Page 5 of 5   <      

The Robert Wone Killing Remains 'a Head-Scratcher'

Robert Wone was found dead in a Northwest D.C. townhouse in August 2006. The three defendants who were charged with conspiring to cover up his death were found not guilty on June 29, 2010. No one has been arrested in his slaying.

Lois Goslinoski, a deputy D.C. medical examiner, conducted her postmortem examination of Wone the day after he died and filed her eight-page, single-spaced report two weeks later.

She said she found two tiny spots from broken capillaries in Wone's right eye and left eyelid. The spots, called petechial hemorrhages, are caused by the flow of unoxygenated blood in a person who is fighting for air, as with a victim of strangulation or suffocation. In Wone's case, though, the "asphyxia event" wasn't fatal, she said.

It was the stabbing that killed him, she concluded. The blade had pierced his heart, pancreas and right lung.

Stab wounds tend to be irregularly shaped, a result of the victim struggling and writhing during the attack. Yet Wone's three wounds were "perfect, slit-like defects," clean and symmetrical, Goslinoski noted. She said she saw no defensive cuts anywhere on him.

Although he suffered no injuries consistent with a sexual attack, she said, she discovered semen around his genitals and in his rectum. DNA showed that the semen was his own.

She said she counted six premortem needle marks on his chest, right foot and left hand and several more on the left side of his neck. If the marks had come from hypodermic injections, she said, she couldn't tell what was in the syringe.

Searching for drugs in a body is hit-or-miss. There's no single, all-encompassing test that can identify every foreign substance in a dead person. There are specific tests for thousands of different substances, so toxicologists need to know what they're looking for. If they just aimlessly run tests, hoping to stumble on something, they might grope in the dark for months, using up all the bodily fluids that were saved before the victim was embalmed and buried. Then later, if detectives were to find a clue to a particular drug, the lab would have no way to confirm it.

The medical examiner's office ran a standard battery of tests in Wone's case.

The toxicology lab searched for alcohol, cocaine, barbiturates, opiates and amphetamines. It looked for the date-rape drug gamma-hydroxybutyrate, or GHB. It checked for benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives that includes at least three other date-rape drugs. It looked for phencyclidine, or PCP, a hallucinogen, and depending on how the PCP screening was done, the test also might have found any traces of ketamine, another common date-rape drug.

All the results were negative.

By the time Goslinoski wrote up her findings, authorities had taken control of the townhouse and were scouring it for evidence in a case that fast became "a frustrating head-scratcher," as the former law enforcement official put it.

For three weeks after the stabbing, investigators dismantled parts of 1509 Swann St., hauling away computers, household appliances, slabs of floors, walls and staircases, bags of goop from drain traps, and boxes of the men's belongings. In Ward's room, besides discovering a large collection of sadomasochistic sexual implements, detectives said, they found a box for a three-piece cutlery set that the culinary school graduate kept in a cabinet. In the box, they saw a carving knife, a serving fork and an empty space for a smaller knife different from the one in the guest room.

With so little blood visible in the room, investigators suspected the scene had been wiped down. Police technicians applied forensic chemicals and discovered traces of blood that were too faint to be seen with the naked eye, according to an affidavit written two days after the killing. "This trace blood evidence was located on the walls, floors, sofa bed and door frame."

Or so it seemed. For here was another foul-up in the case.

Crime-scene chemicals react not only with blood, but with other substances containing proteins or iron, causing a glow or stain, depending on the chemical. The reaction isn't proof of blood; it's just an indication. The traces then have to be tested to determine what they are. At the townhouse, the technicians sprayed a product called Ashley's Reagent, which reacts with proteins, creating a blue stain. It is designed to enhance suspected blood traces so they can be photographed. But the crew botched the job, applying the chemical "in a manner not intended by the manufacturer," Kirschner later said in a letter to defense lawyers.

After the misapplication of the chemical, the former official said, authorities were unable to confirm through lab tests that the "trace blood evidence" was, in fact, blood.

The crumpled white towel on the floor, which Price said he had used to put pressure on Wone's wounds, also raised suspicions. Detectives saw only a few small blood blotches on it.

The towel was among scores of items given to outside forensics experts for analysis. Then, as investigators waited weeks and months for lab reports to come in, they delved into the housemates' backgrounds. They talked with Kathy Wone about her husband. They consulted with Goslinoski, who expanded on her findings. And they brainstormed in meetings, reviewing what they knew or suspected, arranging and rearranging the puzzle pieces, hoping a clear picture would emerge.

