. Capitol on the skyline across the river. It’s where Chiang launched her career, where she would eventually be remembered in a eulogy in the House of Representatives. She came to Washington as an intern and ascended the ranks without the help of nepotism and influence peddling.
Chiang grew up in a Chicago suburb, one of four children of a chemical engineer who had emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. She went to Smith, a prestigious New England women’s college, where she served as student government president in her senior year. While a student at Smith, she interned at the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Berman, where she charmed everyone she met. “She was an uncommonly terrific person,” says Gene Smith, Berman’s chief of staff. “She was sweet and hard-working and capable and fun. She was a very, very pretty girl and just a sparkling personality. She was very engaged, and smart as can be—a special kind of person.”
That’s the standard rap on Chiang—a rare gem of a person inside and out—repeated by many friends and colleagues. The profound effect she had on those who knew her goes a long way to explain the overwhelming public outpouring in the weeks after her disappearance. The weekly vigils made Dupont Circle resemble a small town coming together in the wake of some unprecedented calamity—instead of a community of urbanites worried about one more body in the mortal toll D.C. piles up regardless of the time of year. Nearly 700 people packed St. Matthews Cathedral for her memorial service.
After graduating from Smith, Chiang came to Washington to work full time in Berman’s office. Besides her day job, she enrolled as a night student at Georgetown University Law Center, following the example of her two older brothers, who had put themselves through school as well. One is now a lawyer and elected official in Southern California; the other is an eye doctor in Texas.
The grind seemed to energize Chiang rather than wear her down. According to law school classmates, she could turn all-night cram sessions for exams into something resembling fun: “She was always able to see the humorous side of even a crummy situation,” says Jim Pickup, now an attorney with a Washington firm.
In Berman’s office, Chiang quickly moved up the ranks from answering phones and mail to addressing policy matters. She eventually became the staff expert on immigration issues. Upon receiving her law degree in 1995, she took a job with the INS. Her successor in Berman’s office as immigration specialist, Joel Najar, remembers that he was surprised she was going to work for the INS, often perceived as a bully second only to the IRS. “I said, ‘Why do you want to go work for the INS?,’” says Najar, now an immigration policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza. “A lot of people think the INS is a bunch of jackbooted thugs, and it’s such a hard agency to work for to keep your morale up. But there are a lot of good people over there, and she was one of them. More power to her if she can go in there and improve the agency’s image and its delivery of services and the way it enforces the law.”
Like so many others, Najar remained close to Chiang down through the years. “She [was] the kind of person you want to keep around in your life,” he says. “She was my first friend in D.C. That’s the thing about Joyce. She had a lot of friends—and she kept them.” It was Chiang who schooled him on the social mores of the Hill—don’t talk on elevators, because you never know who might be standing behind you—while at the same time poking fun at herself for relaying such rules.
When Chiang joined the INS, it was a heady time for the agency. The 1996 immigration bill—tough on illegals, among other points that liberal Democrats had protested to no avail—had to be implemented, and Chiang helped spearhead this effort. Yet she remained conscious of her own immigrant roots, even if through no effort of her own. Once, on a detail in Arkansas, she was riding in an INS van along with other agency officials. As the only female and only Asian on board, she caught the attention of a motorist at a stoplight. The motorist got out of her car and pointed at Chiang, shouting, “Let her go!
We want her kind here!” The woman had mistaken Chiang for a deportee.
Another time, Chiang was at a court hearing when a Korean woman approached her, weeping and pleading her case in person. Unfortunately, Chiang couldn’t understand a word the woman was saying.
By all accounts, though, Chiang relished her job even as she was consumed by it. In 1997, she became a special assistant in the INS’s Office of the General Counsel; she became known for her mediation skills. Last fall, she went to the West Coast for a three-month detail including a stint troubleshooting at the Los Angeles office as well as some training in trial law in San Francisco. She told a friend that she was hesitant about the latter assignment; she didn’t want to argue cases that could send hard-working people back to their home countries. “Always in the back of her mind, she remembered her roots,” says Judy Kim, who knew Chiang for more than a decade. “She remembered the struggle her parents went through when they first came to this country.” (Kim, a student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, shared Chiang’s interest in Latin men, a schoolgirlish, isn’t-he-cute sort of attraction that was a running joke between them: “We always said, ‘We’re Mexican women trapped in Asian women’s bodies,’” she says. “The guys we find really good-looking are always Latin men.”)
