It was nearing dawn when the Durango came to a stop. Julie Thomas sat up in the back seat and said she needed some water. The assailant scooped up some snow, pulled the tape from her mouth, and wet her lips. She could see she was in a wooded area. She could also make out cars on a road behind them.
“That’s enough,” he said.
Then he got into the back seat and forced her to perform another sex act. She could see the gun on the front passenger seat.
Her hands were still tied. The assailant removed the scarf she was wearing, then rewrapped it tightly around her neck.
“What are you doing?” she screamed.
“What do you think I’m doing?” he said.
He tightened the scarf. She struggled. He pulled harder. The scarf dug into her neck, and she felt her eyes bulge.
She lost consciousness.
• • •
Early that Saturday morning, Thomas Love and his wife, Lynn, were headed to Potomac Town Center in Woodbridge, 40 miles south of Arlington. Because they’d gotten an early start, they took the scenic route, by Prince William Forest Park, and headed east on Minnieville Road.
Love had hit deer on the narrow country road before, so he was driving slowly, eyeing the woods and clearings. As he approached Alps Road, he and his wife noticed something moving in a power-line clearing. Was it a person? An animal? Love pulled over and got out.
Julie Thomas had regained consciousness with her face down in the snow. It took her a few seconds to realize what had happened. She lay quietly for a few minutes to make sure her assailant wasn’t around. Then she rolled over, saw the road, and realized she had to get there. She was freezing, soaked in snow and slush. Her legs were weak. Using her arms and elbows, she dragged herself toward the road until she could kneel and then stand.
She reached the road and tried to scream.
Tom Love made out a young woman. Blood was coming from her head, and she was shivering and turning blue. The skin was scraped from the tops of her feet. It looked to Love as if she had been dragged by a car. His wife wrapped her in her coat, took her into the truck, and turned on the heat. They called 911.
“I’ve been raped and beaten,” Thomas said. “Where’s Karen? Is she alive? Is she alive?”
• • •
Around 8 am, detective Jim Stone was completing his interview with Hanna Smith—the woman who had been attacked with the stun gun—when Detective Rounds interrupted. “The victim has been discovered,” she said. “She’s in Prince William County.”
Prince William police and an ambulance had arrived on the scene quickly and rushed Thomas to Potomac Hospital. She was badly bruised, but her life didn’t seem to be in danger.
Stone jumped into an unmarked car and drove down Interstate 95 to Potomac Hospital. Within 40 minutes, he was at her hospital room.
A forensic nurse, specializing in sexual assault, was examining Thomas. Thomas’s entire face was swollen, tiny red spots from burst blood vessels covered her face and neck, and her eyes were bloodshot and spotted—all consistent with strangulation. Dried blood surrounded her mouth, ears, and nose. Her hands and legs below her knees were cut and raw.
Stone began asking questions. Thomas’s throat had been damaged, so she responded in a hoarse whisper, but she was lucid.
“Can you describe the vehicle?” Stone asked.
“It was a silver SUV,” she said.
It was the first accurate description of the vehicle. Stone called in the lookout.
“I sure hope we catch this guy,” he said. They now had reports of two attempted abductions and had seen the damage to Thomas. “This could get really ugly.”
• • •
Later that morning, Officer Nucelli was knocking on doors in the neighborhood where Julie Thomas was abducted. Helicopters whirled overhead, and canine units walked the alleys. The night before, Nucelli had just finished a midnight shift when he heard the alert about Thomas’s abduction and decided to join the search.
Nucelli, 25, was relatively new to the Arlington PD. Raised in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he fell in love with policing as a cop in Ocean City, Maryland. In 2007 he landed a job with Arlington and went on midnight patrol.
“Nuch” and Clifford were tight. Nucelli was taller, leaner, a few years younger, and less intense than Clifford. They loved being cops and talking police work. Clifford was a mentor of sorts for Nuch.
Nucelli paused when he heard the lookout for the silver SUV come through the radio microphone on his shoulder. It took him a few seconds to remember the Durango he and Clifford had noticed cruising aimlessly during Snowmageddon.
Nucelli called Clifford and described the abduction.
“Remember that car in the snowstorm?” he asked. “I have a feeling it might be the same vehicle.”
Clifford felt chills run up his neck.
“Should I check it out?” Nucelli asked.
“Absolutely,” Clifford said.
“Do you remember the tag?” Nucelli asked.
Clifford recalled writing the number on a business card, but didn’t remember where he had put it. He had run the Durango’s tag through the electronic system of Virginia license plates.
“Check with the ECC,” Clifford said, referring to the police department’s Emergency Communications Center, which houses dispatchers and computer terminals connected to other agencies and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Could you recognize the driver?” Nucelli asked.
“Absolutely,” Clifford said.