Nancy Dunning, a real estate agent in Del Ray and wife of an Alexandria Sheriff.
Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning for the metro.
Ruthanne Lodato, a music teacher and sister to an Alexandria judge.
The three of them lived in close proximity to one another, but there’s no indication that their lives were connected except by a fourth name: Charles Severance, whose trial for the murder of all three began in Fairfax Courts last week.
On Oct. 8, the prosecution team led by Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter explained that a bitter divorce and losing a battle for custody of his son Levi left Severance with a hatred for the Alexandria police and elites. Prosecutor David Lord’s opening arguments largely centered on Severance’s writings, which graphically describe a violent scene prosecutors say mirrors the crimes.
“Introduce murder into a safe and secure neighborhood,” goes one passage, “do it again and again and again… No self-respecting god-fearing patriarch would not kill men and women who delight in terrorizing family.”
Lord argued that the writings also reveal Severance’s obsession with the exact type of .22 caliber ammunition used in the murders, including letters to his son asking him to purchase the ammunition.
But according to the defense team, led by Joseph King, the prosecution’s case is entirely built on false assumptions. King acknowledged that the writings had violent overtones, but argued that some of the violence, like the repeated phrase “tomahawking a homestead,” could be attributed either to his frontier writings or the board games he invented.
The trial started with the most recent murder, that of Lodato and the only witness to the murders: Janet Dorcas Franco. Franco was the caretaker of Lodato’s elderly mother, and in an emotional hour of testimony, gave a vivid account of the day of the murder. Franco was helping Lodato’s mother when the doorbell rang, and a moment later she heard a loud noise and a scream. Franco ran into the kitchen to check on Lodato and immediately ran into Lodato’s killer. Franco didn’t have time to ask any questions before the man fired two bullets at her, which hit her arm that she’d raised to defend herself. Screaming, Franco ran out the back door to a neighbor’s house who called the police. The neighbor, Stephen George Roberts, tried to convince her to wait with him until the police arrived, but then Franco remembered that Lodato’s mother was still in the house. Against Roberts urging, and not knowing if the killer might still be in the home, Franco returned to the house to check on the two other women.
Officer Jonathan Lopez was the first to arrive on the scene, and after other police officers arrived, they went in to secure the house. Lopez called a medical unit into the house and attempted to talk to Lodato, who said that she didn’t know her killer, but that he was an older white man with a grey beard.
When asked by the prosecution whether she could identify the man she saw in the house, Franco said she could and said that Severance looked like the man. The defense pointed out discrepancies between Franco’s description to the sketch artist and the appearance of Charles Severance, in particular, that the man she described had a much shorter beard than Severance’s. The defense attempted to press on the point, noting that the courtroom identification was fairly vague, but Franco more definitively stated that Severance was the man who shot her. When the defense tried to argue that perhaps Franco had been influenced by the media following the murder, Franco said that she hadn’t followed any news topics on the story.
“I don’t want to see anything,” Franco said, exasperated and through tears. “I don’t want people calling me and asking me what I saw. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life since I’ve been in America. It’s so sad what happened to somebody that I cared for. For someone who came in, I don’t want to know their story. I want to think that maybe it is a dream, I think that every day.”
The trial is expected to continue for approximately five more weeks, depending on jury deliberations, to end in mid-November. The prosecution is not seeking the death penalty, but if convicted, Severance faces life in prison.