For the eighth consecutive year, Del Ray residents lined Mount Vernon Avenue with luminaries in memory of Nancy Dunning. For the eighth consecutive year, her murder remains unsolved.
“This is always a weird day and it’s never a fun day,” said Kate Moran, Dunning’s niece, on Monday, the anniversary of the slaying. Just days earlier, Moran — a local musician and neighborhood institution in her own right — had led residents in singing Christmas carols during the annual Del Ray holiday tree lighting.
Looking out onto the avenue, filled with families and ablaze in festive lights, Moran took a break between songs to note the luminaries and her connection to the tragedy.
The brainchild of Dunning, the luminaries — a pathway of flickering candles along the Del Ray sidewalk — were one more way to liven up the neighborhood. She never lived to see them wash Mount Vernon Avenue in pale, white light.
In time the lighting of the luminaries has come to symbolize her influence on Del Ray.
“It’s a way to honor her,” Moran said. “Things like luminaries and lighting the tree, those were things that she loved to do.”
Dunning, a well known Del Ray real estate agent and wife of then Sheriff Jim Dunning, was murdered on December 5, 2003. The couple’s son, Chris, discovered the body in the family home after she failed to show up for a lunch appointment.
The death of the “Queen of Del Ray” shocked the city. In the days and weeks that followed, police identified a single person of interest, a man wearing jeans and a black jacket caught on camera exiting the Potomac Yard Target store about the same time as Dunning.
The department still considers the murder an active case, said Police Chief Earl Cook, but the investigation has gone on long enough that the detective originally assigned to it has retired. Detective Robert Hickman heads the investigation these days.
Police believe the killer was known to Dunning, but authorities remain waiting for something — new evidence or a new lead — to break the case wide open, the chief said.
“It’s absolutely frustrating,” Cook said. “Our frustration is minimal compared to that of the family and others who want the perpetrator brought to justice. As you’ve seen in our community, Nancy’s legacy is very much still alive in this city and we would like to bring justice to the tragedy.”
The murder is not the sole outstanding homicide in the city. While it’s not yet considered a “cold case,” the department has at least two other unsolved murders under that designation. Cook believes it’s only a matter of time before something new surfaces.
“We’re encouraged by what has happened in the region, where you’ve seen homicides solved that have come up through a new lead or piece of evidence, forensic work or oral communication,” he said. “I’ve seen some long-term cases get solved … [It] tells you to stay the course and continue to turn over every rock.”
While memory of Dunning and her tragic death remain on Moran’s mind, she’s seen the community move forward. There’s a core of residents who speak about Dunning regularly, who knew her in life. But many newcomers to the popular neighborhood never had a chance to meet her.
It’s sad, but the natural course of things, Moran said. And no matter how many years pass, the community comes together annually to remember Dunning and celebrate her spirit.
“New people move in and that’s the nature of what happens, and there’s some great new volunteers and new ideas, and that’s what it is about,” she said. “That’s what make our community great. We still honor those who have left us.”