A serial killer in Alexandria?

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By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

The theories sprung up as quickly as the news cameras started following the brazen daylight shooting of North Ridge resident and beloved music teacher Ruthanne Lodato.

Could her killing be connected to that of Ronald Kirby, a well-respected regional transit expert found shot dead in his Rosemont home just months earlier? And might the same individual be behind the decade-old unsolved homicide of woman-about-town Nancy Dunning?

Worse yet: Is a serial killer stalking the streets of Alexandria?

“That’s just stuff that people are saying,” said Alexandria Police Department spokeswoman Crystal Nosal. “We don’t have any concrete evidence that these crimes are connected. If that changes, we’ll notify the public.”

But residents remain apprehensive — and local, national and international media outlets have run with the prospect of a cold-blooded killer walking the Port City’s streets.

“Police in Alexandria, Virginia, fear they could have a serial killer loose in the community who is shooting dead his seemingly random victims inside their homes in broad daylight,” led the U.K.-based Daily Mail’s coverage.

“Police have launched a manhunt for a possible serial killer after a beloved music teacher and her caretaker were shot in broad daylight in the usually quiet city of Alexandria …,” wrote the New York Daily News.

“Alexandria police investigate possibility of a serial killer,” stated the Alexandria Gazette Packet’s straightforward headline.

There are striking similarities between the three homicides, which occurred within a few miles of one another. All were committed during the day, involved a firearm and left the victim dead in their home. And Police Chief Earl Cook’s exchanges with the public and media in the wake of Lodato’s death may have fueled the speculation about a serial killer.

Cook told The Washington Post that authorities were trying to determine if there were any connections between the three slayings, saying investigators were “looking at any similarities.” They would be remiss not to, he said.

While going from that to the possibility of a serial killer may seem like a leap, it’s not out of bounds given the police chief’s comments, said Dan Kennedy, a media critic and assistant journalism professor at Northeastern University.

“It’s a stretch to take that statement and say that police are looking for a possible serial killer, but frankly, it’s not that much of a stretch,” he said. “Chief Cook said as much. I can understand why news organizations ran with that, even if a little more caution would have been in order.”

Kennedy preferred the Post’s treatment of the possible connection, describing it as done in a careful manner, “but it’s clear that [other outlets] did not make this up out of whole cloth,” he said.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

City Councilor Tim Lovain has heard the theories.

Lovain, a North Ridge resident, knows first-hand the anxiety level of his neighbors following the eerie shooting that left Lodato dead and another woman injured.

“This is such a quiet neighborhood, [and because] this is such a traumatic and unsettling and tragic event, … it really has a lot of people on edge and worrying,” he said. “It’s sort of hard to let go. … It’s unnerving that an event like that would happen.”

Lovain also knew Kirby very well, and the similarities between the two recent cases have not been lost on him.

“Obviously, there is speculation about that, and as I understand, the police are actively looking at it because of the similarities in the two crimes,” he said. “I think cooler heads would say the possibility of a connection between the Lodato and Kirby murders is much more plausible than going back so far to Nancy Dunning, though it is certainly conceivable. But three months apart and a mile apart — that’s a little more worrisome.”

Ken Hill, president of the North Ridge Citizens’ Association, likewise knows of the speculation. Though many are concerned, Hill — like Lovain — said most residents trust the police department to solve the outstanding homicide cases.

As for the rampant speculation, that’s probably to be expected, Hill said.

“I think it’s a normal; it’s a normal sort of way to process this whole thing, as to how could this have happened. And not only that, but ‘Gee, I wonder if …,” he said.

Hill’s analysis hits the nail on the head, according to June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University. It’s natural for people to search for answers after an unexplained tragedy, she said, describing the reaction as a tool to manage anxiety.

“I think people really don’t want to live in a world where random bad things can happen anytime. You can take these bad things and connect them to one bad perpetrator. It’s scary that that person is out there, but there is a clear way to fix it,” Tangney said. “If you have these unrelated bad events, then anything can happen tomorrow.”