A former Alexandria man with a felony record and a history of odd, seemingly confused behavior has emerged as a “person of interest” in three high-profile slayings in the city, Alexandria’s mayor said Friday, but a police spokeswoman cautioned that investigators were “nowhere close to charging anyone with murder.”
Charles Severance, 53, who campaigned for political office in Alexandria in 1996 and 2000 — listing his occupation in a voter guide as “Expert witness, principal investigator, mentaldisorder.com” — was arrested Thursday in Wheeling, W.Va., on a charge unrelated to the three killings.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria — where political figures remembered Severance for his eccentric campaigns, his focus on peculiar issues and his strange attire — authorities said they are trying to determine whether he is linked to three fatal shootings that have gripped the city with fear that a serial killer might be at work.
Police have said that markings on bullet fragments from the February slaying of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, the 2003 killing of real estate agent Nancy Dunning and the November slaying of regional transportation planner Ronald Kirby were so similar that detectives were treating the cases as a “series” of possibly related crimes.
“Mr. Severance’s name was brought to the attention of [Alexandria police] during the routine analysis of crime tips,” the department said in a statement Friday.
The statement added: “Detectives continue to follow up on the crime tip information. However, it is premature to name him as the only possible suspect.”
Severance is “one of those guys who can find more conspiracies and more government problems than anybody,” said lawyer G.V. McKinley of Cumberland, Md., who has represented him in the past. But McKinley added: “I don’t know him to have a mean bone in his body. He could be angry. I didn’t find him to be mean.” He said Severance suffered from some psychiatric problems, but he offered no details.
“I would be totally floored if he is involved in something like that,” McKinley said, referring to the Alexandria killings.
Severance has been living in Loudoun County, and a neighbor, John Beltrane, said he saw authorities at Severance’s home for nearly six hours Wednesday night. He said it appeared that they were “combing through everything in the house” as well as questioning the woman who lived with Severance.
“He kept to himself a lot,” Beltrane said of Severance. “He was a little monotone, but nothing that struck me as super odd.”
Authorities appear to have acted with some urgency this week to ensure that Severance was taken into custody while they investigate whether he might be connected to the Alexandria killings.
In 2005, Severance pleaded guilty to a felony gun-possession charge in Rockingham County, Va., and was placed on probation. More recently, Loudoun police obtained a warrant for his arrest, charging him with possessing a gun, which is a crime for a person who has a felony conviction.
How long that warrant had been on file, unserved, is not clear. But after Severance emerged as a person of interest in the Alexandria killings, investigators in the homicide cases moved to serve the Loudoun warrant, according to the Alexandria police statement.
Detective Sgt. Gregg McKenzie of the Wheeling police said the FBI contacted his department about 11:45 a.m. Thursday, asking officers to look for a man who was wanted in Loudoun on a charge of possessing a gun after a felony conviction.
Officers were given a description of Severance and his car and were told that he might be staying at the Knights Inn in Wheeling, McKenzie said. That could indicate that federal officials had been monitoring Severance.
On Thursday, Wheeling police arrested him in connection with the Loudoun case as he sat at a public computer in the Ohio County Public Library, according to the library director, Dottie Thomas. He was arrested quietly, Thomas said. Police said he was unarmed when he was taken into custody, and workers at the hotel where he stayed said authorities did not find a gun in his room.
Severance apparently had been in that West Virginia city for only a day, having checked into his hotel March 12, according to Anand Patel, manager of Knights Inn.
Patel said Severance — wearing a black hat and scarf — paid for his room with a credit card and left his car in the hotel lot. He asked for directions to Revolutionary War sites and took some tour brochures from the hotel lobby. On Thursday, after checking out of the hotel, he asked for directions to the library, saying he wanted to do research, Patel said. Police arrived at the hotel about 20 minutes later.
At the library, he spent just under two hours online before local police and FBI agents arrived to arrest him, Thomas said. She said an FBI agent mentioned an arrest warrant “for a weapons charge and that there was a case in Alexandria.”
Left on the computer table after the arrest, Thomas said, were Severance’s big black fedora and large scarf. She said authorities returned to the library and took the hat, the scarf and the computer that Severance had been using.
McKenzie, of the Wheeling police, said Severance is scheduled to appear for an extradition hearing Monday, during which prosecutors will seek to have him sent to Loudoun to face the gun-possession charge. Meanwhile, he is being held in a West Virginia jail in lieu of $100,000 bond.
Severance was arrested several times in Western Maryland in the early 2000s on charges of assault and indecent exposure but was not prosecuted, according to court records.
As for the Alexandria killings, “we’re investigating every tip,” police spokesman Crystal Nosal said. But she said investigators “are nowhere close” to filing charges.
Kerry Donley (D), a former mayor who defeated Severance in the 2000 race, recalled him as an “odd fellow” who focused his campaign around “juvenile mental health services and psychotropic drugs.” He said Severance usually wore a black hat, black sunglasses, black clothes and black gloves.
Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) recalled Severance’s fixation on esoteric issues. He also said, “On warm summer night, when we were all in shirt sleeves, he would wear long black leather coats and gloves.”
A spokesman for the city, Craig Fifer, said Severance bears an “obvious physical resemblance” to a police sketch of a possible suspect in the Lodato killing. He said that “a lot of people are asking if there’s a connection, and we’re looking into that.”
Euille said that when he saw the police-issued sketch several weeks ago, Severance did not come to mind. But Euille said he thought: “This is someone I know, someone I’ve seen before. A lot of people said that, too. But I couldn’t really finger anyone in particular.”
Severance, who has an bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia, campaigned for Alexandria mayor in 2000 on a platform opposing a “plague of child and adolescent psychiatry.” He said that “plague” was “endeavoring to establish itself in Alexandria for four more years and by the appropriations they expect and will probably receive may prove dangerous to our reverent youth if not timely suppressed.”
On March 7, Severance briefly came to the attention of authorities in the District in another instance of seemingly bizarre behavior.
According to a police report, he was questioned by police and U.S. Secret Service officers after he showed up at the Russian Embassy and “indicated that he was attempting to enter the embassy because he wanted to request asylum.” A federal law enforcement official said Severance tried to scale the fence.
“The subject was sent on his way and all units cleared,” the police report said. A man who answered the phone at the Russian Embassy on Friday said only that the man had been wearing a large hat.
Anne Haynes, Ronald Kirby’s widow, said a detective told her Friday that “as far as he’s concerned, no one has been connected in Ron Kirby’s death.”
She said: “I don’t know Charles Severance, and I don’t know anything about him, and I understand there’s all kinds of rumors and stuff going around.”
Eugene Robert Giammittorio Sr., a retired Alexandria General District Court judge and Ruthanne Lodato’s brother, said he saw the news of a person of interest in his sister’s death on TV, and he is hopeful there will be a break in the case.
“I’m excited,” Giammittorio said.
Giammittorio said that he did not recognize Severance by name or by face, but he was particularly interested in a report about a gun-possession case that was said to involve Severance in the mid-1990s. Giammittorio said that at that time, he was one of two judges handling such cases. He said that after hearing the news Friday, he called a clerk who used to work for him and asked her to pull whatever information was available on the case — hoping to determine whether he was the judge — but that the clerk told him the court does not store files of that age.
Liz Dunning, daughter of Nancy Dunning, said police had not contacted her about Severance. She said she did not know him and was not aware of any connection between Severance and her mother. And “the pain of not knowing is great.”
Paul Duggan, Dan Morse, Susan Svrluga, Patrick Svitek, Patricia Sullivan, Justin Jouvenal, Carol D. Leonnig, Jennifer Jenkins and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.