Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Twice recently I heard mention of one of our area’s grimmer historical tales, that of a serial murderer who by day was a jazz musician and salesman in Arlington.

Melvin Rees (1933-95) went down in the annals of infamous killers, websites for which I was steered to by jazz buff Ken Briley of Arlington Independent Media.

In the late 1950s, folks in Northern Virginia and Annapolis, Md., were terrorized by tough-to-solve torture-murders and sexual assaults. Rees was the murderer in our midst.

Before he was apprehended in Arkansas, Rees played piano and saxophone with Arlingtonian Lenny Cuje, a jazz vibraphonist who had two connections to the killer before he was exposed. Cuje bought a vibraphone from Rees when he worked at Swiller’s Music store in Clarendon, where he offered accordion lessons.

Cuje also played jazz with Rees in clubs around the Washington area. On the piano, sax or clarinet, Rees – who was called by his middle name Dave – “was not an especially good musician, but we needed musicians,” Cuje told me. Cuje would help Rees’s wife, a dancer at the clubs they played in, after Rees was arrested, and was interviewed by the FBI.

“If he came to practice all pumped up and playing well,” Cuje later realized, “it meant he had just done a killing.”

Scary stuff, indeed. Reese was caught after three years of detective work by Washington and Prince George’s County police and the FBI linking cases two years apart.

In the first case, on June 26, 1957, Margaret Harold and her Army sergeant boyfriend were heading toward a secluded “lover’s lane” near Annapolis. A man in a green Chrysler forced them off the road. Displaying a gun, the criminal demanded cigarettes and money. He then shot the woman in the face, at which point the sergeant fled, eventually reaching a farmhouse to call police. Investigators found that the killer had sexually assaulted her corpse (that and pornographic findings would earn Rees the name “Sex Beast”).

The second case unfolded in Apple Grove, Va., on Jan. 11, 1959. Carroll Jackson, his wife Mildred, and two young daughters went missing.  A two-month manhunt led to the father’s decomposing body in a ditch, victim of a gunshot. The female victims were found in a forest near Fredericksburg, with signs of sexual torture.

Some news coverage was sensational, with a psychic reporting a controversial link between the two cases. But the real tipoff was an anonymous letter from “a buddy” of the musician’s and a police raid on his home that uncovered Rees’s own description of the Jackson murder.

What was Rees like? Profiles in the Washington Post and Evening Star after his arrest on June 24, 1960, describe a “handsome, 6-foot-3-inch 170-pounder” member of the musicians union.

Rees had gone to military school in South Carolina in the early 1940s and graduated from Hyattsville High. He joined the Army and played in its band before switching to the Air Force band. He took courses at the University of Maryland, married and had a son.

Rees was never prosecuted for several other murders he was suspected of. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he died of heart failure in 1995.

His final employer, the West Memphis, Ark, piano store manager, said he was “a nice quiet guy who didn’t sell much.”

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Former state Sen. from Arlington Mary Margaret Whipple will speak at the Dec. 4 ceremonial groundbreaking in Richmond for the Virginia Women’s Monument, Voices from the Garden.

The fruit of a 2010 act of the General Assembly, this first-of-its-kind assemblage of bronze statues will acknowledge genius and creativity in 12 Virginia women and their contributions to the Commonwealth over the past 400 years.

The donation-funded, interactive monument will make up for neglect of women’s unsung roles — “women simply have not been recognized,” I was told by Whipple, who, working with historians and women’s studies specialists, helped with the selections.