County Police Revisit Cold Case of Missing Bethesda Woman, Seeking Information About Man Who Abused Her Young Daughter
Investigators now believe Alison Thresher was killed in her apartment in May 2000
Alison Thresher disappeared in 2000. Police believe she was murdered, but her body has never been found.
Via MONTGOMERY COUNTY POLICE
Updated 6:10 p.m.: Almost 18 years after a Bethesda woman disappeared, Montgomery County police detectives have renewed their interest in the case and are looking for more information about a man later imprisoned for abusing her young daughter.
Alison Thresher, then 45, of Sangamore Court in Bethesda was initially considered missing when she didn't show up for work at The Washington Post in May 2000. Eight months after she went missing, police began investigating her case as a homicide after discovering new evidence.
In the years since, neither Thresher nor her apparent killer has been found. But in 2010, her daughter, Hannah Thresher, now 30, came to police with an account of longtime abuse at the hands of her former Spanish teacher, starting when she was 10 years old. Fernando Asturizaga, now 51, was convicted of rape and child abuse and sentenced to more than 100 years in prison in 2012.
Police announced Thursday that detectives are now looking at Asturizaga as a "person of interest" in Thresher's disappearance and murder in 2000. They say Thresher had suspicions that the teacher was victimizing her daughter before she went missing. Though there's not enough information to label Asturizaga as a suspect, police are looking for information from him and from the community about him, Capt. Paul Starks, a police spokesman, said Thursday.
Montgomery County police Chief Tom Manger said Asturizaga "has not been helpful up to this point."
Fernando Asturizaga at the time of his 2010 arrest. Via Montgomery County police
Asturizaga, 33 at the time, had taught Spanish at the Friends Community School in College Park, which Thresher's daughter and son, Sam, attended. Thresher had suspicions that he had an inappropriate relationship with her daughter, and wrote a letter to him advising him to stop spending time alone with her and also notified the school about her suspicions.
Hannah Thresher, who now lives in Takoma Park, said at the press conference that when she told Asturizaga in 2000 that she was upset at his lack of empathy over her grief about her missing mother, he said he thought "things would be easier for us now that she was gone."
"I didn't think much of it at the time," said Thresher, who was 12 at the time. "But I do think he may have meant he did have something to do with her disappearance."
Katie Leggett, the lead detective who investigated Asturizaga’s abuse of Hannah, was later transferred to the department’s cold case unit and, in 2016, asked that Thresher’s case be reopened, Manger said. Since then, detectives have found new evidence that led them to go public with the case once again.
The new evidence suggests Thresher may have been murdered in her apartment and her body was then moved to another location, according to police. Police now believe her red Volvo station wagon, which was found on Broad Street about a mile away from her apartment, was driven there and abandoned.
"We're seeking information about Asturizaga's activities at the time of Alison's murder, any additional instances of inappropriate behavior by Asturizaga, anyone who knew Asturizaga when he taught at the Friends School and any additional information about places that Asturizaga might have frequented and any information about the case in general," Manger said.
Before Thresher’s disappearance, Asturizaga ingratiated himself with the Thresher family and would babysit for the two children, apparently against the wishes of their mother, who confronted him and asked him to stop watching them several times. Thresher and her ex-husband, James Thresher, were fighting for guardianship of the children in Montgomery County Circuit Court at the time. Asturizaga, living in College Park at the time, would babysit the children while they were in their father’s custody. Hannah was 12 and Sam was 10 in 2000.
Asturizaga’s abuse of Hannah started 1999 and continued until 2001, according to the criminal charges for which he was convicted.
Sam Thresher, now 28 and living in New England, said the “wool was over” his eyes and he wasn’t able to consider the dark side of Asturizaga until years later. At the press conference Thursday, he said he sees Asturizaga as “by definition a sociopath” who carefully gained the trust of people around him.
“He did this in a professional manner, superb manner,” he said. “It’s strange. There’s no way to really describe how well he infiltrated our family and was able to get so close to us, with such malintent.”
In a letter Alison Thresher wrote to Asturizaga in April 1999, which police have made public, she calls him a “friend and great help to me and my family,” but expresses concern over the “excessive emotional bond” her daughter had formed with him. She notes that she had earlier told him she didn’t want them to be alone together.
