- WASHINGTON POST
A Young Mother Disappeared 13 Years Ago. What Did It Mean?
15:44 JST, August 11, 2023
The prosecutor stood before the jury and asked them to consider what it meant for something to be missing.
Missing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vinét Bryant said, is when you briefly misplace your wallet. When you leave it in the wrong drawer or pocket. But if someone steals your wallet – if they malevolently take it from you – then it’s not missing. It’s something darker, and it’s something permanent.
The jury had been brought in that morning for a murder trial. It was a homicide with no body, a case that had been first classified as a missing person instead of a death. There had been no confession. No blood. No weapon. No witnesses. No live scents picked up by search-and-rescue dogs, no decaying scents picked up by cadaver dogs. The alleged murder had gone unsolved for more than a decade, and onlookers had wondered, not unreasonably, whether it was simply unsolvable.
The question at hand was whether, 13 years ago, a man named Isaac Moye had murdered a woman named Unique Harris. The trial was an attempt to bring an ending, at last, to a mystery that had tortured her family and baffled strangers, including me.
I had followed the case from the beginning. I had written about it before other journalists. I had looked for meaning in the extraordinary circumstances of Unique’s disappearance; as years passed, I would sometimes wake in the middle of the night and search the internet to see whether there had been any resolution.
By the end of the trial, I realized I’d understood it wrong.
Backing up, then, to the fall of 2010. Unique Harris was a 24-year-old mother who had recently broken up with her two sons’ father in Richmond and moved to Washington, D.C., to be closer to her family. Still settling into her new rental, tidy despite its half-unpacked boxes, Unique called her cousin Tiffanee with an idea. Tiffanee’s 9-year-old, Talaya, had a birthday coming up, and Unique wanted her gift to be a sleepover. It would be a chance for Talaya to get to know her cousins, Unique’s sons, who were 5 and 4.
Tiffanee and Talaya would recount their memories of the night at the trial: On the evening of Oct. 9, Tiffanee dropped off her daughter and checked in by phone a few hours later. By then, the cousins had popped popcorn and started a movie that Unique eventually made them turn off when it got raunchier than she’d expected. Around 9:30, she tucked the three kids into the bedroom, then settled in to the living room, which she used as her own sleeping area.
That night, Talaya woke once, thought she heard Unique talking to someone on the phone, and went back to sleep. When she and the two boys got up the next morning, around 7:30, Unique wasn’t in the living room or anywhere else in the apartment.
Talaya immediately called her mother to say she couldn’t find Unique. Tiffanee wasn’t worried. She figured Unique had dashed to the corner store to grab a gallon of milk for breakfast. Nevertheless, she started out for Unique’s apartment, a trip that, because of Metro’s sporadic weekend bus schedule, took her nearly two hours.
When she arrived, she was alarmed to learn Unique still hadn’t returned, and she began to search the apartment. Unique’s cellphone was gone. But the fridge was full of food – no corner-store trip should have been necessary – and Unique couldn’t have paid for groceries anyway, because her purse and wallet were still in the apartment. So were her eyeglasses.
The glasses turned Tiffanee’s alarm to panic, and she called Unique’s mother, Valencia. Unique had terrible vision, and she didn’t own contact lenses. She wore her glasses when she went to nightclubs. She wore them when she kissed dates good night. She wore them every minute she was awake, and when she went to sleep, she left the glasses not on her bedside table but in the bed itself, on the pillow inches from her face, where she could grab them before she even opened her eyes.
Valencia knew it would have been odd for Unique to leave without her purse.
She knew it would have been impossible for Unique to leave without her glasses.
Nearly a year later, in 2011, I was a young feature writer looking for a story. My specialty at the time was writing funny pieces on deadline, and I’d told an editor that I wanted something with more substance. Something with emotional resonance, something that felt as if it really mattered.
I don’t remember whose idea it was to search D.C.’s missing-persons database, but I do remember that, by the time I performed the search, only one case had a clear sense of timeliness to it, and that case was Unique’s. The first anniversary of her disappearance was the following month.
When I reached out to Valencia Harris, I wasn’t sure whether she’d be amenable to more media attention about her daughter’s disappearance. But it turned out there hadn’t been much of any media attention to begin with. Unique was a working-class Black woman living in a struggling neighborhood in Southeast Washington. She didn’t fit the blond, upper-middle-class, Nancy Grace-bait model of a missing person. Valencia had been passing out fliers on her own, trying to locate suspects on her own, prodding the police on her own, knocking on endless doors. She had been begging for someone, anyone, to pay attention to her daughter’s disappearance.
