Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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One of our county’s most horrific crimes, a half-century ago, was just confirmed as an open case at the Arlington Police Department.

The brutal beating of Brenda Sue Pennington, in January 1965, drew coverage for years from the Evening Star (front page), The Washington Post, the Northern Virginia Sun and papers in her home state of West Virginia.

Her surviving relatives are petitioning to solve the mystery and identify the perpetrator.

Pennington was a 19-year-old from Quinwood, W. Va., who worked in Rosslyn as a key punch operator for Howard Research. On Jan. 25, 1965, when she failed to show up for work, her supervisor contacted her apartment building at 1632 N. Oak Street.

The door ajar, her boss and the building owner and manager entered her apartment and discovered the gruesome scene.

Pennington, wearing only a white sweater and bra, was half-under the bed unconscious. On examination, they could see her eyes were black and swollen alongside a two-by-four-inch gash on her left temple. “A [mercury] substance was observed on the victim’s midsection, uterus and upper legs,” the police report said. The phone was off the hook. After she was rushed to Arlington Hospital in a coma, her parents, Olive and D.S. Pennington, a trucker, made the eight-hour journey to hold vigil.

Their only child had been an attractive high school drama enthusiast and 4H Club member. Friends recalled that she abandoned small-town life and moved to Arlington for career and social freedom. She was skilled enough to be teaching night classes at Temple School and frequented night clubs downtown. Her landlady had promised her parents she would look after Brenda’s safety.

Her cousin Jim Pennington, who lived in the same building and who was interrogated by police, said Brenda wouldn’t answer her door without the security latch in place. Neighbors saw her with a heavy-set blond man.

Commonwealth’s attorney William Hassan hoped in vain to interview the hospitalized victim. He later confirmed evidence she’d had sex, though the timing wasn’t clear. Detectives determined a TV was missing, as was a heavy wine decanter, the probable weapon.

Years of investigation with dozens questioned fingered no culprit. Brenda never recovered. She remained in a vegetative state requiring spoon-feeding and diapers. She was moved to a West Virginia nursing home. Russell Runyon, a detective on the case, contributed $500 of his own money to a fund for the family. “She’s better off dead…. Her parents have been through hell,” he said in 1977.

Pennington depended on Medicare until her death in 2007. “She lived a horrible life,” said her cousin, Iona Dillard of St. Albans, W. Va., who this January filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Arlington police. “We would like to know why they didn’t pursue it, if they looked further for suspects,” she said. “We would love to have it solved, but it’s not likely.”

Brenda “had a strict upbringing and met new people in Arlington,” said fiction author Amanda Summerbell, who is researching a possible book on the case. “It could have been anyone she knew.”

This February, Lt. Scott Linder of Arlington Police Internal Affairs wrote the cousin saying that some of the report on Pennington cannot be released because it is “related to a criminal investigation.” Police confirmed to this writer the case has not been closed.

***

That female panhandler seen certain days on Sycamore Street and Washington Boulevard is a pretty good artist.

I can vouch. “Helen,” as she asked me to call her, works out of a tent in the woods. She paints in acrylics doing local nature scenes on the Potomac, Georgetown and Mount Vernon bike trail.

Recently, she got the idea of offering postcard reproductions six for $10. They are “selling like hotcakes,” she said as she gave me her brochure. Originals are priced from $400 to $6,000.

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