“[Y]ou assured me that you would, in fact, no longer babysit for Hannah and Sam. That was not true,” she wrote. “And this [led] me to wonder whether this unnatural attachment is a mutual one.”
Just over a month later, on June 9, 1999, Thresher wrote a letter to the Friends Community School, which she said was reiterating previous concerns.
Her first point was: “I continue to be very concerned about the inappropriate relationship that Fernando Asturizaga has allowed to continue between him and Hannah Thresher.”
She also said in the letter that she was withholding permission for Hannah to attend the school the following year, and wouldn’t allow her daughter to work at a school summer camp “because of Fernado Asturizaga’s relationship with Hannah.” She wrote that she believed members of the school's board and Asturizaga were siding with her ex-husband in the guardianship proceedings.
“Neither F [Fernando] or school has not folo’d thru on obligation. No physical proximity,” she wrote in an undated journal entry that police made public Thursday.
According to police, Thresher had also written to her attorney in July 1999 noting that she had heard from other parents who were concerned about Asturizaga’s relationship with their daughters.
In addition to teaching Spanish, Asturizaga coached soccer and worked as an after-school provider and a summer camp employee at Friends Community School, according to police.
In January 2000, Thresher called Asturizaga, again voicing her concerns, but he continued to babysit her daughter for her ex-husband.
In a journal entry dated March 18, 2000, she wrote: “If you’re uncomfortable that’s a sign. Go with that. … Mad abt my thoughts re F. Stress that lines of demarc. He is a teacher.”
The last time Alison Thresher was seen alive was May 23.
That night, she left her parent’s home at about 8 p.m. after eating dinner there, according to a police timeline of the events. At 10 p.m., Thresher spoke to a friend over the phone, and she sent two emails to friends at about midnight.
Between 4 and 5 a.m. the next morning, a neighbor heard cries coming from Thresher’s apartment, according to police.
Police found Thresher's red Volvo on Broad Street on May 25. Via Montgomery County police
A “suspicious male” matching Asturizaga’s description was seen running through the Brookmont neighborhood at about 6 a.m. in the area where police found Thresher’s car abandoned days later.
That morning was supposed to be her first day at a new job at The Washington Post.
Her sister reported her missing to police two days later.
Police never charged Asturizaga, or anyone else, with her murder, and investigators have not been able to locate her body.
Asturizaga continued to abuse Hannah Thresher through 2001. According to Maryland court records, Asturizaga was charged with a third-degree sex offense and child abuse in Prince George’s County in early 2003, though a jury found him not guilty that July.
He then spent time in Vermont, though Leggett, the detective who investigated the abuse case, said police haven’t found any relevant information about his time there.
In 2010, nine years after the abuse occurred and 10 years after Alison Thresher’s disappearance, county police charged Asturizaga with two counts of second-degree rape, six counts of second-degree sex offense and two counts of child abuse against Hannah Thresher. He pleaded not guilty on all counts.
After a four-day trial, a jury found him guilty on all counts. Circuit Court Judge Marielsa Bernard issued a consecutive sentence of 168 years and six months in prison.
Hannah Thresher said at the press conference Thursday that Asturizaga had “groomed her” and encouraged her not to tell her mother about the abuse when she asked.
“He erased our mother so that he could ensure his own freedom, and continued to abuse me, both sexually and emotionally for yet another year, in addition to the two years that had already passed since the abuse began,” she said.
Sam Thresher, who brought his service dog Leroy to the press conference, said the family wants answers in the case of his missing mother that has been a mystery for so long. He said his mother was intelligent, eloquent and an excellent writer. With no body ever found, the family has not held a funeral or found any sense of closure.
"This has been 20 years almost of a question mark," he said. “And there’s been no funeral, no real closure for Hannah and I.”
A family photo of Hannah and Alison Thresher. Via Montgomery County police
Hannah Thresher said she was sharing her story in the hope that others might remember small moments or bits of information about Asturizaga that could be helpful to police. She said that although Asturizaga took “my youth, my innocence, my happiness and optimism for the future,” she remains resilient.
“For my mom, I need the truth to come out,” she said. “Despite the trial that ensued when I came forward with his abuse and the resulting 100-some years that he was sentenced to spend in prison, there are still questions to be answered.”
Police have asked anyone with information to call 240-773-5070 or 866-411-TIPS (8477), if choosing to share information anonymously.