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The Robert Wone Stabbing: Anatomy of a Murder Case

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009; 9:22 PM

First of two parts

A 911 call from a million-dollar townhouse in Dupont Circle on a sweltering summer night three years ago:

"We need an ambulance," Victor Zaborsky blurted, his delicate voice pitched so high that the operator mistook him for a woman.

"What's wrong, ma'am?"

"We had someone . . . in our house, evidently," Zaborsky said, gasping, "and they stabbed somebody."

Over the next eight minutes, stammering breathlessly on the phone, he would report that while he and his two housemates were asleep, an unseen "intruder" had slipped into the residence and attacked a visiting friend of theirs.

"Are they bleeding?" the operator asked. "See someone bleeding?"

"Yes," said Zaborsky, then 40, in words that echo today: "Someone is bleeding in our house."

So began a real-life parlor mystery -- an unsolved killing and alleged coverup in the guest room of an elegant home in the heart of Washington's gay community, with a trio of seemingly unlikely suspects: a self-described "polyamorous family" of three men. The bizarre murder that evening of a young Ivy League lawyer named Robert Wone, still grist for gossip and conjecture on the city's gay blogosphere, has vexed police and prosecutors since the 911 call just before midnight Aug. 2, 2006.

"Is he conscious?" asked the operator. As she spoke, paramedics and patrol cars were being dispatched to 1509 Swann St. NW, the 19th-century townhouse where Zaborsky, a marketing executive for the milk industry, lived with his registered domestic mate, Joseph Price, then 35, a partner in a major D.C. law firm, and another gay man, Dylan Ward, then a 36-year-old massage student with degrees in international relations, children's literature and culinary arts.

"He's not conscious," Zaborsky said of Wone, 32, who lived with his wife in Fairfax County.

Earnest and meticulously efficient, Wone had planned about two weeks in advance to stay in the city that evening to introduce himself to the night-shift staff at Radio Free Asia, where he was the new general counsel. Rather than trek home late on the Metro, he had arranged to bunk at the townhouse, a mile from his office, with his old college pal Price and his friends Zaborsky and Ward, whom he had met through Price.

Now, less than 90 minutes after walking into the Swann Street home, Wone was dead in the second-floor guest room, lying on the mattress of a convertible love seat, three knife wounds in his chest and abdomen.

"Okay, who was the person that stabbed him?" the operator asked.

Zaborsky, sounding terrified, was soon heaving sobs. "I don't know. We think it's somebody . . . an intruder in the house. We heard the chime at the door."

But there was no stealthy intruder, authorities allege. Citing a strange-as-fiction web of circumstantial, forensic and autopsy evidence, investigators have publicly theorized that one or two of the housemates, or the three together -- all professional, highly intelligent men, none with a criminal record -- murdered Wone in a weirdly elaborate sexual assault involving the injection of an incapacitating drug.

Having a theory is one thing; proving it is another, especially when the theory has significant holes. Without a cooperating eyewitness to help cement a murder case, the U.S. attorney's office has filed no charges in the killing. And despite being pressured by prosecutors to turn on one another, the men have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

"The person had one of our knives," Zaborsky said to the operator, composing himself momentarily.

"Okay, any type of description of the person that came in the home?"

"We have no idea," he replied. "We have no description." Then a note of sadness crept into his voice. "We heard the chime," he said. "And we heard the screams from our friend."

No description, no witnesses -- just a dead man in the guest room and three housemates with a shaky story, as detectives see it.

This is an account of what is known and not known about a murder that remains unpunished, a tortuous whodunit with elements straight from a pulp novel: the boning knife missing from the cutlery box; the spider seen crawling on the patio light; the curious findings (and lack of findings) of the autopsy; the botched search for blood traces by the crime-scene techs; the neatly made bed; the mishandled BlackBerry; the peculiar stains on the white cotton towel.

An odd, unfinished tale.

Indicted last fall for allegedly obstructing justice in the case, the housemates are scheduled to go on trial May 10, 2010. In agreeing on the date recently, the defense and prosecution told a D.C. Superior Court judge that it probably will take at least two months to present the complex evidence to a jury. The men are accused of carrying out an ambitious, albeit flawed, coverup the night Wone died, disposing of evidence and altering the crime scene to hide their suspected involvement in the killing -- after which Zaborsky dialed 911.

"Here they are, here they are," he said abruptly, sounding relieved as an ambulance pulled up out front. Then the magnitude of what had happened that night seemed to hit him again like a punch, stealing his breath.

He was crying hysterically.

"Oh, dear. . . . I can't believe this. . . . I can't believe this."