When I came calling, Valencia threw open her entire life. Of course she did. She was a tough woman, but when it came to her oldest daughter, she was tender. She had chosen the name “Unique,” because Valencia thought that’s what she was: the most special baby in the world. As a toddler, Unique’s shoes stayed spotless and white, Valencia told me, because Valencia simply never put her down.
Valencia introduced me to Unique’s grandfather, who had grimly climbed into the dumpsters in Unique’s apartment complex in the days after her disappearance to make sure she wasn’t deposited there. To Unique’s brother, who tried to be a steady presence for his missing sister’s sons. To Unique’s sons themselves, who had lost all trace of toddlerhood in the year since their mother had been gone, developing into slender little boys.
Her family tried, again and again, to piece together what might have happened to Unique in the 10-odd hours between when she put the kids to bed and when they woke to find her missing – a span of time that, it would later became apparent, was more like four or five hours, because Unique’s phone records would come to show she’d talked on the phone with her boyfriend late at night, finishing the call after 3 o’clock in the morning.
In those four or five hours, she had vanished. She had simply vanished.
Anyone who knows anything about true crime knows that the genre is propelled by weird cases. The intrigue of the unfathomable, the obsession with the unlikely. I don’t know that I would have written about Unique if her disappearance had seemed common: if she had been a philandering husband who finally decided to start fresh with his mistress, or a drug addict who never returned from seeking one more hit of fentanyl.
The point is that her story wasn’t common. It was unique.
If she had walked away, then why bring her phone but not her purse? If she had been kidnapped, then why was there no ransom? If she had been murdered, then where was the body?
This was before the “Serial” podcast or the true-crime boom, before crime docudramas would get their own category on Netflix. But then, as now, if you are trying to bring light to an overlooked case, then a long story in The Washington Post will only be helpful. I don’t want to overstate my own very minor involvement: Valencia Harris was always the keeper of her daughter’s flame, transforming herself into an accomplished and relentless victim advocate – not only for her daughter, but also on behalf of the many Black women whose stories never reach prime time. Valencia received support and guidance from the Black & Missing Foundation, an organization dedicated to publicizing the disappearances of people of color.
But I hoped, at least, that I’d contributed in a small way to raising some of the attention that Valencia wanted and that Unique deserved.
Shortly after the story published, I got a call from a television show featuring unsolved mysteries; people there had seen the article and decided to do an episode on Unique’s disappearance. Later, Unique’s family was invited on Maury Povich and “Good Morning America.” Lisa Ling featured the case on an episode of “Our America.” The podcast “Crime Junkies” eventually explored Unique’s case; other podcasts followed.
Her fate became a subject of speculation among strangers, who would post online or write letters to me about what they thought had happened to her. Surely it was meaningful, readers surmised, that Unique had invited Talaya for a sleepover on the night she disappeared. Maybe that meant she’d planned to leave and was making sure that her young children wouldn’t be left entirely unsupervised. Her glasses were left behind, yes, but they were a newer pair, Dolce & Gabbana designer frames. Maybe Unique had kept her old wire rims and worn those instead, to throw off the investigation.
It came out that someone was using Unique’s Social Security number, but when police looked into it, the woman was obviously not Unique and had no connection to her.
There were vague rumors of a killing that had supposedly occurred in Unique’s apartment complex a few days before her disappearance. Perhaps, the theory went, Unique had witnessed it, then become so rattled by what she’d seen that she’d run away in the quiet of night to protect herself from bad people who might try to silence her.
Or maybe the bad people actually had silenced her. Maybe it was that.
In October 2016, D.C. police received a tip that Unique was living in College Park, Ga., and going by the name “Lexis.” That same month, police received a tip that Unique was living in Detroit and going by the name “Hollywood.” A self-proclaimed psychic called me once, saying she sensed Unique was alive and well in Atlanta, working as a waitress. If the cops could check every restaurant in Atlanta, they would find Unique. Except, wait. On second thought, maybe it wasn’t Atlanta but Atlantic City.
If pressed, my own theory went something like this: The night Unique disappeared, she had gotten off the phone with her boyfriend – who had an alibi, he was out of state – and was nearly ready for bed when she decided to step outside for one last-minute task: Take out the trash, smoke a cigarette. Her phone was already in her pocket, but she didn’t bother with her purse, because she expected to be back within minutes. As for her glasses – who knows, maybe she did have a second pair.