One thing was certain: Chiang’s career dominated her life. Her job left her little time for anything other than work-related socializing, usually after late-night sessions at the office. According to co-workers and her brother, she always made sure to take a cab in these instances; she knew the Chinatown neighborhood around the INS headquarters was no place for a woman to be alone at night. “Joyce would always scream that she had to pay the five or six or seven dollars every night to take a cab home because she didn’t have a car,” recalls Roger Chiang. “At some point, the family was going to help her buy a car.”
Chiang often joked with friends that she had had a better dating life at all-female Smith College than in Washington. Even so, she never failed to draw the attention of male admirers of all sorts. “She seemed to attract a lot of weirdos,” says a law school friend who would often walk her home. “Joyce said hello to everybody—she didn’t discriminate against anyone—and that can always be taken the wrong way.”
“She’d make a connection with anyone, even if it was someone bothering her,” recalls Pickup. “It’s not like she was naive—she was street-smart—but there was that side of her that was so caring. It’s been my suspicion that she may have done that with someone who may have mistaken that for a lot more than it was.”
Najar remembers several incidents when strangers took an untoward interest in Chiang. “There was a guy who followed her for a while when she would walk to the Metro,” he says. “Then one time she was walking downtown, and some guy kept following her and ended up flashing her in a parking lot.” Many women endure this sort of abuse all the time, but Najar believes that Chiang was particularly vulnerable because of her striking looks and ethnic background.
“Because she was pretty, because she was Asian, there are some nuts out there who are going to pick on her,” he says. “I’ve been reading the personals in back of papers a lot, just in case somebody’s out there putting some clues out. A lot of us are obsessed with this case….It bugs me to no end to see ads where guys are especially looking for Asian women because they have some sort of fetish.”
In early December, Chiang returned to Washington after her detail on the West Coast. It wasn’t all work—she’d been able to visit her mom and her oldest brother, John, who both live in the San Fernando Valley. The Chiangs had relocated there six years ago; her father died in 1995 after suffering an apparent heart attack and drowning in a swimming pool.
Once back in D.C., she returned to her usual routine, but she had a new perspective. She told friends that she was considering going into private practice. She had loans to pay off; she was burned out. In October, she had taken a vacation with an INS co-worker; it was a scuba-diving trip to the Cayman Islands. Pickup recalls what Chiang told him about her dive for final certification. “They had to go out to some flooded quarry in some godforsaken place out in Fairfax County. Somehow, she put on too many weights—and she was teeny—so of course she dove further down than everyone. She got some accolades for the deepest dive, and she didn’t have the heart to tell them it was just because she’d put too many weights on.”
Now, after her detail, that vacation seemed a long time ago. The INS job was really wearing her out. She said she might even move to Los Angeles, where she had gotten bold enough to rent a car and tool around those hellish freeways—even to the point of driving her friend Judy Kim to a Beastie Boys concert. Dec. 7 was her birthday, and friends took her to dinner downtown at Georgia Brown’s. As often happened, Chiang showed up bearing gifts of her own. She told them it was so close to the holiday that she had decided to bring them their Christmas presents early. Friends recall an endless list of such offerings from Chiang, always personalized: saffron from a trip to Spain, a children’s book from London for someone’s toddlers, a tin whistle from Ireland, a hand-written cookbook in which she’d copied Asian recipes she couldn’t find in any published book. For a girlfriend who had moved to the West Coast, Chiang mailed a kit containing a set of jumper cables and emergency flares.
A week before Christmas, Chiang showed up late to a party. It was another crazy adventure that had detained her, she told friends: She was shopping at Pentagon City when a Chinese woman approached her. Chiang knew some Mandarin from her parents, so she was able to discern that the woman was looking for clothes for her 15-year-old daughter, and Chiang was just the right size. Chiang spent an hour with the woman she’d just met, picking out clothes and even trying them on.
