Murder in DC: The Killing of Dana Vonde Chisholm

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WASHINGTON — Born on Aug. 30, 1969, to Johnny and Jogary Chisholm, Dana Vonde Chisholm, and her two siblings grew up in a middle-class section of Rock Hill, North Carolina. She attended Northwestern High School, where she sang in the school chorus and was a cheerleader and member of the homecoming court. By all accounts, Chisholm was a typical American teenager.

As many teens do, she became rebellious in high school and dabbled in drugs. She also once ran away from home. However, she cleaned up her act and decided that she wanted a better life for herself.

After high school, Chisholm enrolled at the now-defunct King’s College in Charlotte, where she studied business. But she thought living in Rock Hill was boring. She craved excitement and new adventures.

Sometime between 1993 and 1994, Chisholm moved to Washington D.C. and rented a small basement apartment on Argyle Terrace NW in the city’s Crestwood neighborhood.

Crestwood is a quiet residential area near Rock Creek Park, a lush 1,754-acre city park and one of America’s oldest parks. Former Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV and the late William S. Sessions, FBI director from 1987-1994, also lived in Crestwood. 

In the late fall of 1994, Chisholm landed a secretary job at Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank on 18th Street NW McPherson Square. The organization relocated in 2016 to Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

To her neighbors and co-workers, Chisholm appeared to live a quiet, everyday life. In reality, she had been living two very separate lives.

On Friday, Feb. 24, 1995, Chisholm, 25, telephoned a close friend and said she felt under the weather and might not make it to work on Monday. She planned on staying home the whole weekend.

The weekend came and went without the friend hearing from her. On Monday, Feb. 27, Chisholm’s office manager visited the friend’s home around 9:30 a.m. to ask if she had spoken with Chisholm; her parents had been unable to reach her. The friend said she had not spoken to her since the previous Friday.

Chisholm’s landlord, Cynthia Ford, lived upstairs with her teenage son. Ford checked on her at 6 p.m. after someone from Hudson Institute called to say she never made it to work.

Ford entered the apartment and found Chisholm’s naked body on the hallway floor with a cord wrapped tightly around her neck.

The autopsy showed the cause of death was asphyxiation by strangulation, and Chisholm may also have been raped. The medical examiner determined she had been dead for about 20 hours when Ford found her body.

The Crestwood neighborhood was low-crime, and residents rarely heard police sirens.

In a June 2011 piece on Chisholm’s murder, Avis Thomas-Lester of The Washington Post wrote, “The year she died, the D.C. police homicide division investigated 361 new killings, 118 fewer than the 479 that were reported in 1991, the peak year of the city’s epidemic of violence. In 2010, the District logged only 132 slayings.”  

When the police arrived at Chisholm’s apartment, they found no signs of forced entry, and the killer had ransacked the place. They also discovered a handwritten note attached to the back door that read, “I’ll be back — MPD,” the Metropolitan Police Department’s initials.

Investigators learned that Chisholm often visited local bars and ran and answered personal ads to meet men. She kept actual records of her sexual encounters. The men she dated varied in ages and professions.

“She ran those 976-DATE-type-ads,” Homicide Commander Michael Farish told The Washington Post in 2011. “She’d sleep with these guys then say things like, ‘My roommate moved out, and I could really use some help with the rent.’ It wasn’t blackmail exactly, but the message was definitely that it might be in their best interests to pay her.”

Farish had investigated Chisholm’s murder in 1995 when he was a Sgt. He never said that she was a sex worker, but her actions imply that she was.

A week before her murder, Chisholm called her parents in North Carolina and told them she was coming home in two weeks and that she had something to say to them — she was four weeks pregnant.

A few hours after the murder, Johnny Chisholm received a phone call from a man who identified himself as Lt. Lewis Douglass of the MPD. The call took place hours before Ford found Chisholm’s body. The caller said that Chisholm had been arrested for prostitution during a sting operation at the Omni Hotel. The man said she would be arraigned the following morning and “should be out sometime later tomorrow. Don’t worry. She’ll call you.” The man gave Johnny Chisholm a callback number to reach him.

According to the elder Chisholm, the man sounded nervous and edgy and spoke in a loud manner. Investigators later traced the call to a payphone at Fourth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, roughly five blocks north of MPD police headquarters. 

Here’s the crazy part. Chisholm’s parents called the number the man left them. Lt. Lewis Douglass did work for the MPD, and he answered their call. However, he said he never called them regarding their daughter and wondered how they got his office number. Douglass told them he had met their daughter weeks earlier when she reported her television stolen to the police. Investigators believe that Douglass gave Chisholm a business card, and the killer found it while ransacking her apartment.

