26 years, 26 miles

A daugh­ter who lost her mother to a se­rial killer runs a memo­rial marathon

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JOHN WOODROW COX

Liz Dun­ning awoke be­fore her alarm sounded. She knew she would. She got out of bed at 4:30 Satur­day morn­ing and dressed for what was to come, pulling an or­ange T-shirt over her lay­ers. “RUN LIZZIE RUN,” it said, on front and back. She brewed a pot of cof­fee, then sat on the kitchen floor to lace up her pur­ple sneak­ers. Her hus­band, Paul, leaned down to kiss the top of her head. “I’m very proud of you,” he whis­pered. “Good luck with the guys to­day,” she said, re­fer­ring to their sons, ages 3 and 7.

“Good luck,” he smiled, “with run­ning a marathon to­day.”

If life had gone as it was sup­posed to, she wouldn’t have run a marathon on this day. She would have wo­ken

Liz Dun­ning reaches for the hand of her hus­band, Paul, just yards from the fin­ish line of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Wash­ing­ton.

up and called her mother, Nancy, to wish her a glo­ri­ous 70th birth­day. They would have seen each other for lunch or din­ner or a party. They would have shared mar­gar­i­tas and talked about the kids. They would have dis­cussed their next big trip to­gether. They would have laughed.

But none of that hap­pened be­cause, on the morn­ing of Dec. 5, 2003, Nancy opened the front door of her Alexan­dria home and was shot to death by a stranger.

Not un­til 2014 did in­ves­ti­ga­tors ar­rest Charles Sev­er­ance, an ec­cen­tric and bit­ter man who pros­e­cu­tors said chose his vic­tims for their so­cial sta­tus. In a case that drew na­tional at­ten­tion, he was con­victed of Nancy’s killing and two other mur­ders, and sen­tenced to life in prison.

For years, Liz had never pub­licly told the story of her

with Nancy or the depths of her an­guish when it was frac­tured. But after the trial, she said, she felt free to honor her mom in a new way.

She de­cided that 2017, when she would turn 40 and her mother would have turned 70, had to be the right time. She wanted to do some­thing hard — some­thing that de­manded sac­ri­fice. She had al­ways liked to run, so maybe a marathon. She’d com­pleted one be­fore, at 23. Nancy had come to sup­port her then, find­ing five spots along the route to give her daugh­ter or­ange slices and shout the same words of en­cour­age­ment: “Run, Lizzie. Run.”

After Christ­mas, Liz searched for up­com­ing races. And there it was: On March 11, her mother’s birth­day, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Wash­ing­ton. She soon con­nected an­other two dots. A marathon cov­ers 26 miles; she and her mother had shared 26 years.

“Oh,” she thought, “I have to do this.”

She launched a blog to share mem­o­ries of her mother and raise money — more than $28,000 — for the Brady Cam­paign to Pre­vent Gun Vi­o­lence.

Now, be­fore dawn Satur­day, Liz was rid­ing in a Lyft car from her home in up­per North­west Wash­ing­ton to the start­ing line on Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue. She stepped out into a wind chill of 17 de­grees.

She slipped on a snow­cap and found a spot in front of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory as Eminem boomed from nearby speak­ers. She bounced and stretched. She grew quiet. It was time. Liz found her place amid hun­dreds of run­ners who didn’t know who she was or why she’d come. As the 10-sec­ond count­down for her group be­gan, she glanced up at the clear, blue sky.

Each morn­ing, Nancy’s voice rose from the kitchen. In a silly, op­er­atic tone, she would sing to her sleepy-eyed son and daugh­ter — about the raisins in their oat­meal, the spelling test at school, any­thing at all. They’d roll their eyes. They’d gig­gle.

To the pub­lic, so much of Nancy’s legacy was de­fined by de­tails about her death and the years of un­cer­tainty that fol­lowed be­fore the se­rial killer who took her life was caught.

To Liz, she has never been de­fined by any of that. Nancy, at just over 5 feet tall, was the strik­ing, com­pas­sion­ate, fiercely op­ti­mistic woman with light blue eyes and blond hair who sang to her kids about oat­meal. She was, to Liz, her dear­est friend.

Mother and daugh­ter sel­dom ar­gued, but not be­cause they didn’t dis­agree, es­pe­cially in Liz’s teenage years. Nancy had a way of sens­ing her daugh­ter’s moods — of say­ing just the right thing.

Nancy was so sad in the months be­fore her daugh­ter left for col­lege in Ohio that Liz made her a col­lec­tion of mix tapes, mostly filled with R.E.M. Nancy would lis­ten to “Ev­ery­body Hurts” when she des­per­ately missed Liz, then call just to say she had lis­tened to it.

Even as her so­cial de­mands grew — sell­ing real es­tate, or­ga­niz­ing char­ity drives, at­tend­ing events with her hus­band, Alexan­dria’s then-Sher­iff James Dun­ning — Nancy re­mained acutely fo­cused on her kids.

She be­gan to prop open a card­board box on her din­ing room ta­ble and, day after day, fill it with items she would send her daugh­bond ter at the end of each month: olive bread, a new brand of dark cof­fee, an ar­ti­cle about a band they should see to­gether dur­ing sum­mer break, a soft pair of socks that might com­fort her be­fore ex­ams.