A College Friendship

Williamsburg, 1991:

After leading a tour for prospective students at the College of William and Mary, Joe Price, a junior, stood patiently outside a campus building for more than half an hour, answering questions from the diligent parents of Robert Wone, who eventually would be salutatorian of his Catholic high school class in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In helping their firstborn child pick a college, Wone's mother and father, a school librarian and a technology executive at Chase Manhattan Bank, were leaving little to chance. As other tour guides smiled at the scene, Wone, 5-foot-4 and boyish looking, stood quietly with his parents while they politely interrogated Price.

That was the first meeting of the two future lawyers. As their friendship grew, Price, older by three years, would remain Wone's guide, introducing him to student government at William and Mary, where each majored in public policy, and later helping him navigate law school. Both would land jobs at prominent Washington firms: Price at Arent Fox, specializing in intellectual property rights, and Wone in the real estate department at Covington & Burling.

And finally Price, a suspect in Wone's murder, would be one of his pallbearers.

The story of how Wone, Price, Zaborsky and Ward came to know one another -- how the four ended up together in the townhouse Aug. 2, 2006 -- has emerged from public documents, including court filings, and from people familiar with the men's backgrounds, most of whom declined to speak on the record because of the criminal case.

The three suspects, advised by their attorneys to keep low profiles, have said almost nothing publicly about their friend's death, while the lore surrounding the murder has grown in the city's gay community. On the Web (particularly a blog called whomurderedrobertwone.com), armchair sleuths debate the arcana of the case, parsing the clues and speculating on a psychosexual meaning to it all.

Price, a popular and busy man on the William and Mary campus, met Wone again in the spring of 1992, months before the studious New Yorker began his freshman year. As one of a group of academic high achievers entering the college as Monroe scholars, Wone was invited to spend a weekend in Williamsburg. While there, he was paired with Price, an honor society member soon to be a senior who was president-elect of what is now called the Student Assembly.

A former Eagle Scout, just under 6 feet tall with a broad face, Price was an energetic campus organizer and openly gay. Raised in Texas, Japan, the Florida Keys and Cape Cod, a son of career Navy petty officers, he had whimsically titled his college-application essay "My Mother Wears Combat Boots." As the student government's new chief executive, he appointed Wone to a presidential advisory council, which seemed to suit the freshman's interests and personality.

"Robert always stepped up as a willing and able leader when asked to lead or when he saw a need that was not being met," his wife, Kathy Wone, said in an e-mail interview not long after the killing. "But he was most comfortable being the man behind the scenes so that the man at center stage would truly shine."

Price graduated in 1993, bound for law school at the University of Virginia. By the time Wone (affectionately nicknamed "the Congressman") got his degree in 1996, he had been involved in so many service projects at William and Mary that he received a prestigious commencement award, citing his exceptional "characteristics of heart, mind and helpfulness to others."

By all accounts, he was at ease with his friend's sexuality. "They respected each other," wrote Kathy Wone, who has since filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the housemates and recently declined to be interviewed again about the case. Recalling her husband as open-minded, she said, "He understood that every person had this innate desire . . . to be accepted."

The two men stayed in touch throughout the 1990s while Price was at U-Va., then while Wone was a law student at the University of Pennsylvania and Price was a new associate at Arent Fox.

The year 2000 brought big changes for both of them -- a law firm job for Wone, who was hired by Covington & Burling, and a romantic union for Price, who met Victor Zaborsky, a marketing executive for the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP, the trade group behind the long-running "milk mustache/Got Milk?" ad campaign.

A native of Philadelphia, soft-spoken and slender at 5-foot-8, Zaborsky, like Price, had grown up in scattered places: His father is a chemist whose corporate job took the family to the South and Midwest. After graduating from the University of Tulsa in 1988 with a degree in finance, Zaborsky, five years older than Price, eventually moved to Washington as a branch manager for First Union Bank, then switched careers, joining MilkPEP in 1996.

The two men, who in time would exchange gold wedding bands, were introduced by a mutual friend March 24, 2000, and six months later they took up residence on Capitol Hill, buying a two-story brick townhouse with a basement apartment. Price was gaining stature as a legal advocate for the gay community in addition to handling trademark litigation at Arent Fox. A longtime board member of the gay-rights group Equality Virginia, he became its chairman and general counsel in 2002.

By then he also had a biological son, a toddler being raised by a lesbian couple in Silver Spring.

Shortly before meeting Zaborsky, Price had donated sperm to one of the women, a friend, who gave birth to a boy in December 2000. Zaborsky later donated sperm to the same woman, fathering her second son. "We are forging new territory here," he told USA Today before he and Price witnessed the younger child's birth.

The mother's partner adopted both boys as infants, and the men are active in their lives, attending school events and birthday parties, soccer games and karate lessons. The brothers, now 8 and 5, call Price "Dad" and Zaborsky "Papa."