Johnny Chisholm tried desperately to get a hold of his daughter. He telephoned her boss, but the man was rude and hung up the phone when Johnny asked if she was at work.

Her parents then called a co-worker who told them Chisholm never made it to work and did not call in to report an absence.

That afternoon, the Chisholms called Lt. Douglass again, but he had already left for the day. However, he left a message stating he had gone to their daughter’s apartment and knocked several times, but she never answered. He then left business cards on her door and vehicle.  

Around 1 a.m. on March 1, 1995, in Rock Hill, two police officers knocked on the Chisholms front door. A local dispatcher called the house to inform them that the officers were at the door. The police told them that Chisholm had been killed and gave a telephone number at the MPD to call.

The last time Chisholm’s parents spoke with her was on February 16. Dana had sent them a Valentine’s Day card with money, and Johnny Chisholm called her at work to thank her for the gift.

The Chisholms never heard from Douglass again, and the MPD refused to let Douglass speak to Thomas-Lester. In 2011, Douglass was a captain with the youth division. A quick check of MPD’s current district rosters does not show Douglass listed as employed there.

A man with a raspy voice called MPD and asked to speak with Farish, but he was out of the office. The man left messages for Farish but gave no callback number. 

A few weeks later, the man called again, and this time Farish answered. The man claimed Chisholm died because of her lifestyle. He wanted Farish to share details of her private life with journalists reporting the killing. However, Farish lied and told reporters a story about a naive young woman. He did so, hoping to draw the man out and reveal his identity.

Farish had a few short conversations with the caller before agreeing to meet with him. He drove in his unmarked police cruiser to an area east of the Potomac River that the caller had designated to meet. Farish waited for hours, but the man was a no-show and never called him again.

In 2011, Farish told Thomas-Lester to put in her news piece that he would still like to speak to the caller, which she did, but the man never responded.

Farish became a lieutenant and then Homicide Commander in 2009. He retired three years later in 2012 after 29 years of police service. He said he planned to work as a consultant for the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.

True Crime Diva’s Thoughts

I think Dana knew her killer because strangulation is personal; the killer is usually facing the victim, mere inches from her face.

It’s possible the killer ransacked the apartment to make it look like a robbery or as if the killer was searching for something in particular. I don’t necessarily believe the latter, but maybe Dana had something on him.

Police have never named a suspect or person of interest in Dana’s killing; however, here are a few possibilities.

Lt. Lewis Douglass – the real one

The caller made the call to Johnny Chisholm from a phone booth a few blocks from MPD Headquarters. Douglass had been to Dana’s apartment. Superiors at MPD refused to let Thomas-Lester speak to Douglass about the Chisholm case, which seems odd if he was not the caller and had nothing to do with her death. What was the big deal? Did he have a personal relationship with Chisholm after he met her at the police station? 

A jealous lover

One of the men she had had a sexual encounter with may have killed her, perhaps out of jealousy or rage, or because Dana had requested payment for something after sex, like rent, as mentioned above.

The father of her baby

This seems likely to me. Reports never mentioned who the father of Dana’s baby was; maybe no one knew. But it stands to reason that if the man did not want the baby, he might have killed her in a fit of rage if she rejected an abortion.

Maybe the man was married and had kids of his own and did not want another baby or the affair to disrupt his happy life. Perhaps he was a politician or wealthy, or both, and she threatened to go to the wife.

Nearly 26 years later, Chisholm’s family still awaits justice. The MPD is still investigating her case, but there have been no further developments.

Anyone with information regarding the murder of Dana Vonde Chisholm is asked to call the Metropolitan Police Department’s Synchronized Operations Command Center (SOCC) at 202-724-9099 or email unsolved.murder@dc.gov

4 comments

Nicole Stoudt February 5, 2021 - 11:31 PM

I have a question. If Dana’s landlord found her body at 6 pm on February 27, why did it take until 1 am on March 1st for the police to inform her patents? And why would they come in the middle of the night? So strange.

I’m thinking her killer was probably a man she invited over for sex and took advantage of the situation and killed her, simply because he could. There are lots of nut jobs out there. So unfortunately, unless he tells someone it will likely remain unsolved.

Prayers for her family.

Reply
truecrimediva February 6, 2021 - 8:42 AM

I wondered the same thing about the parents being notified late. I can’t answer your question, unfortunately. Maybe because they lived out-of-state, I don’t know.

Reply
IBikeNYC February 5, 2021 - 2:44 PM

I’ll go with the Lieutenant. Yes, it coulda been some random john, but what’s that saying: If you hear hoofbeats, don’t assume zebras!

Add in the pregnancy and possibly the racial angle, and that’s where I end up.

Reply
truecrimediva February 6, 2021 - 8:46 AM

Exactly!

Reply

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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