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“We Want These Cases Closed”
For years, DC police have mishandled evidence that could have put killers behind bars. Now they’re trying to catch those criminals. How do you solve a murder that happened ten years ago? By Brendan L. Smith
“You investigate the crime that led up to the murder,” says DC detective Jim Trainum, who has spent the past six years reviewing almost 2,000 cold cases for potential leads. Photograph by Matthew Worden.
Comments () | Published July 1, 2009

When Terrence Barnett proposed to her, Yolanda Baker admired the pretty ring, then said no. She wanted the father of her twins to be part of their lives but was afraid of Barnett’s behavior.

When he got angry, Barnett would erupt in violence. Police charged him with threatening Baker, assaulting her, and destroying her property. “This was a man who beat her,” says Robert Hines, Baker’s brother-in-law. “This is a man who broke her wrist and pulled her hair out.”

Baker told Barnett she wouldn’t marry him until he changed. But she wouldn’t leave him. “She said she had kids by him and she really wanted a family,” says Niola Hines, Baker’s sister.

Baker’s mother worried. “I’m so scared he is going to be the cause of your death,” she said one night in 1998 after Barnett smashed the windshield of her daughter’s car.

A year later—on August 1, 1999—Yolanda Baker vanished, leaving behind a trail of questions in a case that has stumped DC police.

Barnett quickly became the primary suspect because of his history of domestic violence against Baker, police said. He didn’t report that Baker had been missing for three days, and he offered different stories to police and her family about her whereabouts.

Police searched Baker and Barnett’s home on 44th Street in Northeast DC and found signs that blood stains had been cleaned up. When crime-scene investigators sprayed a blood-detecting chemical on the walls and floor, a trail of blood glowed bluish-green from the reaction.

“It lit up like a Christmas tree all over the bedroom floor, the walls,” Robert Hines says police told him. “They could tell that there was some real struggling going on, down the stairs to the living room area, on the wall, over some of the furniture.”

The blood trail led out the door to where Baker’s car had been parked, but the car was missing. Weeks later, her black sedan was found in an alley a few miles away. Police told Hines that the wheel well in the back of the car was “full of blood.”

But Baker’s body has not been found, and no one has been charged with her murder.

Baker, who was 35, left behind five-year-old twins, a boy and girl. Barnett, their father, is gone, leaving after a six-year relationship with Baker marred by abuse, arrests, and restraining orders. “He had such a rage in him,” says Hines. “It was a rage like a ball of fire.”

“Are We Any Less?”

Unlike the murder of 24-year-old intern Chandra Levy, most DC homicides never get headlines or news coverage.

DC police recently announced an arrest in Levy’s case. Ingmar “Chuckie” Guandique was charged with first-degree murder in March. The 27-year-old Salvadoran immigrant already is serving a ten-year sentence for assaulting two women in Rock Creek Park near where Levy’s body was discovered a year after her disappearance in 2001.

The case had been an embarrassment for DC police, who were criticized for focusing too much on Levy’s affair with former congressman Gary Condit.

Robert Hines says it was hard for his family to watch the media frenzy. “They pulled out everything. They got dogs, they got the Park Police involved,” he says. “It was hard to come home and turn on the TV and you hear about this massive manhunt searching here and there, and we’re going, ‘Are we any less?’ ”

Each year on the anniversary of her sister’s disappearance, Niola Hines and her husband have contacted the DC mayor, the DC police chief, the US Attorney’s office—anyone they could think of who might help reopen the case. The family believes the DC police botched the initial investigation, allowing leads to slip away and evidence to be destroyed.

After the couple appealed last year to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office, Baker’s case was reopened as a missing-body homicide by the DC police’s Major Case/Cold Case Unit. The new investigation is part of a project to reexamine more than 3,700 unsolved DC homicides over the last four decades.

Television and the CSI Effect

Advances in DNA technology and new investigative techniques have helped crack some cases, but the 13 detectives in the DC cold-case unit face lots of obstacles, many caused by the department’s missteps. Old homicide files have been misplaced or destroyed. Thousands of items of evidence, including drugs and firearms, have been lost or stolen at the police-evidence warehouse.

Many cold cases hit dead ends, but there have been arrests of surprised defendants for murders that occurred years before. The work bears little resemblance to TV crime shows, where any murder, no matter how old or complex, can be solved in an hour. The shows have heightened the public’s expectations so much that police call it the “CSI effect,” says Lieutenant Michael Farish, who leads DC’s homicide division.

“They think we can turn on special machines and we have all the answers,” he says. “It doesn’t work that way in real life. There are two hard things to tell families—one is that their loved one has been killed, and the other is the case is at a dead end.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles