WASHINGTON – An unnamed man in custody on federal gun and sex charges is suspected of being a methodical serial killer who knew how to cover his tracks by expertly altering crime scenes and tampering with evidence to throw off police.
The man, who is not being identified by authorities while several investigations continue, is suspected in the slayings of eerily similar victims in the Washington suburbs of Maryland: Two mothers, both nurses, and their teenage daughters, both students. He could also be linked to more violent crimes.
"He's a criminal I don't think we've see in the history of this county," said Chief Roberto L. Hylton of the Prince George's County, Md., Police. "He's a serial murderer."
In January 2009, police found Karen Lofton, 45, and her 16-year-old daughter, Karissa, fatally shot in their home in Largo. Two months, Delores Dewitt, 42, and her 19-year-old daughter, Ebony, were found slain and burned in the trunk of a stolen car in the same area.
Hylton first set up a task force with 150 members of his department to look into the cases. He assigned two detectives — Anthony Schartner and Bernard Nelson — to work full time on the investigation, even forfeiting their vacation time to follow thousands of leads. Then one lead led to a big break.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told county police about a man they arrested for a May 2009 gun store burglary.
"Hey, this might be something you want to look at," recalled Acting Special Agent in Charge David L. McCain, of the ATF's Baltimore field division.
Through the federal investigation, the ATF recovered many stolen firearms and uncovered several other violent crimes for which that man was responsible, McCain said.
The man was initially indicted on stolen gun charges, but a superseding indictment last month added machine gun possession charges, three counts of carjacking, sexual exploitation of a minor, and use of a firearm during a crime of violence. Officials said the man, who has been in custody since his July 1, 2009, arrest and is currently being held in Maryland, has a November trial on the federal charges.
"We have seen that he's a very violent individual," McCain said.
Hylton said working off the ATF lead from earlier this year, the detectives pieced together "overwhelming evidence" that the man killed the Dewitts and the Loftons, and was involved in another murder in Bowie, Md., in June 2008.
In the mother-daughter slayings, Hylton said there's forensic material, witness statements, circumstantial evidence as well as the man's employment record that points him to the murders. He wouldn't specify the man's work, but said his job gave him access to the victims' addresses.
So far, Hylton said that the Dewitt case, which police consider their strongest, has gone before a grand jury and awaits an indictment. Police plan to submit the other cases, too.
Hylton said once all the details about the case come out, people will be shocked. He described the man as highly educated — on his way to earning a graduate degree — and lived in the same neighborhood as the mothers and their daughters. The suspect is in his late 20s or early 30s, with a criminal record reaching to his teenage years, he said.
"He's a very studious, a very intellectual person," Hylton said. The suspect read up on how to commit crimes and studied the worst criminals in U.S. history, he said.
Police had a suspicion the two cases were related, but until recent months, had been unable to link them.
The suspect meticulously planned each of the murders and intentionally masked his crime to throw off investigators, police said. He reconfigured and altered the appearance of crime scenes, such as body positions. Officials say that's one reason why an FBI profiler might not have connected the two cases.
Hylton said his investigators have contacted family members after news reports that a suspect had been found.
Roosevelt Dewitt, 52, of Lynchburg, S.C., said he was Delores Dewitt's maternal uncle and had not yet heard about the person of interest being identified. Dewitt, who attended their funerals, said the family has not been doing well since the deaths. He described his niece as a nice, educated woman committed to her church.
"I was hoping we could find out who did it," he said.
His wife, Sylvia Dewitt, 50, said their niece was raised by her grandmother in South Carolina and attended Benedict College and later worked as a nurse. She said Delores and her daughter were decent people, who weren't known to get into trouble.
"She was a very good mother," she said. "She bring her daughter up respectfully, see her through high school."
A breakthrough in the case could help the family heal, she said.
"I'm hoping that it if they got the one, it's the right person," Sylvia Dewitt said. "It would take a burden off the family's heart."