Laundromat Death Baffles Town

Jennifer Gibbs, 15, and her brother John Hood, 10, stop at the closed coin laundry where their neighbor Hope Wagoner, 5, was killed.
Jennifer Gibbs, 15, and her brother John Hood, 10, stop at the closed coin laundry where their neighbor Hope Wagoner, 5, was killed. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005

CHILHOWIE, Va., June 23 -- The Village Laundry is shuttered, a hastily written closed sign taped to the front window since it happened.

The shattered glass is gone now, and the owner has told friends that the coin laundry might never reopen.

Locals know the story, but they come anyway, pressing against the front windows to see the place, to try to relive the moment when Rebecca Billings Wagoner attempted to save her child from the centrifugal grip of a commercial clothes washer.

She "had so much blood under her fingernails, she still can't get it out," one woman said, explaining to friends how Wagoner walked into the laundry the night of June 17 to find her daughter, Hope, 5, tumbling inside an air-locked washer filled with water. There was no visible electrical cord to yank out of the wall.

Using a rock from the parking lot, Wagoner bashed through the washer's front window, clawing at the glass to free the child. Friends said her arms were cut to ribbons as she fought to pry her daughter from the machine, but it was too late. Rebecca "Hope" Wagoner was pronounced dead an hour later.

Now the question facing the tiny Appalachian town in southwest Virginia is why she died.

"We just want to know," said resident Sandra Griffin. "How did it happen?" Tears streamed down the cheeks of her son, Brandon, 15.

Police and prosecutors have spent the past week narrowing that down: Hope's death was a prank gone wrong, a malicious act or a mechanical failure.

Police said the girl and her 14-year-old half brother were the only people in the laundry when she got inside the washer by herself or was put there. What happened next is a mystery. Police said they are examining security tapes from cameras inside the laundry and will fingerprint any coins they find inside the washer.

Operating properly, the Milnor Automatic Washer-Extractor has a 31-minute wash cycle, its inside drum making 451 revolutions per minute during a high-speed spin cycle. Officials said the door's heavy snap-latch must be shut before the machine will take the 11 quarters it needs to run. Then it locks air-tight and won't open again until the wash cycle is complete.

Engineers from Milnor have been in town all week trying to determine whether the washer malfunctioned, perhaps starting without coins being inserted, as some residents who used the machine speculate might have been the case.

"That thing has been eating money," said one woman who spoke on condition of anonymity. It might have just taken off and started when the door shut, she said.

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