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Man is charged with murder in 8 Appomattox shootings

By Fredrick Kunkle and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 21, 2010; A01

APPOMATTOX, VA. -- Christopher Bryan Speight described himself in court papers as a dependable, hardworking person who was not quick to anger, and he showed pride in his ability to "find ways to get out of problems without using force or violence."

Friends, in letters in support of his successful 1995 application for a concealed weapons permit, called him "an upstanding, Christian young man" and "very mature and responsible."

But something happened in recent years that changed Speight, friends say.

It started when his mother died in 2006. "He said he had a 'zinging' in his ears. I can't explain it the way he explained it," said David Anderson, 54, who worked with Speight and became friendly with him. Anderson said Speight told him that he began seeing a therapist but that it didn't help much. He had grown worse recently, a change that Anderson and other co-workers attributed to tensions in his house on Snapps Mill Road. "He had gotten quieter in the past six months," Anderson said.

Something must have been building, Anderson said. On Tuesday, Speight, 39, allegedly shot his sister, his brother-in-law and their two children, along with four family friends, in a rampage that left eight dead. It was the worst mass slaying in Virginia since a single shooter killed 33 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.

State police released the victims' names late Wednesday, and family friends described their relationships to Speight and his family. Killed were Lauralee Sipe, 38, Speight's sister; Dwayne Sipe, 38, his brother-in-law; Morgan Dobyns, 15, Speight's niece; Joshua Sipe, 4, his nephew; Emily A. Quarles, 15, Morgan's friend; Karen Quarles, 43, Emily's mother; Jonathan L. Quarles, 43, Emily's father; and Ronald "Bo" Scruggs II, 16, Morgan's friend. Four victims were found inside Speight's house, three immediately outside it and one in the middle of a nearby road.

Speight never married, and his sister appeared to be his only family.

Although a motive for the shootings remained elusive, friends said Speight had talked of a dispute with his family about ownership of the house and land, which sits off a dirt road in wooded farmland about 200 miles from Washington. Speight's mother had left the 34-acre property jointly to Speight and his sister, court records show.

Speight thought that his sister and brother-in-law were seeking to force him out of the house and dispossess him of it, Anderson said. Speight said that the couple, who had just moved into the three-bedroom house about a year ago, promised to help him build a home on the property and that they cleared timber for the site -- a job for which Speight thought he had done the lion's share of work. But the house was not built, and Speight confided that he felt as if he had chopped wood mostly to fill the stove, Anderson said.

On Wednesday, Speight, donning a bulletproof vest and camouflage pants, emerged from the Appomattox woods where he had fled after the shootings and turned himself in to a police SWAT team, ending a 20-hour hunt during which he used a high-powered rifle to hold police at bay, authorities said. Police said his well-aimed shots forced a state police helicopter to make an emergency landing after its fuel tank was pierced, and more than 150 law enforcement officials had been combing the woods for him overnight.

After Speight's arrest, police carefully examined his home with bomb-sniffing dogs. Technicians recovered seven explosive devices later Wednesday, the state police said.

Appomattox Commonwealth's Attorney Darrel W. Puckett said Wednesday night that Speight was charged with one count of first-degree murder.

Puckett said he would meet with law enforcement officials after the crime scene investigation is complete to determine what, if any, additional charges to pursue. Puckett said he would consider levying capital charges, which could carry the death penalty. "It's a pretty horrific thing to happen anywhere, but Appomattox is a rural community, this is my home and it's a lot of really good folks who make up the Appomattox community," Puckett said. "For something like this to happen, it just shakes everyone to the core."

County stunned

The slayings stunned this rural county, which is best known for being the place where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War. News spread fast among the tight-knit community, and hundreds of young residents filled Facebook pages with photographs and memories of their three slain friends.

Co-workers who knew Speight as a calm, fervent Jehovah's Witness who liked to shoot said they were astounded by the allegations. Speight was a shooter more than a hunter, and guns were one of the main interests of his life, said Anderson, who owns the Sunshine Market No. II, where Speight worked as a contractor security guard for many years.

Anderson said he and Speight became quite friendly over the years: Speight helped him work on Anderson's cabin in Campbell County, they traded firearms and practiced target shooting at Anderson's place and at the 200-yard range Speight built on his property.

