Ex-Fairfax Officer Convicted of Twice Abducting Now-Slain Wife
Friday, August 28, 2009
In the months before Joann Webster was found stabbed to death in her Fairfax County apartment in 1991, she told police that her husband, recently retired Fairfax Officer Bruce Webster, had kidnapped her twice, once at gunpoint.
Bruce Webster was charged with his estranged wife's kidnappings but not with her death. On Thursday, a Fairfax jury convicted Webster, 69, of two counts of abduction and one count of using a gun in an abduction and sentenced him to 19 years in prison.
"My mom finally got justice, thanks to the great people of Fairfax County," said an emotional Tammy Magourik of Cleveland, Tenn., Joann Webster's daughter. She had watched the entire trial.
Joann Allison Webster was a popular waitress at Elsie's Magic Skillet, a well-known diner on Route 1 in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax. The Skillet was a regular hangout for Fairfax officers, including Bruce Webster. The two met at the Skillet and were married in the restaurant in October 1988.
Bruce Webster resigned from the Fairfax force in January 1990, police said, and the couple moved to Alabama. Joann Webster broke up with her husband there and moved back to Fairfax, resuming her job at the Skillet, its former longtime owner, Elsie Plues, testified at the trial this week.
The ensuing tensions between the Websters, who planned to divorce, led to charges against Bruce Webster in January 1991 after he allegedly abducted his wife from her new apartment in the Sacramento Square complex and took her to Prince William County. On Feb. 15, 1991, he was served with divorce papers.
On Feb. 16, 1991, the body 0f Joann Webster, 44, was discovered after she didn't show up for work at the Skillet. She was wearing her waitress uniform.
Bruce Webster was an obvious suspect for homicide detectives, but he was not charged. He did not appear for his preliminary hearing on the abduction charge and he vanished soon after, quietly relocating to Las Vegas. Police continued to work on the homicide case but could not implicate the 17-year police veteran.
In 2007, Fairfax's cold case homicide squad revisited the case. After consulting with Fairfax prosecutors and the FBI, detectives Steve Milefsky and Robert Murphy tracked down Bruce Webster to see what he had to say. Webster spoke at length, on tape, to his former colleagues, and although he denied killing or kidnapping his wife, his own words helped sink him.
"When I get angry," Webster told the detectives, "people get seriously hurt or they die."
But prosecutors faced a trickier legal problem: They could not use the words of their victim. Under legal rules, Joann Webster's statements to police qualified as hearsay, being reported in court by a third party rather than Joann Webster herself. The comments she made to a lieutenant after an incident on May 18, 1990, in which she claimed that Bruce Webster tied her up and held her at gunpoint overnight, were not admissible. Her statements to an officer and a detective after escaping from Webster at a Woodbridge 7-Eleven in January 1991 also were inadmissible.
However, after the Websters went to a bank during the May 1990 incident and withdrew $9,000, Joann Webster ran next door to the Skillet. She told Plues, while sweating and upset, that her husband "tied her to a chair, threatening to kill her," and forced her to withdraw the money from the bank, Plues testified. Shortly before that, Joann Webster had taken $15,000 from their joint account, defense attorneys said, leaving Bruce Webster nearly penniless in Alabama.
Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Casey M. Lingan said that Plues should be allowed to relate her conversation with Joann Webster because it was an "excited utterance," an exception to the hearsay rule. Deputy Public Defender Dawn M. Butorac said it should be excluded because there was no proof that Joann Webster had run directly from the bank to the Skillet and because "excited utterances" are admissible only if they are during or immediately after an event.
Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher ruled that the statement could be admitted, and the jury heard it.
The jury deliberated less than three hours before convicting Bruce Webster of both abductions.