At 1:13 p.m. that Tuesday, Carolyn called the Montgomery County police to report the damage to her car. Officers arrived, examined the tires and jotted down notes. Police said they drove around the neighborhood when they left but found nothing suspicious.
Eighty-one minutes after her call, authorities received a report of a fire at the Mattingly home. But as firefighters pulled into the driveway, they saw no flames, only a trail of smoke rising from under the garage door and blackening the white paint. Muddy tire tracks on the road connected to a set of ruts in the couple’s lawn and a broken section of their white rail fence, as if a car had smashed through it and sped away across the grass.
While some firefighters set up at the garage, others circled the house to investigate. The doors were locked. No one answered when they knocked. Inside, the lights were on and the TV seemed to play to no one. Crews stretched out a line of hose, but when they opened the garage door they realized they wouldn’t need it—the blaze was small enough to douse with a fire extinguisher. Beneath the flames lay Carolyn’s body.
“That wasn’t a fire fatality,” fire supervisor Jeffrey Ewart wrote in his report. Medical examiners later concluded that Carolyn had been shot once in the back and left to burn in the garage. The bullet punctured both lungs and her heart.
* * *
That same afternoon, another tragedy was unfolding 2 miles away. A black Mercedes-Benz on Piney Meetinghouse Road careened across the roadway and climbed up a steep embankment near the intersection with River Road. The car barely missed a speed limit sign as it ripped through three pine trees, strewing branches in its wake, before it rammed into a fourth.
When police arrived, they found Racca dead behind the wheel, a bullet fired into his mouth. A handgun lay at his side. Officers couldn’t determine if he had shot himself before or after his car hit the tree. An autopsy later revealed indications of prescription medications in his blood—the anti-anxiety drug clo-nazepam and the painkiller tramadol—at levels considered potentially lethal by medical examiners.
Police soon realized that the two deaths in Potomac that day were connected. The dead man in the Mercedes-Benz, they believed, was Carolyn’s killer. They found no evidence that she’d ever met this man before, but they discovered that he knew her husband.
Mattingly’s phone lit up that Tuesday afternoon with a call from Christin, who had received a text saying that the house was on fire. “She took off and I took off,” he says. He raced home. “When I turned the corner [onto our] street, there were a lot of people.”
Police and firefighters had cordoned off the house. News crews were set up nearby. Helicopters circled overhead. Mattingly approached the officers and identified himself. “There were a lot of things happening—vehicles coming in and things like that,” he says. “But they were good to me.” Officers led Mattingly away from the mayhem and told him about Carolyn. Family friends tried to shield him from the media and promised to get him anything he needed.
Mattingly spent that night—and the next 4½ months—with Christin and her new husband at their home in Arlington, Virginia, before moving into his own apartment. He never returned to work, except to clean out his office and say goodbye to colleagues, some of whom he’d known for decades. For him, the foundation had become tied to his wife’s death. How could he go back?
“What happened that day touched me three ways,” Mattingly says. On that September afternoon, he lost the love of his life, the career of a lifetime, and the place he called home.
* * *
About 100 women in gray T-shirts and blue jeans fill the gymnasium at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup on a Saturday this past April, seated at folding tables that have been prettied up with purple tablecloths and flower vases. Many nod as Alisha Saulsbury, a Cambridge, Maryland, therapist, talks about healing from trauma. Her message is directed at the women, but as she speaks, organizers can’t help but think of Mattingly, the lone man in the audience, sitting silently. Today would have been Carolyn’s 59th birthday—a coincidence no one can ignore, especially as Saulsbury paraphrases It’s a Wonderful Life.
“Strange, isn’t it?” she says. “Each man’s—or woman’s—life touches so many other lives. When he or she isn’t around it leaves an awful hole, doesn’t it?” Mattingly leans forward in his blue blazer and dress shirt and wipes his eyes. “Sometimes in life, bad things happen to good people,” Saulsbury continues. “We don’t just go through life unscathed. That’s part of the journey.”
The Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup. Photo by David Frey
Mattingly is here because the prison and the women inside its razor wire fences mattered deeply to his wife. She helped organize this annual event—the Women Moving Forward Conference—for eight years, making sure the inmates had a red carpet for their fashion show and that they left with journals to record their thoughts. This year’s focus is mental health, and her husband is taking her place. A victim of a horrendous crime, he’s seated among a roomful of convicted criminals in the hopes of making a difference.
Even before his wife’s funeral, Mattingly and his daughter knew they had to do something to pay tribute to Carolyn. “I had no choice,” he says. “I feel like I have to honor her and honor that goodness that she was—and continue it.”
On Nov. 5, 2015, a little over a year after Carolyn’s death, Mattingly stood in front of 300 people at Bethesda Country Club to announce the formation of The Luv u Project, named for his wife’s trademark email sign-off: “Luv u.” He and Christin would lead the nonprofit as volunteers.
“On the outskirts of this great city, which houses monuments and legends of great leaders all around,” Mattingly told the crowd, “let this evening truly be the beginning of a journey to help others who so desperately need and deserve our attention.”
He thought about Carolyn, this girl from Louisville, Kentucky, who deserved her own sort of monument. The Luv u Project would be it. “Out of love we will lead,” he said.
The organization would focus on issues close to his wife’s heart—youth athletic programs, women’s prisons, helping families with sick relatives—and also tackle mental health awareness. “Many have told me this is a monster, a huge challenge, beyond the scope of what we can do,” he continued. “I’m here to say that nothing, nothing will ever be more difficult than the challenge of the path that we’ve had to walk this year, so I’m not afraid of it.”
* * *
In the weeks after he lost his wife, Mattingly watched his weight fall off. Friends thought he was going to the gym, but the truth was that he had simply stopped eating. “Carolyn was my best friend in the world,” he says, fighting back tears. “She was my wife of almost 35 years and my friend a long time before that. The hole of losing a friend who means that much to you is beyond description.”
They’d been together since they were teenagers growing up in Louisville. Mattingly likes to joke that he knew Carolyn’s parents before she did. Their fathers worked together at GMAC, the former financing division of General Motors, and her parents had visited him in the maternity ward about a year before she and her twin sister were born.
He was 14 or so when they officially met. Carolyn’s father had invited colleagues and their families to a boat outing. Mattingly wasn’t keen on spending the day with his dad’s co-workers, but he saw Carolyn there, he says, and “she and I just connected.” After that, he rode his bike 5 miles to her house with only an inkling of where she lived. He found her, and it wasn’t long before they started dating. “I would go over there on that Schwinn bicycle,” he says in a Kentucky accent. “We would go to buy a Coke, or we would go bowling. We rode miles with her sitting on the handlebars. …From that point, we were sort of part of each other’s lives.”
The two went to college together at Eastern Kentucky University, where Mattingly studied journalism and Carolyn majored in business, and they married after graduating. He went to work with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; she landed a job as a mortgage banker. He quickly became a top fundraiser and found himself on a fast track in the organization. After serving as executive director of Kentucky operations, then as a regional director, he was asked to move to Washington, D.C. “It’s a little bit of a culture shock,” Mattingly says of leaving Louisville. “I gotta tell you, the first time we went up to Washington and they showed us the housing prices, we went back home and said, ‘We can’t.’”