By Derrick Perkins
More than a decade before Nancy Dunning’s murder, federal authorities unsuccessfully tried to track down the author of a letter threatening the lives of her family, according to recently released FBI files.
Her husband, then Sheriff Jim Dunning, received the grim message in March 1990. The purported writer — whose name is redacted in the FBI documents obtained by the Times through a Freedom of Information Act request — alleged mistreatment at the hands of sheriff’s deputies during a jail stint in Alexandria.
Claiming physical and mental scars from the alleged abuse, the author wrote, “I will never be able to rest unconditionally until I get my REVENGE. I’m going to cause you as much pain and grief as you’ve caused me. I will start by killing your wife and children. Then I will kill you. ... I will come to you like a thief in the night — soon.”
Mailed from within Virginia’s prison system, the ominous letter sparked a nearly three-year investigation. But the first individual that authorities spoke to — an unnamed prisoner at Mecklenburg Correctional Center — in connection with the letter refused to cooperate.
There were other roadblocks as well. The FBI’s Laboratory Document Section found no matches for the handwriting on the letter or envelope. While seven fingerprints were recovered from the letter, none matched any known suspect, according to case files.
As the case widened, at least one potential person of interest — a suspect’s former cellmate also left unnamed in the FBI files — could not be reached for an interview with federal authorities.
By April 1993, the investigation had hit nothing but dead ends. Though the documents indicate authorities had at least one prime suspect, the U.S. attorney’s office declined to prosecute because of lack of evidence — a decision backed by FBI’s Washington metropolitan field office.
The Queen of Del Ray
While Jim Dunning rose to prominence as a local lawman and elected official, his wife gained notice for spearheading Del Ray’s revitalization. A local real estate agent, Nancy Dunning earned the moniker, “The Queen of Del Ray,” for her efforts, which included coming up with the idea to light luminaries along Mount Vernon Avenue.
But her life was cut short December 5, 2003, long after federal authorities dropped the investigation into the mailed death threat. Nancy Dunning was found dead in the family home after missing a lunch date.
Though her murder rocked the community and made headlines, local police identified just a single person of interest in the days after her death: a man filmed leaving the Potomac Yard Target store about the same time as Nancy Dunning.
Despite the passage of time — the original lead detective in the investigation retired several years ago — police refuse to classify Nancy Dunning’s murder as a cold case. Police Chief Earl Cook, who has described the lack of results as “absolutely frustrating” in the past, remains committed to solving her murder.
Local authorities knew about the death threat, he said. But the letter and subsequent FBI investigation did not break open the murder case.
“We do not have any suspects right now we can name,” Cook said. “I don’t want to qualify that piece of evidence as anything as of yet. Right now, we haven’t been able to identify anyone.”
Friend and political ally Lonnie Rich never knew about the death threat — he can’t recall Jim Dunning mentioning it — but said many suspected his wife’s murderer might be a former inmate from the very beginning.
“I had heard early on, when people were speculating about all of the possibilities, among the possibilities was the possibility of an inmate or somebody who had contact with [the Dunnings] was angry,” Rich said. “This was not something I talked to Jim about; this was just scuttlebutt in the community.”
While Rich suspects death threats come with the job of being a lawman, Undersheriff Tony Davis said they are — in his experience — unusual.
“It’s more rare than the rule,” Davis said. “In the 32 years in my career, I cannot think of where I’ve gotten written correspondence [with a threat].”
Jim Dunning died in his North Carolina home last year. Though officials with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for the results of an autopsy, authorities originally said he died in his sleep. The death was not initially deemed suspicious.
Though never named as a suspect in the murder case, friends believe the rumors of Jim Dunning’s possible role in his wife’s death played a part in his departure from Alexandria.
But, as with the possibility that a former inmate sought revenge by killing Nancy Dunning, friends and neighbors speculate that an individual whom she had come into contact with through her real estate work might have had a motive, Rich said.
“Maybe Nancy cut somebody off in traffic, and it was road rage or somebody was mad at her from a real estate deal,” he said. “It was a mystery; it’s still a mystery. ... It’s a shame we haven’t been able to solve it. It would make people feel better to have an answer.”