The Blonde Woman

Date Published 11.29.06
Most college students spend the summer between their freshmen and sophomore years back in their hometown, working local jobs, sleeping late on weekends in their high school beds. Not Kristen Modafferi. She had big plans for the summer of 1997. She had arranged to live and work in San Francisco, clear across the country from North Carolina, where she went to college and her parents lived.

Kristen Modafferi

Modafferi got a job at Spinelli’s Coffee Shop in downtown San Francisco. She enrolled in a photography class at Berkeley. She spent her free time exploring the city’s neighborhoods, checking out art galleries and local beaches. Then, three weeks after she arrived in San Francisco, Kristen Modafferi, 18, vanished so completely it was like someone hit a button and extracted her soundlessly from the world.

A year and a half later, in Washington D.C., Joyce Chiang bundled herself in scarves against the winter chill. It was Saturday, January 9, 1999, and Chiang, an INS attorney, was battling a heavy workload and a bad cold. Still, Chiang met up with some friends for dinner and a movie. The daughter of hard-working Taiwanese immigrants, a former congressional intern who went to Georgetown Law Center at night, Chiang, 28, was not easily worn out. She was petite in size but not personality, a tiny force to be reckoned with.

Joyce Chiang

A friend of Chiang’s was driving her home at the end of the night when Chiang asked her to stop. They were at the corner of Connecticut and R Streets, across the street from a Starbucks. Chiang wanted a hot herbal tea before bed. She would walk the four blocks to her apartment, she told her friend, no problem. Wrapped tightly in a hooded coat and scarves, Chiang said goodbye and hopped out of the car, disappearing into the busy Dupont Circle crowd.

One moment she was there, big brown eyes peering out from her hood, and the next she was gone. Three months later, a canoeist on the Potomac River saw something out of place on a stretch of rocky shore. There were no answers to what had happened to her, just Joyce Chiang’s body eight miles from home.

On the surface Kristen Modaferri and Joyce Chiang’s cases have only superficial similarities. They were both high-achieving young women, dark-haired, who went missing in urban areas. Both cases share elliptical clues: a mysterious page Chiang received from a pay phone at Dulles airport the night she disappeared, the personal ad Modaferri may have run in the San Francisco Bay Guardian (“Female seeking friend(s) to share activities, who enjoy music, photography, working out, walks, coffee or simply the beach, exploring the Bay Area!”), Chiang’s jacket, with a tear along the back, found next to the Anacostia River. Another common, but tragic, link: both cases are unsolved.

But the young women’s cases are mostly so different that no one has ever connected them before. There’s the age difference – 10 years - of the victims. Chiang’s body was recovered; Modafferi hasn't been found. Finally, a year and a half and three thousand miles is a lot of distance for two cases that don't seem to have a lot in common anyway.

Which is why it’s startling to find buried in the stray, elliptical clues an eerie parallel in the women’s stories that no one has ever mentioned before: both Modafferi and Chiang were seen talking to a blonde woman in or near a coffee shop just prior to their disappearance.

The Modafferi sighting is more reliable. Several of Modaferri’s coworkers at Spinelli’s Coffee Shop reported that they noticed Modaferri in the company of a blonde woman around 3:45 PM on June 23, 1997, the day she disappeared. The two women were on the second floor landing of the Crocker Galleria, the mall where Spinelli’s was located. Modafferi was wearing her green Jansport backpack, and the blonde woman had a similar backpack. Earlier in the day Modafferi had mentioned to coworkers that she was interested in seeing the Sutro Park/Land’s End Beach area. Modafferi’s family believes she may have made plans to meet the blonde woman after her shift ended so that they could travel together to Land’s End.

Modafferi has not been seen or heard from since the sighting at the Crocker Galleria. And despite several appeals to come forward by law enforcement and the media, the blonde woman has never been identified.

As for Joyce Chiang, a Starbucks employee reported seeing someone fitting Chiang's description come in the night of January 9. Chiang ordered a hot tea and stayed for more than an hour, talking to a blonde woman. According to reporter Eddie Dean of the Washington City Paper, authorities have a composite sketch of the woman, but they have yet to release it to the public.

Who is the mysterious blonde woman? One possibility is a male/female team, such as Canadian serial killer couple Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. The Canadian press dubbed Bernardo and Homolka "The Ken and Barbie Murderers" for their fresh-faced, blonde good looks. Bernardo was a sadist who targeted young women to rape and kill. Homolka was used to gain the young women's trust.

Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka

“The blonde woman” may be two different people, or it could be the same person. Either way, in both cases she most likely holds the last, valuable piece of information that could help solve the puzzles of what happened to Kristen Modafferi and Joyce Chiang. There’s something chilling about her abbreviated description - she has always been referred to as simply “the blonde woman” - and chilling, too, is the image of her encounters with both women, for there’s nothing more normal than two young women standing together at the mall, or drinking tea at Starbucks. Normal. Safe. Pleasant. Only Kristen Modafferi and Joyce Chiang disappeared after talking with her.

Who is the blonde woman?

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.