That Christmas, she stayed in Washington. Roger Chiang flew back to California to be with the family. Before leaving, he got his sister a stocking and filled it with a $5 gift certificate from McDonald’s, in a motif from their modest, middle-class childhood. “Everything was great; life was good,” he recalls. “We were both working real hard.” According to friends, Joyce Chiang mainly rested during the week she took off from work through New Year’s. It was like her college and law school days, when she would go full-tilt all the way to exams and then sleep for 24 hours.
Two days before she disappeared, Chiang called Najar at work and left a message. It was his birthday, and she always remembered his birthday. But the fact that she phoned him at the office told Najar there might have been another reason behind the call. “She would call me when she had something on her mind, especially when it had to do with a guy,” he says. “I’m wondering if she wanted to talk about someone. And she hardly ever called me at work unless it was something she really wanted to talk about.” Najar left a message on her machine, but he never heard back from her.
On the night Chiang disappeared, someone called her pager, which she had left back in her apartment on Church Street. The call came from a pay phone at a hotel near Dulles Airport; authorities reportedly have not been able to determine who or exactly where the call came from.
Nearly six months after his sister disappeared, Roger Chiang stands on the bank above the Anacostia River. Back in January, he and some friends helped search for evidence in the barren area where his sister’s belongings were discovered. As far as he knows, it was the first and only time his sister had been east of the Anacostia, unless it was driving through on Interstate 295.
The yellow police tape is still here, shreds of it blowing in the wind. Roger Chiang didn’t find anything in January, and he knows he won’t find anything now. (Authorities have meanwhile pulled two more bodies from the Anacostia.)
As family spokesperson, Roger Chiang helped organize the candlelight vigils, where he often spoke. For months, he gave countless interviews with the media, leading camera crews around the neighborhood where Joyce Chiang was last seen. He tried his best to keep her case in the public eye. He took a polygraph test. He posted fliers in Anacostia, where MPD officers stared blankly at his sister’s visage, telling him they didn’t even know she was missing. He did everything a little brother could to find out what had happened to his sister. Nothing.
Slim and preppily clean-cut, Roger Chiang looks younger than his 26 years, as if he were fresh out of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he graduated. Like his siblings, he is an overachiever. “Joyce and Roger are obviously brother and sister,” says a friend. “Not only do they look alike, but they have a lot of the same personality traits.”
The ordeal has exhausted Roger Chiang. First there were the long weeks of the disappearance. His mother, Judy Chiang, came to stay with him; a devout Catholic, she prayed every day at St. Matthews Cathedral, where Joyce Chiang’s memorial service was held. After the body was found, he and his family waited weeks for a positive ID. Then another month for the medical examiner’s office to announce that the cause of death may never be known. The burial of his sister next to their father in Los Angeles brought little solace, because everything else about her death hangs in limbo.
He still lives in the basement apartment on Church Street. He says he wants to move but hasn’t been able to find the time; he is still busy with the task of settling his sister’s estate. Mostly, he waits for any new information from the FBI. They haven’t contacted him for weeks. “I don’t know where else to go from here,” he says. Updates from authorities have trickled to none, and he craves those once-dreaded calls. Friends of his sister’s call him to ask if he’s heard anything; they can’t get the case out of their minds. One thought he saw Joyce in a newspaper ad for George Washington University Hospital: an attractive Asian-American woman gazing frankly at prospective health-care customers—but it wasn’t Joyce’s smile, nowhere close, really.
Roger Chiang reiterates a theme he sounded during the final vigil in April, when his sister’s body had finally been identified, dashing all hopes of ever seeing her alive again. Instead of being resigned or sad, he was angry, and he sounds angry now: “Where is the justice behind all this? When someone could just take someone off the street? You’re supposed to have flesh and blood, and she’s found without flesh and without blood, literally tissue and bone. That’s not justice. That’s not human justice or human rights.”
He has played out all the scenarios of his sister’s last hours. He has tried to imagine all the unimaginable endings. All he knows is that all of them are bad. Even as the Anacostia River continues to yield more bodies, it has no answers: “Somebody must have seen something somewhere that night.” CP