Residents and visitors of the popular Dewey Beach resort north of Ocean City in Delaware were shocked this week when police announced they were investigating the first murder in the town since it was incorporated in 1981.
Early Tuesday, Delaware State Police were searching for Pawan Kumar, 26, of Wilmington, Del., in connection with the alleged first-degree murder of Danielle Mehlman, 26, of Bensalem, Penn., in a Coastal Highway motel room police believe they were sharing.
Police said that search ended Tuesday afternoon after police were notified by the major crimes division of the Essex County prosecutor's office in New Jersey that Kumar's body had been found in the Belleville Motor Lodge in Belleville, N.J.
Kumar was pronounced dead in the motel room about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday as the result of an apparent suicide by drug overdose, but the official cause of death won't be determined until an autopsy is completed, said Katherine Carter, a spokeswoman for the Essex County prosecutor's office. The office assists in death investigations in the county.
Dewey Beach Mayor Diane Hanson said the town, which has been welcoming record-breaking numbers of tourists this summer, is saddened by the news, but remains a safe destination for vacationers.
"We've never had a murder before," Hanson said. "This is an isolated incident."
Maryland residents, who own half the town's property and are "all over the place" in Dewey, Hanson said, shouldn't be afraid to visit.
About 10:45 a.m. Monday, a manager at the Atlantic Oceanside Motel in the 1700 block of Coastal Highway called police after a maid entered a ground-floor room and found Mehlman dead on the floor, police said.
An officer with the Dewey Beach Police Department responded, then alerted the Delaware State Police, who have since taken over the investigation, said Master Cpl. Gary Fournier, a state police spokesman.
In the course of the investigation, which is continuing, homicide detectives identified Kumar as a suspect, Fournier said, and located his image on the surveillance footage of a nearby convenience store. He was being sought on charges of first-degree murder and possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony.
Fournier said further investigation identified Mehlman.
"This is an isolated incident. It's a small resort town that people enjoy coming to, and they can continue coming to the town," Fournier said. "It's not something that should alarm the residents or the patrons who are coming in there to have a good time."
Fournier said further details about the case in Dewey are being withheld to protect the investigation. No further details were immediately available regarding Kumar's death, but Hanson said the news he had been found was reassuring.
Carol Everhart, president and chief executive officer of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the local business community is saddened by the news and hopeful it will not negatively affect the reputation of the town.
"I don't know any place that is exempt from something bad happening, even in a very good place," she said. "Our hearts just go out. The whole incident is just so tragic, and we're sad."
So far, this summer has been a boon to the town, said Everhart and Hanson, the mayor.
Hanson said a previous record for Memorial Day weekend visitors of 33,000 was shattered this year, when 60,000 visitors came to town.
Everhart said all indicators — hotel occupancy rates, income from parking meters, traffic counts — show a booming town full of people spending money, the first boost in growth since activity in the town leveled off in 2007.
"It has been amazing," Everhart said. "It's been safe. It's been fun. I don't think that's changed."
Police ask anyone with information to call 302-856-5850.