To cel­e­brate Liz’s 20th birth­day and Nancy’s 50th, they flew to Mi­ami and drove in a white con­vert­ible to Key West. They ate Key lime pie with ev­ery meal and went on a snor­kel­ing ex­cur­sion that Nancy im­me­di­ately aborted. “I’m 50,” she said. “I don’t need this.”

Nancy picked up a six-pack of Pete’s Wicked Ale, which Liz in­sisted was the most fash­ion­able choice.

The pair sat on the sec­ond-floor bal­cony of the bed-and-break­fast and rested their feet on the rail. Her mother’s toe­nails, she has never for­got­ten, were painted blue, like the ocean. They watched peo­ple pass and told jokes. They con­sid­ered all the happy times ahead and imag­ined the birth­day trips to come.

When Liz reached 40 and Nancy 70, mother and daugh­ter won­dered, what might they do to­gether then?

The call came just after noon on that win­ter day 14 years ago. “Liz, mom’s dead,” said her brother, Chris. “She’s been killed.”

Soon, she was in a co-worker’s car, be­ing driven to her par­ents’ home.

Liz had last seen her mom just days ear­lier at the Na­tional The­ater for a per­for­mance of “Mamma Mia!” They had danced to­gether in the aisle.

“This must be a mis­take,” she said.

Liz never made it in­side. Chris stopped her in the road.

He con­vinced her it was true. “She’s dead,” he said.

Chris and James were sup­posed to have met Nancy for lunch, but when she didn’t show up, they drove to the house. Near shop­ping bags filled with items she had just bought for needy chil­dren, they found her body.

Liz spent that night on her knees in a ho­tel bath­room, fore­head pressed against a cold, tear-slicked ce­ramic tile floor.

Liz searched for ways to cope. She went to ther­apy alone and with her fa­ther and brother. She placed a bird feeder in her back yard so she could stare at car­di­nals just like the ones that had lived be­hind her par­ents’ home. She fell in love with her even­tual hus­band, Paul, who treated her like Liz in­stead of the girl whose mom was mur­dered. She wrote let­ters to Nancy, too. “I needed her to know what was hap­pen­ing,” said Liz, who now works at a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Wash­ing­ton, where she gives grants to teach­ers in pub­lic schools.

Liz’s fa­ther of­ten felt lost, she said. Peo­ple stared. They spread ru­mors. Once, a stranger ap­proached Liz in the gro­cery store: “Your dad was re­spon­si­ble.”

He re­tired be­fore mov­ing to South Carolina in 2007. Five years later, at 62 — with the case still un­solved — he died of heart fail­ure. Liz blames that on the mur­der and its after­math.

Two years later, well after Liz had given up hope that the killer would be found, she got a call about a sus­pect. She com­pared images of Sev­er­ance with footage taken of a man who might have fol­lowed Nancy out of a Tar­get shortly be­fore the shoot­ing.

Their hair­lines, she thought, looked iden­ti­cal.

She sat through nearly ev­ery minute of the trial, con­vinced that in­ves­ti­ga­tors had found the right man. Be­fore sen­tenc­ing, she men­tioned her own sons to the jury.

“They’ll never know her,” Liz said.

Liz once feared that she couldn’t be­come the mother to her chil­dren that Nancy was to her. In­stinc­tively, it seemed, Nancy al­ways thought of her chil­dren first. Could she do that, too?

She and Paul re­fused to let her mother’s mem­ory fade. For an an­nual lu­mi­naria light­ing last year, the kids drew pic­tures of her and Liz on the pa­per bags that held the can­dles. The cou­ple took their older son to ride his bike in the Outer Banks near where Liz’s par­ents had also taught her how to ride. Their younger son calls Nancy “Grandma Happy Face” be­cause, in so many pho­tos, she’s smil­ing.

The kids didn’t know it, but they had helped push her to run the marathon, too. They would never meet Nancy, and some­day, they would learn the ter­ri­ble rea­son why. But the marathon might of­fer the kids — who wore bright or­ange shirts just like their mom’s — a last­ing mem­ory linked to their grand­mother.

And so, they cheered their mother on at miles 15 and 21, and when she pushed through the fin­ish line at 4 hours 29 min­utes. Ex­hausted, Liz didn’t say much. She picked up a bot­tle of wa­ter and a gra­nola bar, then re­trieved her back­pack. She pulled on her sweat­shirt and limped through the crowd of run­ners bask­ing in their fin­ishes.

She had just run 26.2 miles in freez­ing, windy weather on the day of her slain mother’s birth­day, but all of that could wait. Her thoughts, the first ones, were with her boys, who had en­dured the cold all morn­ing.

“I know they’ve been through a lot,” Liz said, and as they came into view, she waved and limped faster.

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Liz Dun­ning holds vin­tage fam­ily pho­tos of her­self and her mother, Nancy Dun­ning. ABOVE: Liz Dun­ning, cen­ter, out­side an Alexan­dria court­house in 2015 dur­ing the trial of Charles Sev­er­ance, who was found guilty of mur­der­ing her mother.

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