In any case, once she was outside her apartment, she was accosted. Dragged into a car and driven away.
I thought it might be a serial killer. I watched a lot of “Criminal Minds” back then. I had conspiracy theories. Whatever had happened, I’d decided it was something completely unforeseeable and strange.
When I first wrote about Unique, I was in my 20s, newly married and childless. In 2018, I became a gender columnist instead of a feature writer. My position was created in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, when editors were looking for someone to write about what it meant to be a woman.
I never ran out of things to write about. A long-overdue reckoning about sexual harassment at work gave way, via Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, to a long-overdue reckoning about sexual assault, which gave way to conversations about “nice guys,” and consent, and a whole universe of perils. Almost daily, I was hearing from readers who had been abused by their partners, or raped by their acquaintances, or stalked by the men they wouldn’t sleep with.
What did it mean to be a woman? It often meant living in danger. Danger that some people still had a hard time seeing or even imagining, even though it’s common.
I still thought of Unique, often. I thought of her every Oct. 10, the anniversary of her disappearance. I thought of her when I became a mother. If something were to happen to me, my fear no longer centered on my own pain and suffering but rather the gut-wrenching knowledge that it would leave my daughter without a mom. The idea that Unique, by all accounts a devoted mother, would have simply left on her own started to seem even more ludicrous.
In 2021, I got an email from a colleague with a cryptic subject line: “Arrest made in a cold case. Do you remember this story?”
The man under arrest was named Isaac Moye.
Moye was not unknown to investigators. He had come to their attention early on in the investigation. Unique’s kids had mentioned to the family that she had a friend named Iceberg; Moye sometimes went by Iceberg. At that time, police were interviewing everyone Unique knew, and they brought in Moye for multiple conversations, too.
Yes, they were friends, he told police in interviews that were played for the jury at his trial – but he had no idea what had happened to her. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her. It couldn’t have been the night she disappeared, because he’d only ever been to her apartment during the day, he said. Anytime he visited, he left before it got late, he said, because she had to put her kids to bed.
Moye told the police in one interview that their relationship had been purely platonic because he knew she had a boyfriend. In another interview, he said they’d fooled around, but nothing below the neck. In one interview clip, he said maybe they had had sex, but then in yet another conversation, he was back to saying there’d never been any physical activity at all. Maybe she’d headed back to Richmond, he offered, telling police that she’d often spoken of moving back to Virginia.
Whether police found his changing answers suspicious – it’s not unusual for people to get flustered when asked about their sex lives – they apparently felt they did not have the evidence or cause to charge Moye with a crime.
But then, more than a decade after Unique’s disappearance, breaks were made in the case. Breaks that seemed so obvious that it makes you wonder whether the entire investigation was broken.
Traces of semen that had been collected from Unique’s sofa cushion were belatedly uploaded to a national database, and found to match Moye. The match was such that, a forensic analyst testified during the trial, the chances of it belonging to another man were less than one in an octillion. (That’s a one followed by 27 zeros.) A large chunk of the sofa’s cushion, about the size of a grapefruit, was also missing. Unique’s sister testified that it hadn’t been missing days before; the prosecution surmised that it was removed because it contained additional evidence.
Semen could have been left at any time, not just the night Unique disappeared, but there was also this: A former cellmate of Moye’s testified that Moye had once told him that there was a missing girl but that she would never be found, because Moye had “done it the right way.”
“Missing girl” could have referred to someone else, not Unique, but there was also this:
It turned out that, on the night of Unique’s disappearance, Moye, on parole from a previous offense, had been wearing a GPS ankle monitor. (The jury wasn’t permitted to hear what incident had prompted the monitor, and I couldn’t find record of its origin in any of Moye’s online court records.) In any case, for reasons that would never become fully clear to me, detectives either didn’t realize that he was wearing the device, or they didn’t consider Moye enough of a suspect to think it mattered. A law enforcement source told me that it simply might not have been part of normal investigative protocol back then to find out whether someone who wasn’t officially a suspect had been wearing a monitor.
Eventually, the investigators did pull the monitor’s GPS records for the night Unique disappeared. The records showed that Moye left his house and walked to her apartment building. He arrived at 10:39 p.m. He did not leave until 7:26 the next morning.
