Family waits for answers in slaying, peace
February 19, 2001
BY BEN BURNS
FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
Not a day goes by that Art Ludwig doesn't think about his wife Nancy, a Northwest Airlines flight attendant, and her long walk down a third-floor hallway at a hotel near Metro Airport 10 years ago.
Her spirit and her unsolved slaying haunt him and his daughters. Today, he is wandering around California to get away from his Minneapolis home during the anniversary month of her death. Too many memories.
His daughters, Linda, Sandy and Laura, want to do something to bring their 41-year-old stepmother's killing back into the public eye, but they don't know what to do. Do they come back to Detroit and hold another news conference? What do they say? There is no news.
Five years ago, they checked into the hotel where Nancy Ludwig died. They stayed in a room four doors down the hall from where hers had been. More than 250 people, including television reporters, print reporters and the curious turned out to greet them. They held a candlelight vigil in the room where their stepmother died, and they prayed. Their prayers weren't answered.
The world has turned; the media moved on. Nancy Ludwig now warrants a one-paragraph mention in a list of metro Detroit's unsolved murders. But her restless spirit is alive in the hearts of relatives, friends and coworkers at Northwest Airlines.
"I think about her every day," Art Ludwig, a retired Minneapolis television executive, said last week. "Sometimes I see a woman from the back and it's the spitting image. 'It's Nancy,' I think. But of course it isn't. I am totally frustrated. But now they have the national DNA matching system up -- and someday, someday, they might find a match. They told me I'd be the first to know. But I've stopped bugging the police. They don't have anything to tell me."
Ludwig, now 67, was sick in bed with a cold the night his wife died.
That Feb. 17 about 9 p.m., Nancy Ludwig rode the elevator to the third floor of what was then the Hilton Airport Inn. The small brunette said good-night to a friend also on layover, pulled her luggage cart around a corner and walked down a long hall, past an alcove with a noisy ice machine, to Room 354.
Romulus police detectives speculate she turned to open the door with a key card and her killer stepped out of a stairwell, then pushed her into the room. Defensive cuts on her hands showed she tried to fend him off, but he overpowered her, gagged her and tied her hands with rope. He tortured her, raped her and cut her throat. The killer then removed her clothes and placed her body on the bed and raped her again.
He turned on the television to CNN's coverage of the Persian Gulf War, cleaned up in the bathroom, wiped the body with a washcloth, untied the hands and packed everything in the blood-spattered room that might identify him, including the wastebasket trash bag. He removed her earrings and rings, picked up her identification and luggage, hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door and disappeared into the night. He made only one mistake: Police found enough material for DNA samples in the bathroom.
Art Ludwig flew to Detroit the next day to identify his wife's body. He said later, in an emotional interview with a class of Wayne State University investigative reporting students, that his life was over, too. "He killed two people that night," Ludwig said. "He killed Nancy, and he killed me. My life was over as I knew it."
Using all his television and media sources, he campaigned to publicize the slaying. Tips poured in and filled two file cabinets at the Romulus police station. The weird, the crazy and the would-be metaphysical came out of the woodwork to offer their counsel and advice. Rewards totaling $80,000 are still being offered.
One person said the killing was an Arab spy plot to get Nancy Ludwig's passport. Another said a professional bowler had committed the heinous crime. The Romulus police checked thousands of tips and eliminated hundreds of men as suspects.
Every time a killer is caught with a similar pattern of activity, his DNA is run against the Romulus samples. Hundreds of men nationwide have been checked. Meanwhile, the Romulus police wait for a break.
Nancy Ludwig's picture appears at the top of the department's Web page. "She is a permanent fixture until we solve it," Executive Lt. David Early said. The page contains sketches of two possible suspects who were seen in the area of the hotel the night of her death. One rode the shuttle bus to the hotel with her and her friend and reportedly stared at Ludwig. The other was seen loading what looked like Northwest Airlines burgundy luggage into a 1978-80 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, light brown or bronze with a white license plate. Neither man has been found.
The flight attendant's death has left a permanent mark on the lives of Ludwig, his daughters, her friends and the other attendant who was with her at the hotel that night.
That attendant reportedly sleeps with a light on in her room to this day when she is on the road for Northwest.
Since the killer had pictures of all of Nancy Ludwig's stepdaughters and her address book, Linda Ludwig moved to a different address and doesn't give out her home phone number. Countless other women, knowing Nancy Ludwig's tale, are careful when they check into strange hotels and motels. As Linda Ludwig put it: "We know that we are never safe."
Anyone with information is asked to call the Romulus police at 734-942-6879 or 734-941-8400.
Ben Burns is director of the journalism program at Wayne State University.