By David Nakamura and Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 24, 2008
Michael and Virginia Spevak were known in their Chevy Chase neighborhood of Northwest Washington as a socially and environmentally conscious couple.
Their house, built by the couple in the late 1970s, was an energy-efficient marvel, heated by solar power and insulated with quilts. Inside, Michael, 68, based his psychiatric practice, working with troubled youth, while Virginia, 67, a retired middle school teacher, devoted her time to charitable causes and promoting foster care.
The Spevaks' long devotion to the public good made it all the more difficult yesterday for family members, friends and neighbors to make sense of the news that they had been found dead Saturday night in their home in the 5300 block of Belt Road, in what police said was a double homicide. As police struggled to identify a motive, with no apparent suspects, questions arose about whether they were slain by someone they tried to help.
Virginia had been bound and was found on a couch, and Michael was nearby on the floor, law enforcement sources said. Police are awaiting autopsy reports but say they believe that the couple were beaten. Both were wearing nightclothes, sources said.
The couple's blue, two-door 2005 Toyota Scion, missing Saturday night, was recovered by police early yesterday about four miles away. It had been torched. Police are seeking information from anyone who might have seen the car, according to Inspector Rodney Parks, who declined to discuss other aspects of the case.
A D.C. police officer stood guard outside the Spevaks' door yesterday, and crime scene tape blocked access to many of the neighboring houses. Residents milling about the street struggled to come to grips with the fact that the crime had occurred on their block, in a part of the city where killings are rare.
"Can you believe this?" one woman said as she hugged another.
Sheila Chaconas, 56, another neighbor, said: "It's pretty horrible. It's all you can think about today."
Police sources said authorities were looking into the possibility that the killings might be tied to Michael Spevak's psychiatric practice or his wife's work with troubled children. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
There was no sign of forced entry, police said.
One neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety, said she saw two men operating leaf-blowers on the Spevaks' back deck Friday afternoon. That struck her as odd, the woman said, because the Spevaks were not ones to hire a lawn-care service. They were not only do-it-yourselfers, but also environmentally conscious people who would probably prefer the use of rakes, she said.
The day before, she said, she saw the Spevaks in their garden, picking tomatoes.
"They did everything themselves," the neighbor said, noting that they grew squash and other plants in a sprawling backyard garden.
Another neighbor, who also declined to be identified, said police had come to the house a few years ago because Michael was having trouble with a disgruntled patient. She said she did not know any details.
The Spevaks' have two children, Eli, 37, who lives in Portland, Ore., and Leah, 36, who lives in Northern Virginia. Both declined to comment yesterday.
The Spevaks had lived in the Chevy Chase community, just east of the Friendship Heights Metro stop, for more than 20 years. Some neighbors were concerned Friday night when they went to the house for a "soup party" and no one answered the door. A family member grew worried Saturday and called police to ask them to check on the couple. The bodies were discovered about 8:30 p.m.
Michael Spevak was a neighborhood watch captain and was known to exercise frequently, either biking or speed-walking.
He and his wife worked over the years on behalf of inmates and people coming out of prison, friends recalled.
Virginia, known to friends as "Ginny," once taught fifth and sixth grades at Green Acres School in Montgomery County. Friends said she was a botanist who loved gardening and taught science classes.
"She would teach how to cook with a solar oven -- tinfoil and cardboard," said Elizabeth Hemming, who also had taught at Green Acres. "She wanted them to be in tune with nature and understand the connection to the planet and environment."
In the late 1970s, the Spevaks built their house in an empty lot, designing it to be as energy-efficient as possible, using solar-heated water and quilts against the walls to provide insulation.
Recently, they installed a solar electricity system, which at times was so successful that the couple actually produced electricity to send back to the Pepco power grid. The house was almost too efficient: Pepco mistakenly charged them for each kilowatt of power that they sent back instead of crediting them, said Peter Lowenthal, executive director of the Solar Energy Research and Education Foundation.
The Spevaks' home was included on the annual tour of energy-efficient homes in Washington in early October. "These were people who were very willing to do whatever they could to show that there are better ways to live on this planet than what most of us are doing," Lowenthal said.
Virginia retired from Green Acres in 2001, largely to devote time to taking care of a girl in the D.C. government's foster care program, said Nan Shapiro, a friend and teacher at Green Acres. The girl, then about 12, moved in shortly after Virginia left the school. She lived with the Spevaks off and on until this year, when she moved out. At one point, the girl's sister, who was pregnant, also lived with the Spevaks, Shapiro said.
"She's one of the people who lived her life in the most ethical way," Shapiro said of her friend. "She really did the things she believed in."
A few years ago, Virginia and another friend, Prue Hoppin, began a program called Quilting for Good, in which volunteers sewed quilts that were given to mothers without insurance for prenatal care, Hemming said.
"She was a very caring person," Hemming said.
Four miles from the Spevaks' home, in the center of an alley off the 500 block of Ingraham Street NW, a pile of ashes and broken glass lay next to a yard full of old cars. The ashes were the wreckage of the Spevaks car, which was set ablaze just before 4 a.m. yesterday, neighbors said.
Neil Godleski, 29, was returning home from work at a D.C. bar when he saw the charred remains of the car. His immediately suspected that it was used in a crime, then abandoned behind his neighbor's house.
"The car didn't belong back there," he said. "It was just in the middle of the alley."
Police urged anyone with information to call authorities at 202- 727-9099. Police offer $50,000 rewards for information that leads to arrests and convictions in homicide cases.
Staff writer Clarence Williams contributed to this report.