Moye did not take the witness stand. His defense team argued that the evidence was all speculative. When Moye had left Unique’s apartment that morning, he’d walked home through a public park. How would he have done that while carrying a 125-pound body? And if he’d disposed of Unique’s body on the way, then why was she never found? Unique’s children were young, and maybe they were mistaken about what time they woke up, defense proposed. Maybe there was a bigger window of time to account for than anyone realized. As for Moye’s former cellmate, the defense suggested that he was untrustworthy and noted that his testimony was nonspecific and didn’t actually mention Unique.
More than anything, the defense argued that the investigation as a whole had been slipshod, and that Moye had become a scapegoat for detectives who didn’t have better answers. Moye’s lawyers acknowledged that something terrible had probably happened to Unique, but that their client “had nothing to do with that.”
Bryant, the prosecutor, argued that the evidence spoke clearly enough. Beyond the data on the ankle monitor and the semen on the couch and the testimony from the cellmate, she noted this:
Unique and Moye had frequently talked on the telephone in the days before she disappeared. On Oct. 9, they spoke many times – the arrest affidavit said there were 13 calls placed throughout the day – then Moye called again at 10:39 p.m., right as his ankle monitor showed him arriving at her building. Prosecutors suggested this call was to tell Unique he was downstairs and to ask her to let him in.
But after his ankle monitor left her home on the morning of Oct. 10, even when he knew people were looking for Unique, even when he was telling police that she was probably alive and she’d probably run back to Richmond – even then, at least according to the available phone records presented at trial, Isaac Moye never called Unique again.
The story Bryant and her fellow prosecutors told the jury went like this: Moye had come to Unique’s apartment expecting sex, as they’d perhaps had sex before. But once he arrived, she wasn’t interested in sleeping with him. She wasn’t interested in paying much attention to him at all. Her kids now asleep, Unique spent much of the night talking to her boyfriend, Parris, in rural Virginia, making plans for their future.
Isaac Moye spent the night watching her talk on the phone, the prosecution alleged, getting progressively more upset about the attention she wasn’t paying him. And when she hung up the phone the final time, the call that ended after 3 o’clock in the morning, he finally snapped.
The prosecution’s answer to the mystery of Unique’s disappearance was altogether common: A guy got jealous, thought he was owed something and punished the woman who wouldn’t give it to him.
She hadn’t been silenced because she’d witnessed a murder. She hadn’t been snatched by a serial killer and thrown into a car. She wasn’t going by “Lexis” or “Hollywood.” She wasn’t waitressing in Atlanta or Atlantic City.
Unique Harris wasn’t mysteriously missing, Bryant told the jury. Unique Harris was simply, tragically, gone.
After learning of Moye’s arrest, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I had been wrong. How many, many people had been wrong, in speculating the meaning of Unique’s disappearance and possible death. In hypothesizing unlikely stories.
During the trial, I found myself thinking less about the circumstances of her disappearance and more about the circumstances of her life – information that came out in pieces, recounted by friends and family on the witness stand.
By the time Unique had moved away from Richmond, the father of her sons owed her thousands of dollars in child support. She was eking by with SNAP benefits while waiting for an upcoming court date that she hoped would result in him being ordered to pay. After she went missing, he told police, in a video clip played for the jury, that he was innocent of causing her disappearance but admitted that he’d hit Unique a few times when they got into fights.
When she left him and moved back to Washington, she started to try to make a new life, to meet new people. She met the apartment complex’s maintenance man, who many years earlier had been convicted of felony murder, who residents thought was creepy, who was fired shortly after Unique’s disappearance, because – Moye’s defense attorney confirmed with a detective on the witness stand – he was entering residents’ homes, allegedly, without permission.
She spent time with a man who, according to a police affidavit detailing the investigation into her disappearance, had three ex-partners who reported that he’d been abusive to them.
She spent time with Moye, who, according to court records, had pleaded guilty to sex-related offenses earlier in his life.
Someone allegedly gave her herpes. A bottle of treatment medication was found in her bathroom after her disappearance. Unique didn’t talk about who had passed on the STD, a friend testified at the trial, but she did talk about how the disease had devastated her, because it made her worry about kissing her children.
She met Parris, who became her new boyfriend, who was so determined to build a bright future for himself that he’d recently enrolled in a Labor Department-sponsored residential job-training program in rural Virginia. When he left for Job Corps, he and Unique talked on the phone every night, he told the jury. They were thinking about moving in together when he finished his training to become a wildland firefighter. She sent him a picture of herself in the Halloween costume she planned to wear – a sexy ladybug, but still wearing her Dolce & Gabbana glasses – and he told her that he didn’t think she should wear the costume. Not because he was jealous, but because he worried that the revealing costume could make her a target.