"If he had the time, he'd do anything for you," Anderson said.

Speight had collected at least 25 firearms, including black powder weapons, replicas of Old West era "cowboy"-style cap and ball six-shooters and many .223-caliber AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, which were among Speight's favorites.

"You ever been in a gun shop before, and they're all lined up across the wall? That's Chris," Anderson said.

In addition to the gun safes full of weapons, Speight also had the equipment for reloading ammunition, Anderson said. Anderson said Speight had military and paramilitary gear such as night-vision goggles and Kevlar vests. Speight also had ghillie suits, which appear covered with leaves and allow hunters or snipers to become nearly invisible in the woods.

Anderson said Speight also started to dig a 12-by-8 foot "bunker" on his land. But when his huge mastiff died, Speight buried the dog in the hole for the bunker and abandoned the idea. "He said it was a stupid idea to build it," Anderson said.

'There's another body'

Because of his love of guns, the sound of gunfire echoing from Speight's property was nothing unusual to his neighbors, who said he regularly fired rounds while hunting rabbit and deer or taking target practice in the acres of woods around the home.

Shots were fired Tuesday before noon, but as a neighbor drove her Jeep by Speight's home, she noticed a body in the middle of the road.

"I figured the person might be drunk because we always hear partying over there," said Tammy Lee Randolph, 29, who lives on a farm adjacent to Speight's property. Randolph said she found a man face down on the pavement, his gray hoodie covered in blood. She called 911, and after a sheriff's deputy arrived, they turned their attention to Speight's driveway, where several cars were parked. "I was like, 'Oh my God, there's another body.' " As emergency vehicles came to back up the deputy who was first to the scene, Randolph said, someone poked a gun out of the home's window and fired seven shots. The deputy tucked his head to the microphone on his chest and yelled, "Shots being fired!"

"We took off running," Randolph said. "You could tell it was a high-powered rifle.

Authorities said Speight used a high-powered rifle to shoot at a police helicopter that had been doing surveillance, hitting it six times and sending it earthward. Police said that Speight surrendered unarmed and that officers were searching for the weapon and others.

When Speight applied for a concealed weapons permit in 1995, at 24, he wrote that firearms had been a "hobby" of his for many years and that he takes "seriously the responsibility of handling them."

Roland B. Parris Jr. of Appomattox wrote to support Speight's gun application that year, saying that Speight had participated in a National Rifle Association high-powered rifle clinic and competition, which he excelled in. "I can tell the character of a man after coaching him for two days on the rifle range," Parris wrote. "Chris did very well with high scores to prove his ability with the rifle."

.

Speight continued his shooting on his property, and he enjoyed target practice with others. Dakota Henderson, 17, of Appomattox, said he shot with Speight in his back yard last summer after meeting Speight's niece and dating her.

Henderson said he lost three friends in the attack, all Appomattox High students, including Morgan, his girlfriend of the past seven months. Henderson, who was at the house most recently on Saturday, said Speight was living in a basement bedroom.

Dorinda G. Grasty, superintendent of Appomattox County schools, said she would issue a statement Thursday about "the tragic loss of three of our students." The school's online calendar shows Tuesday as a day that teachers needed to attend but that students did not, which would explain why the three teenagers were at home on a school day. Two of the teens apparently were visiting with Morgan, friends said.

Henderson said the house was always kept clean and well appointed, with lots of family photos on the walls. He said that he had known Morgan since she moved to the area with her family from Georgia last summer and that he spent time at the house regularly. He said that the girl was "a very classy person and easy to get along with" and that Speight was always polite and friendly.

"He seemed like a regular guy, pretty laid back, cool," Henderson said of Speight. "I played video games with him. He was fun.

"This whole thing just makes me sad," Henderson said. "I was just hanging out with all of them last weekend, and everything seemed fine. Everything was normal."

But Speight's co-workers saw something different that same weekend. On Saturday, Speight seemed more preoccupied than ever, they said.

"Just the last time I saw him, he seemed more distant," said Tonya Maddox, 31, an employee of the store.

Anderson also noticed his withdrawal.

"He was pacing the floor Saturday night," Anderson said. "I said, 'Chris, you're going to wear a trench in the floor.' He said, 'I know, I know.' "

White reported from Washington. Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty and Debbi Wilgoren and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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