By Melissa Quinn
Every December a trail of luminaries leaves Mount Vernon Avenue awash in shimmering, soft-white light, which serves as a reminder of the loss of one of the neighborhood’s brightest residents.
And as each year passes, Nancy Dunning’s murderer continues to elude Alexandria’s detectives, who keep working the case, waiting and hoping for the one splinter of information that will lead them to a suspect — and end the nearly decade-long investigation.
“I don’t know if it’ll ever be solved, and if it is, it’ll probably be somebody that is in a jam that knows something and spills it in return,” said Lonnie Rich, a close friend of the Dunning family. “I really don’t know.”
Last week marked the ninth year since Nancy, a local real estage agent, was found slain in her Del Ray home after she missed a scheduled lunch December 5, 2003.
At the time, Alexandria police only had a fleeting glimpse of a potential suspect — a man in jeans and a black jacket caught on video following Nancy out of the Potomac Yards’ Target.
With strong community and political ties, police believe Nancy’s death was neither accidental nor spontaneous. Married to then Sheriff Jim Dunning, Nancy earned the nickname “the Queen of Del Ray” for her efforts to revitalize the struggling community.
However, as police strove to identify the man — and found little else besides loose ends — the trail ran cold. And rumors ran rampant.
“I never thought Jim was involved in this, but I don’t have any reason to point fingers at anybody else,” Rich said. “It’s just a mystery.”
Though police never considered Jim a suspect, he left the shores of the Potomac and settled in Hilton Head, S.C., after Nancy’s murder. Friends, like Rich, said Jim dropped off the map afterward and rarely stayed in touch in the years before his death in July.
In that time, the detective originally assigned to the case retired and Detective Robert Hickman took up the investigation. Despite the passage of years, authorities refuse to designate her murder a cold case.
“We promised when this case started and we continue to promise to this day that we’re never going to put this case aside,” said Police Chief Earl Cook.
The department continues to hold briefings on the case, examining new angles and leads, as well as strategies and reviews from outside evaluators — ranging from federal investigators to private detectives.
Though Cook said they haven’t had any new leads recently, the city continues to support the department’s manhunt, giving them the resources necessary to close the case.
“The difficulty is as we get more and more years [on], it’s on people’s minds less and less and even in people’s memories it becomes foggier,” Cook said.
Today, the $100,000 reward collected by mourning friends and family sits unclaimed while the police department’s website dedicated to the case continues to ask for new information.
“The police department cares to get to the bottom of this so the family can get justice,” Cook said. “I just hope people keep them in their prayers.”