A New Housemate

Wone found a soul mate, too.

When he wasn't racking up billable hours at Covington & Burling, he continued immersing himself in service projects, doing pro bono work for such groups as AmeriCorps in Virginia, which now presents an annual Robert E. Wone Award, named for "a tireless activist and volunteer who advanced the interests of many charitable organizations." Meanwhile, he was deep in a long-distance romance with Kathy Yu, a lawyer on the staff of an American Bar Association commission in Chicago, whom he had met at a diversity conference.

"On the last weekend of June 2002," she wrote, "Robert and I were admiring a friend's wedding invitation, when suddenly he asked, 'What would you like our wedding invitation to look like?' The word 'our' stunned me, as we had not talked much about marriage. . . . The realization hit us both very suddenly (at least it did for me). We were never more certain about how perfect we were for each other."

They were married June 7, 2003, in Itasca, Ill., near the bride's home town of Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb. Price and Zaborsky, who had celebrated their third anniversary a few months before, flew out for the wedding. That was the summer when Dylan Ward leased the English basement of the gay couple's Capitol Hill townhouse, and the partners' domestic life took on a new dimension.

Finished with graduate school in Boston, Ward, then 33, decided to move to Washington. He was a gay friend of a friend of Price and Zaborsky, so they rented him the apartment. Over time, though, he would become more than just their downstairs tenant, authorities said. "These three males describe themselves as a family, using the term 'poly-amorous' to describe their relationship," a detective wrote in an affidavit.

Although police and prosecutors have declined to comment on the investigation, details have come to light in numerous court filings, including about a dozen affidavits used to obtain search and arrest warrants. The housemates' lawyers recently denounced the government's case in a joint statement but would not discuss specific evidence or the men's private lives.

Ward, 5-foot-8 and wiry with piercing brown eyes, had been raised mostly in the Pacific Northwest, spending some of his childhood in Germany, where his father, now a cardiologist, was an Army doctor. "Incredibly smart and truly engaging," one professor in Boston said of him. Yet "not really career-minded," Ward has said of himself, according to acquaintances.

After graduating summa cum laude from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in 1992, he taught English on the Japanese island of Kyushu, where he befriended a couple who owned a restaurant. That got him interested in cooking, and he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York's Hudson Valley. With a two-year degree in culinary arts, he worked as a caterer in Oregon for a while, then quit in 1996 to teach English again, this time in Taiwan.

When a friend in Taipei, Taiwan, opened a small publishing business in 1999, Ward joined her. The company, called House of the Tiger Aunt, produced storybooks, which Ward helped write, and other materials used to teach English in Taiwan's primary grades. That got him interested in children's literature theory, and in 2001 he began studying for a master's degree in the subject at Boston's Simmons College.

In the District, meanwhile, a friend of his, Peter Dernbach, was living with his domestic partner in the basement of the Capitol Hill townhouse. Dernbach had gone to law school with Price and was a fellow associate at Arent Fox. While Ward was a student at Simmons, he occasionally visited Dernbach -- which was how he met Price and Zaborsky.

Then, just as Ward was finishing the master's program in 2003, Dernbach left for a job in Asia. With the apartment available, Ward moved back to the city where his higher education had begun, an intellectual wanderer unsure of what to do next.

Price, the chairman of Equality Virginia, helped him get a fundraising job with EV early in 2004. By all accounts a persuasive writer, Ward worked mainly from his apartment, composing donation appeals and assisting with the group's annual Commonwealth Dinner. At the same time, he got to know friends of Zaborsky and Price -- including Price's good friend from William and Mary. When Wone turned 30 in June 2004, the three men hosted a party for him in the Capitol Hill home.

As for what went on privately among Price, Zaborsky and Ward, that was their business, until the hot light of a police investigation later shone on them. A detective said in an affidavit that although Price and Zaborsky are "committed, intimate" partners, Price at some point also became involved in a sexual relationship with Ward. The affidavit says nothing about any physical relationship between Zaborsky and Ward but quotes Zaborsky as calling him "one of the nicest, sweetest people I've ever met."

Unconventional, yes. But to acquaintances, they seemed a happy trio.

In the spring of 2005, after seven years at Arent Fox (where the starting salary for new law school graduates is $165,000), Price was about to be made a partner in the firm.

By then, the townhouse on Capitol Hill was worth $900,000, or 2 1/2 times what Price and Zaborsky had paid for it. In a sizzling real estate market, they sold the home and bought a nicer place, paying $1.25 million for the three-story brick townhouse at 1509 Swann St. Built in the late 1800s, all modern inside, it has six rooms plus a basement apartment and a coveted historic preservation marker attached to its pale gray exterior.

