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The death of Sharon Moskowitz: Finally, charges in a 12-year mystery

Writing about crime can be grisly, sad and plenty of other adjectives that cause some people to steer clear of the topic. But for sure, crime is never dull.

In fact, one of the most interesting moments for me as a crime reporter is after police make an arrest. That's when, through court papers that police must file, I can get the first peek at the behind-the-scenes police work that led to the arrest.

In the death of Sharon Moskowitz, a 25-year-old intern killed in her D.C. apartment in 1997, court papers were not available yesterday as I was putting my story together because the suspect, 57-year-old Frederick Edward Morton, hadn't yet been arraigned.

But this morning the D.C. U.S. Attorney's office released the document that convinced a judge to issue the arrest warrant. It is a tale spanning 12 years that involves a missing piggy bank, a winter wool scarf, supermarket parking lot schemes, grainy surveillance video, two dead witnesses and, finally, a suspect ensnared.

Here's what happened, according to the four-page affidavit filed by D.C. detective Anthony Brigidini:

A person referred to as "W-1" (short for Witness-1), who was living in a house in the 1900 block of Biltmore St NW came home on Jan. 21 between 2:30 and 3 p.m. to find the back door unlocked and partially open.

"Hello?" the witness said.

No answer.

The person walked through the house and found Moskowitz lying face-down on the floor, her hands and feet tied. The person called 911. The house had been ransacked; jewelry was missing; even a piggybank filled with pennies was taken. Moskowitz died by being strangled with her own winter wool scarf, according to the medical examiner.

Another witness told police that their credit card had been stolen, and the police were able to contact the store vendors and get surveillance video of the suspects shopping at times that matched the stolen purchases. Police found a third witness, a handyman working in the alley, who saw two suspects right before the burglary, but when they showed the witness a photo spread that included shots from the surveillance video, the witness said the video was too grainy to make an identification.

The video was shown on America's Most Wanted in 1997. At that time, a man named Morris Brown came forward and told police he was the person on the video who was shopping for groceries with the suspect. He didn't know his name, he just called him "Shorty," and said that a man came up to him in the Safeway parking lot and offered to buy him hundreds of dollars of groceries in exchange for $40 in cash. Brown agreed.

Fast forward to August 2009, when D.C. police found a witness who back then was also offered groceries in exchange for cash, and who saw Brown with the suspect. Brown was now dead. But police, working with a video enhancement expert from the U.S. Secret Service, were able to pull more images from the video, including a new clip that showed the suspect shopping with a woman at a Giant supermarket in D.C.

Police asked NBC4 reporter Pat Collins to run a story about the Moskowitz murder and released the enhanced video.

Within days, a tip came in that the woman in the video was named "Joan" and that she was a heroin addict known to hang around 9th and O Streets NW. Detectives spent weeks searching for Joan, and later confirmed a tip that she died Oct. 30. Brigidini was undeterred.

He pulled death reports and asked an intelligence specialist with the U.S. Attorney's office to pull police reports, pre-sentencing reports and credit records related to the woman named Joan. Her full name was Joan Tomlin Williams and at one point, she said, she was living with a man named Frederick Morton.

Brigidini found a photo of Morton -- he was a longtime heroin addict who had been arrested or convicted in connection with nearly a dozen burglaries -- and saw that a photograph of Morton looked similar to a composite sketch based on a witness description.

Finally, detectives found a fifth witness this month who confirmed that Joan Williams had been living with a man named "Butch." The witness watched the surveillance video of a woman shopping with a suspect and said the woman was Joan Williams. And when the detective showed the witness the photograph of Frederick Edward Morton, the witness said "that's Butch right there."

Butch -- aka Morton -- has been charged with first-degree murder.

--Theola Labbé-DeBose

By Theola Labbé-DeBose  |  November 25, 2009; 12:50 PM ET
Categories:  From the Courthouse , Homicide , The Criminal Mind , The District , Theola Labbé-DeBose , Updates  
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Next: Detective's error prompts judge to toss out confession


Great, that scumbag will serve 10 or so years in prison before he dies, while he took the life of a 25 year old.

There has to be better, more painful ways of punishing someone than simple jail time.

Posted by: kenk3 | November 25, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

There has to be better, more painful ways of punishing someone than simple jail time.

Apparently you have not been to jail.

Posted by: ged0386 | November 25, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations and thanks to Detective Brigidini.

Posted by: jarvis20009 | November 25, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

and the newspaper convicts the guy before the jury even begins to hear the story.

Posted by: anon82 | November 25, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

With a solid conviction, this story will give hope to those left behind waiting for evidence to lead to the killer who murdered their loved one. It has been a long 13 months, but even if it takes 12 years, we will not lose hope!

Thank you DC MPD for sticking with it!

Posted by: Ross65 | November 29, 2009 12:19 AM | Report abuse

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