Teacher in prison for raping young girl named ‘person of interest’ in her mother’s 2000 murder

A Maryland Spanish teacher and babysitter serving more than 100 years in prison for sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl nearly two decades ago has been named a person of interest in her mother’s 2000 disappearance and presumed murder.

Fernando Antonio Asturizaga, 51, was identified Thursday by Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger as a potential suspect in the disappearance of Alison Thresher. Thresher, 45, vanished from her Bethesda apartment in May 2000.

Police officials said in a news release that Thresher's sister reported her missing on May 25 after supervisors at The Washington Post, where Thresher was scheduled to start work as a copy editor on May 24, reported that she had never shown up for work. Thresher was last seen alive by her parents on the night of May 23.

"We believe she was killed in her apartment, based upon the evidence that we found inside her residence," Manger said Thursday. "We also believe that her body was taken to an unknown location."

Her red Volvo station wagon was later found abandoned about a mile from her home.

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Manger said that Thresher’s disappearance was suspicious, but was not considered a murder investigation until about eight months after she vanished. Detectives were unable, however, to develop a suspect from the evidence found at that point.

At the time of her disappearance, Thresher’s daughter, Hannah Thresher, was 12 and her son, Sam Thresher, was 10.

Hannah Thresher came forward in 2010 and reported that Asturizaga, her Spanish teacher at Friends Community School, a Quaker private school in College Park, sexually abused her from 1999 to 2001. The abuse started when she was 10 and Asturizaga was 32.

Asturizaga was convicted in 2012 of 18 counts of rape, sexual abuse and child abuse. He is serving his time at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

See the entire news conference on the Thresher cold case below.

Manger said that the break in the homicide investigation came when the lead detective on Hannah’s sex abuse case transferred to the cold case unit -- and, in 2016, reopened her mother’s murder case.

"The detectives felt that, with the passage of time, it might make a difference with Asturizaga in speaking to them, or could cause additional information to surface," Manger said. "The case was reopened and, based on recent analysis, we now believe the suspect attempted to destroy evidence at the time that the crime was committed inside her apartment."

The new leads led investigators to label Asturizaga a person of interest in the case.

Manger said investigators are hoping to learn more from the public about Asturizaga’s activities at the time of the homicide, including any additional inappropriate behavior he had with his students.

Hannah Thresher, now 30, tearfully said at Thursday’s news conference that she believes Asturizaga killed her mother so the abuse could continue unabated. She quoted something she read in a January New York Times article that she said “deeply resonated” with her.

"'To groom girls, you must erase mothers,'" she quoted from the story. "This is what Mr. Asturizaga did -- he erased our mother so that he could ensure his own freedom and continue to abuse me, both sexually and emotionally, for almost another year, in addition to the nearly two years that had already passed since the abuse began."

Sam Thresher also spoke, accompanied by a service dog named Leroy.

"It is probably the top priority in my life to see that he be prosecuted for this crime before he passes," Sam Thresher told reporters.

Credit: (Family photo via Montgomery County Police Department)

Credit: (Family photo via Montgomery County Police Department)

He described Alison Thresher as an amazing mother.

“She was intelligent, she was eloquent, an excellent writer,” he said. “She was passionate, mostly about Hannah and I. She gave us everything that we hold dear now.”

A ‘contentious divorce’ and a troublesome babysitter

Alison Thresher was going through a “contentious divorce” at the time of her disappearance and her estranged husband, James Thresher, had hired Asturizaga to babysit the children when they were in his custody, Manger said.

Alison Thresher became concerned about what she considered “grooming behavior” from Asturizaga, and she wrote letters about her concerns to Asturizaga, the school and her divorce lawyer expressing those concerns, the chief said.

"Alison put her husband, Asturizaga and the school officials on notice that she did not want Asturizaga to have contact with her daughter, Hannah," Manger said. "Despite her concerns, Asturizaga continued to have contact with Hannah."

Police officials said Thresher also got into a fight with Asturizaga outside her ex-husband’s home in February 2000, just three months before she vanished, about his continuing to babysit her children.