Ward's growing closeness with the couple showed in their living arrangement. When Zaborsky and Price moved to the more spacious Swann Street residence, Ward moved with them -- but no longer as their downstairs renter. He settled in a bedroom upstairs in the main quarters, while another tenant, a female friend of theirs, leased the English basement.

To the siblings in Silver Spring, he became part of the family.

"Uncle Dylan," they call him.

A Domestic Partnership

And so there they were, ensconced in Dupont Circle in the months before the killing.

Price continued to thrive at Arent Fox, representing companies such as Netscape, Warner Brothers and America Online in trademark and Internet domain-name disputes, and Zaborsky traveled frequently in a job he enjoyed, promoting milk as a hip and healthier alternative to Coke and Pepsi. On April 13, 2006, a few weeks after their sixth anniversary, the couple made their relationship official, registering with the city as domestic partners.

Ward, meanwhile, had decided what to do next: While still with Equality Virginia, he began 18 months of study at the Potomac Massage Training Institute, and by June 2006, he was nearly two-thirds finished.

That spring, when Price's term as board chairman ended, Ward left the gay-rights organization and took an office job three blocks from the townhouse. With a recommendation from Equality Virginia (specifically from Price), he was hired by A.B. Data Ltd. to help solicit donations for the company's clients, mainly progressive nonprofit groups. After work, he attended massage classes.

Those were the men the public saw.

To give jurors in the obstruction-of-justice trial a fuller picture of the housemates, the U.S. attorney's office said, it will seek to introduce evidence of their intimate connections. In addition to Price's spousal union with Zaborsky, authorities said in court filings, Price and Ward were involved in a "dominant-submissive sexual relationship," which prosecutors said is relevant to the case in light of what they think happened to Wone.

Ward kept a wide array of esoteric sexual implements in his Swann Street bedroom, many of them designed to inflict pain, according to a police affidavit. Investigators said Price used the name "culuket" on the Web and posted a member profile on the fetish-oriented site Alt.com, listing "electrotorture" among his "activities enjoyed." Culuket's posting listed a dozen other favored sex practices, described in explicit terms, and sought a third man to join a sadomasochistic relationship with "me and my dom."

Later, in a police interrogation, Zaborsky would refer to his and Price's emotional commitment to each other, saying Ward did not "share an equal part" in that relationship. But he added, "We're trying to develop it in that way."

A respected law partner. A successful marketing manager. A direct-mail fundraiser studying for a massage license.

A gay family.

Those were the housemates Robert Wone visited the last night of his life.

Aug. 2, 2006, a Wednesday: The sun had gone down after baking the region in triple-digit heat.

Wone, no longer with Covington & Burling, now the new general counsel at Radio Free Asia, got off the Metro near his office in Dupont Circle and telephoned his wife. He had worked all day, then had sat through an evening seminar in grant law at a conference center downtown. It was about 9:30 when he spoke with Kathy Wone, who was home in Oakton. He let her know he was headed back to the radio station at 2025 M St. NW to introduce himself to the night staff.

"Robert was, as usual, upbeat and happy that day," she said in the e-mail interview.

A Chinese American proud of his heritage, he was pro bono general counsel to the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York's Chinatown and to the national Organization of Chinese Americans. That summer of 2006, he was elected president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association's Washington area chapter. And in July, he joined U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia, which broadcasts news to Asian countries where the media are shackled by government controls.

Wone was a careful planner, a man who urged friends to draft wills and buy insurance. In July, Kathy Wone said, her husband began arranging "to take care of three things all at once" on Aug. 2. He was scheduled to be in the seminar until 9 p.m., so he figured "that night would also be a good night" to meet the 10 o'clock crew at Radio Free Asia. "As an added bonus, he thought it would be nice to spend the night" in the city with Price, who lived just a mile from the radio station.

"I thought it was a great idea," Kathy Wone wrote. Then "a few days before Robert's death, Robert did tell me that plans between him and Joe had been confirmed, and that he would be spending the night at Joe's house."

In three years of marriage, she said, "This was the first time Robert ever chose to stay overnight at a friend's house. . . . The only times we were away from each other was when one of us had to travel for business." Yet, "as with all his friends," she said, "Robert was good about keeping in touch with Joe."

As Wone walked from the Metro stop to his office that evening, talking with his wife for the last time, "we ended our call with, 'Okay, have a good night, I love you.' "

Colleagues said he arrived at the radio station before 10. At 10:22 p.m., finished shaking hands with the staff, he called the Swann Street townhouse from his office, saying he would be there shortly.

Tomorrow: A murder investigation leads to a strange theory.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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