A dark blue sport-utility vehicle that belonged to beloved D.C. schools Principal Brian Betts turned up Saturday, parked next to a church van and tucked behind a children’s ministry in Southeast Washington.
The clean, apparently undamaged Nissan Xterra was 14 miles from the Silver Spring home where Betts, 42, was found dead Thursday of one or more gunshot wounds. Montgomery County detectives retrieved the car and searched it for evidence.
“Somebody was in it,” said Capt. Paul Starks, a Montgomery police spokesman. “We want to find out about the person who was in it.”
Betts was a rising star in D.C. public schools as principal of Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, where he had gone to work in 2008 with a handpicked staff of young teachers as part of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s citywide school overhaul movement. Colleagues alerted police Thursday after Betts did not report for work. Police say they think he was killed by someone he let into his home. Betts’s clothed body was found inside a bedroom, police said Saturday.
Detectives quickly learned that the Nissan was missing, as were items from Betts’s home. Since discovering the body, the police department has released few details, concerned that doing so might tip off any suspects to what they know.
Police are trying to piece together a timeline of where Betts was and who he was with in his final hours. Neighbors have said they saw him in his back yard Wednesday evening. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have friends over. In his back yard Saturday was evidence of those gatherings: two grills, and a hot tub perched on a deck. From the start of the case, detectives wanted to find the Nissan, which residents said appeared in the 3900 block of Fourth Street SE between noon and 1:30 p.m. Friday.
“We just figured it was a stolen vehicle, because it was hidden behind our vehicle,” said Sherrita Mullen, who lives and works at the Metro D.C. Kids’ Konnection, housed in the building next to where the car was found. The Nissan was parked off a lonely alley, between a large white van and an embankment, a spot where it could be glimpsed only from a few spots on the sidewalk.
Mullen said she returned from lunch Friday to find the Nissan. A neighbor told her that “some young guys just pulled up in the back and parked it there, and then they just came running across and left,” Mullen said. Efforts to find a direct witness to that account were unsuccessful Saturday. “There have been vehicles hidden here before,” Mullen said. “They had to know the alley was here.” Mullen said she waited a day to call authorities; the vehicle was so tidy, she thought it might belong to a neighbor. Officials said the car was reported to them at 10:40 a.m. Saturday.
The slaying has transfixed the community, partly because of the macabre surroundings of the case. In 2002, a man and his 9-year-old daughter were killed in the same Silver Spring home. Betts had learned of the house’s past only after he purchased it, and a neighbor said he had once invited friends over to bless it.
Betts left a lasting imprint throughout his career. As a physical education teacher at Neelsville Middle School in Germantown, he had created a new breed of gym class, one in which the goal was personal betterment rather than competition, and with no embarrassing showers at the end of the lesson. A former college cheerleader, he started a cheerleading team at Neelsville and taught a generation of adolescent boys that cheerleading was cool.
He later worked in the central office of Montgomery schools, increasing the number of accelerated middle-grade classes for the county. Rhee lured him away in 2008 to lead Shaw, returning Betts to a neighborhood where he had once lived. Betts forged such a powerful relationship with his students that a group of eighth-grade boys successfully lobbied the chancellor to allow them another year with Betts at Shaw.
“We would sit on the porch and talk about our schools, how important it was to have adults who genuinely like children,” said Kevin Hobbs, a longtime friend and principal of Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg. Betts knew most of his students and their families by name, and many of them knew his cellphone number by heart. Some were more apt to call him, rather than their parents, if they got in trouble. He would take delegations of students to speak at other schools and to visit colleges. Parents called him at home seeking disciplinary help.
Starks, the police spokesman, declined to say whether detectives are looking at students or former students as suspects. Police have said they are casting a wide net in the case and following all leads. Betts had three cats and a dog. A neighbor took in the dog and spent part of Saturday trying to find a permanent owner. Betts’s sister, Jennifer Altomare, now has the cats. Betts regularly attended Washington Nationals games and loved to travel with his mother, Doris. Once a week, he bowled.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call homicide detectives at 240-773-5070. Callers may remain anonymous.