And that was what struck me like a thunderbolt during the trial, in a way that it never struck me as a younger reporter. Unique was surrounded by possible dangers. Not because of weird, singular circumstances, but because of common ones. She was in danger financially, because of an ex who hadn’t paid child support. She’d been in danger, potentially, from multiple men who had allegedly abused other women. Her health had been endangered by someone who gave her a sexually transmitted disease.
She’d been surrounded by possible dangers, like the women I’ve spent the past five years receiving phone calls from, despondent over the ways systems and societies had failed them, never knowing when the act of trying to live her life would end her life instead.
There was one way in which Unique was uncommon, at least according to her sister Ashley’s testimony. That way was how much trust Unique had in other people. Ashley attributed this to Unique’s innate decency. Unique always had others’ best interests at heart, Ashley said, so it was unfathomable to her that others might wish her harm.
Ashley said that Unique had learning challenges that had made school difficult for her, but that she had abundant emotional intelligence and that people naturally wanted to be around her. She was the keeper of family celebrations, the one to mark everyone’s birthday months in advance on the calendar she kept on her wall. She had planned on enrolling in classes to become a massage therapist or certified nursing assistant – helping professions, both.
Ashley was the only member of her family to attend every day of the three-week trial. In the 13 years her family had spent praying for resolution, they had been forced to move on, even as their lives were cast off course by one defining event. Unique’s grandfather, who had climbed into the dumpsters, had died without ever finding out what had happened to his granddaughter. Unique’s brother, who had tried to look out for his nephews, was now incarcerated himself. Unique’s cousin Tiffanee, the first adult to realize Unique was missing after her daughter’s birthday sleepover, came to the trial to testify and left sobbing, missing her best friend and still wondering, after all these years, whether there was anything she could have done to prevent the disappearance.
Ashley told me that the family had decided it wouldn’t be a good idea for Valencia to come to court. As years had passed since Unique’s disappearance, Valencia’s determination to find justice for her daughter had only sharpened. At least one former detective had complained to her own supervisor that Valencia simply would not let up. The detective admitted to this at the trial – that the detective was frustrated, because, when she was in charge of the investigation, Valencia was contacting the police precinct multiple times a day to ask what they were doing for her daughter.
I thought Ashley meant that it would be a good idea for Valencia to steer clear of the trial for the sake of her mental health, but she later clarified that she meant it might not be a good idea for the trial. The fear was that Valencia, finally encountering the man allegedly responsible for her daughter’s death, might erupt in rage.
Valencia finally did come, on the day of closing arguments. She wore a bright red jogging suit. She brought friends and family with her, and they wore red, too. She’d wanted to wear the T-shirts she’d had made years ago, the ones with Unique’s face and Valencia’s phone number, but courtroom rules wouldn’t allow the public display of advocacy. Red had been Unique’s favorite color, so she settled on that, a secret display instead.
We hadn’t spoken since I wrote about her daughter years ago; it’s my policy to not keep in touch with people I interview unless they reach out to me first. I never wanted to intrude. But she recognized me almost right away, and even on one of the most emotional and consequential days of her life, she took the time to tell me that my attempt to capture Unique’s story more than a decade ago had been meaningful, that I was “a real one.”
That was kind of her to say. But there was a reason I wanted to try to tell the story again now – not just with the benefit of new evidence, but also with new perspective. As a woman in my 20s, I had been allured and captivated by the idea that unsolved mysteries are alluring and captivating. As a woman in my 40s, I am more attuned to the likelihood that the truths behind those mysteries are just desperately sad. “True crime” focuses on the extraordinary. But true crimes are ordinary and all too common.
Unique Harris would today be a 37-year-old mother of teenagers if she hadn’t gone missing one October night in 2010.
After two full days of deliberations, the jury announced that it had come to a unanimous decision: Isaac Moye was guilty of murder in the second degree.
Valencia let out a cry I can’t even really describe, the exact intersection of glee and relief and pain, then swallowed the sound almost as soon as it had come out of her mouth as the judge requested order in the courtroom.
A few minutes later, she came into the hallway and fell onto her knees, thanking God that justice had been served. As much as it could be served. As much as there could be justice.
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