Police investigators released the contents of two of her letters Thursday following a news conference about the case. The letter from Thresher to Asturizaga was dated April 28, 1999.

"I write to you as someone who's been a friend and great help to me and my family the last couple years," Thresher wrote. "Several times over the last several months I have expressed my concern to you that my daughter, Hannah, has formed an excessive emotional bond with you. When I made it clear that I did not want the two of you to be alone together, you assured me that you would, in fact, no longer babysit for Hannah and Sam. That was not true."

Thresher went on to write that she was disappointed with his lack of response to her concerns, citing his job as a teacher as a reason she hoped he would have been more sensitive.

In the letter to the school, dated June 9, she wrote that she continued to be concerned about what she considered an inappropriate relationship between Asturizaga and Hannah. She said that she would continue to withhold permission for Hannah to attend the school for the 1999-2000 school year and that she would not be responsible for any financial obligation into which her ex-husband entered.

She also refused permission for Hannah to work at the school’s summer camps, where she would have contact with Asturizaga.

The details of Thresher’s letter to her attorney were not released, but investigators said that the letter informed her lawyer that Thresher had heard from other mothers concerned about their own daughters’ relationships with Asturizaga, who was also a youth soccer coach.

Credit: (Montgomery County Police Department)

Credit: (Montgomery County Police Department)

In journal entries released by police officials, including one dated two months before her disappearance, Thresher wrote about her concerns, often with abbreviations and the use of the letter F to represent “Fernando.”

"If you're uncomfortable, that's a sign," Thresher wrote in the March 18, 2000, entry. "Go (with) that.

“Mad (about) my thoughts re: (Fernando),” she continued. “Stress that lines of (demarcation). He is a teacher. Many people have concerns (about) male babysitters -- teenagers. Sometimes too stimulating (for) them.”

In a second, undated entry, she notes that neither the school nor Asturizaga followed through on their obligations.

“No physical proximity,” she wrote.

Despite her concerns, James Thresher continued to allow Asturizaga to babysit the children. Police officials indicated that Hannah attended the school through 2001, after her mother vanished.

A mother vanishes without a trace

The night of May 23, when her family last saw her, Alison Thresher had dinner at her parents' home, leaving around 8 p.m., the news release said. She spoke to a friend on the phone around 10 p.m. and sent two emails to friends, the second of the two sent at 12:17 a.m. on May 24.

A neighbor reported hearing cries from Thresher’s apartment between 4 and 5 a.m. that same morning. Around 6 a.m., a man was seen running from the neighborhood where her Volvo was found the following day.

The man's physical description matched that of Asturizaga, investigators said.

Credit: Montgomery County Police Department

Credit: Montgomery County Police Department

A resident in that neighborhood noticed the red station wagon around 10 a.m., but didn’t realize the significance until Thresher’s missing persons case was made public.

At the time of his 2010 arrest for abusing the girl, Asturizaga refused to talk to detectives about her mother's disappearance, the news release said. At that point, all leads in the missing persons case had been exhausted.

Hannah Thresher said she “strongly denied” (the sexual abuse) as a child -- as she said Asturizaga carefully groomed her to do. Still, her mother knew something was not right.

"Soon after she made her suspicions known, my mother disappeared," she said at Thursday's news conference. "A few months later, when I expressed frustration at his lack of empathy toward my grief over the loss of my mother, Mr. Asturizaga said to me: 'I thought things would be easier for us now that she's gone.'"

Hannah Thresher said she didn’t think anything of the comment at the time. After a decade of reflection, she started to wonder if his words meant more than she thought.

She said that Asturizaga took nearly everything from her -- years of her life, her innocence, her happiness and her optimism. She called herself resilient, however.

“For my mother, I need the whole truth to come out,” she said. “Despite the trial that ensued when I came forward about his abuse and the resulting 100-some years that he was sentenced to spend in prison, there are still many questions that need to be answered.”

She asked people to call Montgomery County police if they remember anything, no matter how insignificant it might seem.

“Just as I did, you may not have noticed it at the time,” she said. “But now, looking back, it might be more meaningful.”

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