"None of it made sense," the former official recalled. "The intruder theory had problems. The theory that it was one or all of these guys had problems. There was simply no cohesive theory that we could come up with to account for everything."

The intruder problems: Guy tries the rear door, which -- lucky him -- just happens to be unlocked. Detectives suspected that the spider story was a lie to explain how someone could have sneaked in. Undeterred by the chime, he picks up a kitchen knife, crosses two more rooms to get to the front of the house -- bypassing a flat-screen television, a laptop computer and other valuables -- and, without being heard, climbs 16 hardwood stairs to the second floor.

At the top of the steps, he's staring straight at Ward's bedroom. But instead of going in there, he turns 180 degrees and walks noiselessly down the uncarpeted hall to the opposite end of the house -- where he just up and stabs the guy in the guest room. And he abandons his weapon on the victim's stomach. And he leaves without grabbing the wallet or watch.

Another problem: The intruder scenario did not explain the strange autopsy results or the suspected cleanup of the room.

But if not a stranger, then who? And why? Sifting through reams of the housemates' e-mails, detectives saw no hint of a conspiracy in the days before Wone's visit, the former official said. By all accounts, Wone and the men were good friends. Consensual sex gone violently awry? Investigators said they found no indication that Wone had a secret lifestyle. And the night guard in his mouth suggested he was about to go to sleep when whatever happened to him happened.

A head-scratcher for sure.

Charges in the Case

Under a cloud, they resumed their lives.

Price, then a 35-year-old partner at Arent Fox and the general counsel of the gay rights group Equality Virginia, continued his law practice, litigating a trademark case for America Online and winning a major appellate decision in a groundbreaking child-custody fight between estranged lesbian parents.

Zaborsky, who was 40, stayed with MilkPEP, eventually sharing in an Effie award from the advertising industry for the "milk mustache/Got Milk?"campaign. And Ward, then 36, went on soliciting donations at A.B. Data Ltd. until he finished massage school in February 2007. The following summer, he traveled to Thailand for more training. Then in the fall of that year, he rented a condo from friends in Wilton Manors, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale, and joined the staff of Chi Spa, a candlelit massage parlor featuring deep sea mud wraps and body butter treatments.

The investigation plowed on, focusing for a time on Price's troubled younger brother, Michael, who lived in Silver Spring. Just weeks after the stabbing, Michael Price (who was later treated for substance abuse) and another man allegedly burglarized the townhouse and were quickly arrested. Detectives tried for months to link Michael Price to Wone's murder, a tangent of the case that put a whole new cast of offbeat characters under scrutiny, the former official said. But it reached a dead end.

Fixing the townhouse after the police were done searching it (including replacing floors and walls indelibly stained blue by the Ashley's Reagent) cost Price and Zaborsky $250,000, their lawyers said. They sold the place for $1.47 million last summer and bought an investment property in Miami Shores, Fla., about 25 miles from Wilton Manors. Ward, still a Chi Spa massage therapist, moved to the Miami Shores house as caretaker, and Zaborsky and Price leased a luxury apartment in Dupont Circle, three blocks from Swann Street.

And they waited.

Until two days before Halloween last year, when the case finally popped.

Ward was arrested first, in Florida. Price and Zaborsky were charged three weeks later. All are accused of tampering with the crime scene, disposing of evidence and lying to investigators. Although authorities have yet to seek an indictment in the killing, an affidavit made public Oct. 31 lays out their theory of what happened.

Page 12: "The evidence demonstrates that Robert Wone was restrained, incapacitated, sexually assaulted and murdered."

Restrained . . . in a way that halted his breathing long enough to cause the petechial hemorrhages. The affidavit uses the example of an attacker "placing a pillow over" someone's face.

Incapacitated . . . by an injection, while being restrained. To investigators, the clean wounds (which Goslinoski said had been "methodically" inflicted) indicated that Wone neither struggled nor flinched in pain during the stabbing, meaning he was unconscious or paralyzed. Questioned by detectives, Kathy Wone said her husband had no medical appointments in the days before Aug. 2 that might have accounted for the premortem needle marks on his body.

Injected with what? No lab finding so far. In court recently, Kirschner said toxicologists would soon conduct a final test, using up the one remaining milliliter of Wone's blood. As for what they hoped to find, the prosecutor said: "It's a little bit of a shot in the dark. . . . All of this is a little bit speculative, quite frankly."

Sexually assaulted . . . while incapacitated, before the stabbing.

As for the semen on and in Wone's body being his own, Kirschner explained at a court hearing how investigators think the alleged assault occurred. "The government has now, courtesy of experts, learned a lot more about electro-ejaculation than frankly this counsel ever knew," he said. "And there was, indeed, an electrocution unit in Mr. Ward's bedroom that can produce electric ejaculation of a person who is under anesthetic or otherwise incapacitated."

And murdered. . . . after which came the alleged coverup, detailed in the affidavit and in a subsequent indictment charging the men with obstructing justice (punishable by up to 30 years in prison) and the lesser crimes of conspiracy and evidence-tampering.

The housemates, "individually and in combination," washed the victim, cleaned the guest room and neatly remade the bed, the indictment alleges. Then they "placed the body of Robert Wone" atop the turned-down sheets and comforter.

Not so, said the men's lawyers.

"This is a case of a prosecution theory chasing evidence and coming up empty," the defense attorneys declared in a statement recently, saying some of the forensic findings are "demonstrably inaccurate" and others have been misconstrued by investigators. "The government has cobbled together its case with tidbits of information that it interprets through innuendo and speculation, and then calls 'evidence.' "

The Evidence

And the rest of the story, as authorities tell it:

The Wusthof boning knife that Price said he found on Wone's stomach has a blade approximately 5 1/2 inches long. Each of the stab wounds was four to five inches deep. Goslinoski, who has handled dozens of stabbing cases, said it was unlikely that a knife-wielding attacker would inflict multiple wounds of nearly identical depth while each time stopping short of plunging the entire blade into the victim. The knife on the end table was inconsistent with the holes in Wone's body, she said.

Investigators showed her another knife, its blade an inch shorter. A weapon that size was consistent with the wounds, Goslinoski told them. The second knife, obtained by detectives from the manufacturer, was a duplicate of the one still missing from Ward's cutlery set.

An expert in blood-splatter patterns examined the knife from the end table and said he found blood on both sides of the blade. Yet there was no blood on its cutting edge, he reported. And after inspecting the modest blood spots on the white cotton towel, he said he did not think the towel had been used to put pressure on the victim's wounds.

The towel appeared to have been wetted with Wone's blood for a different purpose.

"The blood pattern on the towel was consistent with the pattern one would expect to see if someone . . . placed the knife on the towel, folded the towel over the blade of the knife, and swiped the blood from the towel onto the knife," the affidavit says.

A trace-evidence examiner put the knife from the end table under a microscope and reported finding more than 10 tiny fibers on it -- all white cotton. Although Wone's gray William and Mary T-shirt had three holes in it corresponding to his wounds, the examiner reported finding no gray fibers on the supposed murder weapon.

So, the theory goes, inside of about 79 minutes, with no apparent planning: The victim was subdued, drugged by injection and sexually assaulted electrically before being stabbed to death, then washed; the room was cleaned, a phony murder knife was doctored and planted, and the real weapon and other bloody leftovers were made to vanish -- with time remaining for the housemates to shower off and get their story straight.

Inside of 42 minutes, if Wone wrote the BlackBerry e-mails.

A head-scratcher.

Price, who went on leave from Arent Fox a few weeks before the indictment, has since resigned from the firm and ended his association with Equality Virginia. Zaborsky isn't with MilkPEP anymore. And Ward no longer works at Chi Spa.

"Our attorneys estimate that the cost of a trial, which will necessarily involve a number of experts, will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars," the three told friends in an e-mail late last year, seeking donations to their legal defense fund. "We have no choice but to sell and liquidate every asset in order to pay this staggering sum as our very freedom hangs in the balance. Our parents are doing the same, sacrificing retirement savings and taking on unprecedented debt to aid us."

Released from custody to await the trial, which is set to begin in May 2010, the men now live on a third of an acre just outside of Washington, sharing a two-story, 2,600-square-foot home of brick and aluminum with its owner, Zaborsky's widowed 64-year-old aunt.

A trio of house guests now.

A family still.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

<                5

© 2009 The Washington Post Company